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Sodomy Laws in the United States

A Short History

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U.S. and state governments have historically made sex between consenting adults a target of the criminal justice system by way of sodomy laws that primarily targeted lesbian and gay couples.

1566

A Spanish explorer and translator, identified only as Guillermo, is executed for having same-sex intercourse with an American Indian man.

1624

William Cornish is executed by the colony of Virginia for the crime of buggery/sodomy. Although court records suggest that he may have actually committed sexual assault rather than consensual sodomy, the fact that the legal code of the time made no distinction between the two is significant.

1778

Future U.S. president ThomasJefferson suggests that the Virginia colony reduce the punishment for buggery/sodomy from death to castration.

1903

New York City police officers conduct the first U.S. bathhouse raid against the Ariston Hotel Baths, arresting 26 men for suspected sodomy. Seven ultimately served time in prison.

1962

Illinois becomes the first U.S. state to voluntarily legalize sodomy.

1976

California legalizes sodomy.

1981

In New York v. Onofre, the New York Court of Appeals strikes down the state's sodomy law on grounds that it violates the right to privacy implicit in the New York State Constitution.

1986

In Bowers v. Hardwick, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that state sodomy laws do not violate the U.S. Constitution's right to privacy. This ruling would stand for 17 years.

1994

Although lesbians had not historically been arrested under sodomy laws due to lack of penetration, the Mississippi Supreme Court held in Miller v. State that the state's "unnatural intercourse" law includes both gay male and lesbian sex.

2003

In Lawrence v. Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that sodomy laws violate the right to privacy implicit in the U.S. Constitution. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy summed up the Court's binding position on sodomy laws:
Bowers [v. Hardwick, 1986] was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today. It ought not to remain binding precedent. Bowers v. Hardwick should be and now is overruled.

The present case does not involve minors. It does not involve persons who might be injured or coerced or who are situated in relationships where consent might not easily be refused. It does not involve public conduct or prostitution. It does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter. The case does involve two adults who, with full and mutual consent from each other, engaged in sexual practices common to a homosexual lifestyle. The petitioners are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime. Their right to liberty under the Due Process Clause gives them the full right to engage in their conduct without intervention of the government. "It is a promise of the Constitution that there is a realm of personal liberty which the government may not enter." [Casey, supra, at 847.] The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual.
While the Lawrence ruling did not specifically address the myriad wordings of various state sodomy laws, and their relative applicability to same-sex vs. heterosexual couples, it has rendered all state consensual sodomy laws unenforceable as a matter of practice.
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