Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Tyron Garner, civil rights hero

In 1998 Tyron Garner and John Lawrence were arrested and charged with the crime of engaging in homosexual conduct. This conduct, the police reported, occurred in the bedroom of John Lawrence’s apartment. Mr Garner and Mr Lawrence did not believe they had done anything wrong. When contacted by gay activists the two men were willing to fight in the courts in order to prevent what had happened to them from happening to anyone else. Their case was resolved at the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003. The decision in Lawrence v. Texas invalidated all sodomy laws for being unconstitutional intrusions into citizens’ private lives.

Just three years later Tyron Garner was dead “of complications from meningitis.”

Challenging sodomy laws had been tricky. People were not being arrested for breaking these laws, unless they were people easily pushed around, working class or worse. When such charges were leveled the defendants typically just wanted the hassle to go away and would pay a small fine and move on. When gay activists heard about the arrest of Mr Garner and Mr Lawrence they reached out to them as quickly as they could. The two had to agree to pursue what would likely turn out to be a long drawn out court case, one which would expose their personal lives to public scrutiny. If they had begged off, we would not have seen the end of sodomy laws in 2003. Lawrence v. Texas opened the way for much greater and faster progress for the gay community.

John Lawrence worried about how the case would affect his job. He was mostly closeted at work. Tyron Garner was less worried about that; he seldom had fulltime employment. At the time of the arrest Mr Garner was the sole caretaker for infirm parents. Neither lived an easy life, though Mr Garner’s was more troubled, with intoxication and domestic disturbance arrests on his record (both before and after the sodomy case). The attorneys expended much effort keeping their clients out of the media eye. The case was not about them in the end, it was about the private love lives of every American.

I am grateful that both Mr Garner and Mr Lawrence stood up for themselves, and, ultimately, for all the rest of us.

Sadly, when Mr Garner died, he was virtually anonymous.
[Tyron] Garner’s death [September 11, 2006] was received mostly with silence in the media, including the gay media. His family did not have enough money to bury him or cremate him. Calling Garner’s contributions to the gay community ‘immense,’ Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, appealed to that community for funds to defray disposal and funeral costs. Two weeks after his death, $200 had been raised. For weeks, the civil-rights hero’s body lay in cold storage in the Harris County morgue. Finally, in mid-October, with only $25 more having been donated, Garner’s brother released his body to the county for cremation (at no cost). The family wanted to place his remains in a modest metal urn, instead of a plastic bag, and run a proper obituary in the newspaper. But they needed $200 more for that and didn’t have the money. There was no memorial service for him in the gay community. There was no funeral, period.

Lambda Legal has created a scholarship in Mr Garner’s name: The Tyron Garner Memorial Fellowship for African-American LGBT Civil Rights . “This fellowship will be a paid legal internship awarded to a law student or recent law graduate to work in any of Lambda Legal’s five offices …”

source: Flagrant Conduct: the story of Lawrence v. Texas by Dale Carpenter

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