Private lives amid a very public decision

Special to The Times

No one knows much about John Geddes Lawrence or Tyron Garner, and that's OK.

That's the point, actually.

Last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision to decriminalize gay sex was an endorsement of an individual's right to privacy, and the plaintiffs in the case have achieved an uncommon feat. Even as their images were splashed across television sets and newspapers, they remain wrapped in a cocoon of discretion, spun by the very community that is celebrating them.

Lawrence, a man in his late 50s with thinning dark brown hair, acts more like a small-town banker than a social activist. Dressed in a blue, button-down shirt, black pants and black leather shoes, he chain-smoked Doral cigarettes the other night as he prepared to be celebrated at a gay pride parade and said modestly, "We fought the law, and we won."

Garner, in his mid-30s, was shyer. Dressed for the parade in a blue work shirt and khaki pants, he preferred to sip from a bottle of water and defer to his attorney, Mitchell Katine.

The men were arrested at Lawrence's home one night in 1998 and became the first pair to challenge Statute 2106, a Texas law prohibiting sodomy.

Since Thursday's Supreme Court ruling, they have been asked to sign autographs and pose for pictures. They have been hooted and cheered by strangers. They have seen the thumbs-up and V-for-victory signs from carloads of young people driving by. But so far, they have clung fiercely and successfully to their privacy, answering virtually no questions about their personal lives.

They have been asked what they do for a living, and their most recent answer -- from Garner -- was that both of their workweeks begin on Sundays. (It has been reported that Garner was unemployed at the time of the arrest, and that Lawrence is a medical technologist.) They have been asked how they met, but both have consistently refused to define their relationship, and it remains unclear whether they knew each other before the night they were arrested or whether they now are even friends.

"This entire issue centers around privacy, and the government has been willing to invade the privacy of gay, lesbian and transgender people for years," said Clarence Burton Bagby, president of the Houston Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center. "So people understand their desire to maintain their private lives, and we know we're just fortunate that they were willing to pursue this." They did so at considerable risk. Houston is the country's fourth-largest city, but it is nestled in a politically and socially conservative state. The predominantly gay Montrose District where the parade took place has not been insulated from hate crimes.

On the parade route

Looking like a middle-aged lifeguard as he stood among parade floats Saturday afternoon, Jack Valinski toyed with the whistle around his neck, raked his hand over his buzz haircut and talked about the summer of 1991, the meanest season for Houston's gay community. That was when a 27-year-old banker was stabbed to death outside a Montrose nightclub by a group of high school students, and community leaders concerned about a series of assaults on gays and lesbians began handing out whistles so victims could summon help in case of an attack.

"We've come a long way here," said Valinski, organizer of the parade that kicked off one minute early Saturday night in a whirl of Mardi Gras beads, ABBA tunes, a 75-foot-long rainbow banner and hundreds of tiny American flags.

During the 20-block parade route, Garner and Lawrence sat in the back of a white Audi convertible, flanking Katine, who saluted, shouted and waved gleefully at supporters.

Lawrence waved and looked relaxed. Garner looked uncomfortable at first, but after a few blocks he began to smile broadly and wave as well.

David Urkofsky volunteered to provide extra protection for the Audi, and organizers briefed him about what to do if protesters tried to grab, punch or pull the men from the slow-moving sports car. Wearing a T-shirt that read, "Try Sodomy. It's Legal as of 6.26.03," Urkofsky joined 100 Houston police officers on bicycles, on foot and on horseback dispatched to monitor a crowd estimated at 65,000 to 100,000.

"They're not out to be any more famous than they accidentally came to be," Katine said of his clients. "They're private people, and they are very happy that this law has been changed, but they are just regular people. That's really the message -- these are just regular guys."

But some law enforcement officials believe that far from a couple of regular guys, Lawrence and Garner deliberately helped set up a challenge to the Texas anti-sodomy law. Bill Delmore, a longtime Harris County prosecutor who handled the Lawrence-Garner appeals, said on the night of the arrests, a caller alerted authorities there was a gunman inside Lawrence's apartment. When police knocked on the door and got no response, Delmore said, they went in.

"If the officer knocked on the door -- and one would assume that they did -- people would stop their sexual conduct," Delmore said. But they didn't. "And no one's ever complained that it was wrong for them [police] to enter the apartment."

Katine said once the men's legal team realized the case could test the legitimacy of the anti-sodomy statute, lawyers chose not to challenge the arrests on grounds that the police illegally entered the apartment.

"We could have fought the case on a factual basis, but that would have defeated the purpose of challenging the law. We didn't want it thrown out on police procedure," he said Sunday. "We pleaded no contest at every level so that they didn't contest the facts, but challenged the law." As it turned out, there never was a gunman inside the apartment. The caller was arrested and convicted of making a false report to police. That's proof enough the false alarm wasn't arranged by gay advocates, said Lee Taft of Lambda Legal, the New York-based organization that led the legal challenge.

Onto other issues

Valinski said gays, lesbians and transgender individuals cannot remain content with the Supreme Court ruling. There are, he said, victories to be won in health care, AIDS research and other civil rights issues.

Last month, Gov. Rick Perry signed a law preventing Texas from recognizing same-sex unions sanctioned by other states, and in 2001, Houston voters rejected a proposal to offer health benefits to city employees' domestic partners.

Legal experts say Thursday's 6-3 high court decision is the most far-reaching ruling for privacy, going beyond the gay, lesbian and transgender communities. Which is one reason Tracy Gary, a 52-year-old philanthropic advisor, made her way to the parade Saturday. She adjusted her plastic lei and walked up to Lawrence and Garner. "Thank you so much for all your courage," she said, her eyes welling up. "I've been a lesbian for 28 years, and until this week it was illegal for me to express my love for my partner."

A few minutes later, a baby-faced Southwest Texas Tech student approached the men with an outstretched arm. "I was following the case, and I'd been out to my friends for a year, but I'd never been able to tell my parents," Mike Hendrix said. He paused, and Lawrence placed his other hand on their handshake. "They're having a lot of trouble with it," Hendrix said haltingly. "I know," Lawrence said in a low voice. "I know." Hendrix walked back to his friends as Lawrence greeted another respectful supporter.

The determination of Lawrence and Garner to maintain a level of anonymity is not just a matter of style or personality. It is, many at the parade said, a survival skill.

On Saturday night, dozens of protesters screamed epithets at the slow-moving Audi and jabbed signs in the air that read, "God & Bible are Supreme not Court" and "Don't Be A Slave To Your Vile Affection." But within moments, their shouts were drowned out by what sounded like a swarm of cicadas.

It was the bleating of thousands of whistles.

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