Tyron Garner, 39; Plaintiff in U.S. Supreme Court Case Ending Laws Against Gay Sex

Times Staff Writer

Tyron Garner, a plaintiff in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that ended with justices striking down all laws that made sex between gay adults a crime, died Sept. 11 in a Houston hospital. He was 39.

The cause of death was not clear, but Garner suffered from meningitis in the months before his passing, said his brother Darrell Garner.

The case that thrust Tyron Garner into the national spotlight began Sept. 17, 1998, at the apartment of John Geddes Lawrence. That night, police, responding to a report of a man with a gun, entered the apartment. The report was false, made by a jealous lover of Garner. But police said they found Lawrence and Garner engaged in sex and arrested them.

At the time a Texas law, Statute 2106, prohibited sodomy and made it a class C misdemeanor, “a very low level crime,” said attorney Mitchell Katine, who represented the two men.


The ordeal might have ended with the two pleading guilty and paying a fine. But attorneys approached the men offering to represent them for free and to test the anti-sodomy law. Neither man had ever been involved in any civil rights actions, but both saw the case as an opportunity to help right a wrong.

“I think he felt kind of obligated to take it to the Supreme Court, because he really felt his rights were violated,” Darrell Garner said in an interview. “It didn’t make a difference whether he was gay or not. Your rights are your rights.”

In 1986, just 12 years before Tyron Garner’s arrest, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law in the case of Bowers vs. Hardwick. The court said contempt for homosexuals had “ancient roots in the laws and traditions of Western civilization” and called “facetious at best” the argument that gay people deserved equality and privacy.

The ruling was a serious blow to the gay rights movement, and some gay rights lawyers compared it to Plessy vs. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court ruling that upheld racial segregation.

The decision to challenge the anti-sodomy law meant unwanted media attention for Garner and Lawrence. They worked hard to guard their privacy. They were simply regular guys, not advocates, their attorney often said.

Garner’s family was already aware of his sexual orientation and supported his decision to fight. Still, “I didn’t enjoy being outed with my mug shot on TV,” Garner told the Houston Chronicle in 2004. “It was degrading to me.”

As the case moved through Texas courts, defeat was a recurring theme, one that Katine had predicted from the start: “I did have to explain to them that we would probably lose,” Katine said. “Bowers vs. Hardwick was the law, and whoever thought the Supreme Court would reverse itself 15 years after its decision?”

But on June 26, 2003, the U.S. Supreme court declared that gays have a right to privacy and dignity in their personal lives. The court’s 6-3 ruling struck down laws in Texas and 12 other states that outlawed sex between gay people.


“Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today,” said Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for five justices. “Bowers vs. Hardwick should be and is now overruled.”

The ruling overturned the criminal convictions of Garner and Lawrence and affirmed that they “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,” Kennedy said.

Judge Antonin Scalia dissented and accused other judges of having “signed on to the so-called homosexual agenda.” He said the ruling would lead to recognition of same-sex marriages.


The ruling was hailed as a major victory among gay rights advocates -- and a rare instance of the court acknowledging a mistake.

“In the beginning I don’t think he realized he was going to change anything by fighting this, but it was the right thing to do,” Katine said of Garner. “We were ultimately able to succeed and help the whole country.”

Garner and Lawrence, who were never a couple, were praised by gay and civil rights organizations. After the commotion died down, they resumed their lives. The case and media attention did not change Garner, his brother said. He was still “just regular Tyron.”

Garner grew up in the South Park area of Houston, the youngest of 10 children. As a boy “he was always very mature,” his brother said. “He mostly dealt with older people. He never really asked for much and never really wanted much.”


The two brothers spent time writing horror stories, trying to outdo “The Twilight Zone” and “make ours scarier,” Darrell Garner said. “I think he was a true writer.”

In addition to Darrell Garner, Tyron Garner is survived by six other brothers and two sisters.

At Jack Yates High School he excelled academically and found passion in the photo lab. The fact that he was gay “was no big secret,” to his numerous friends, Darrell Garner said.

Before he became ill in January, Garner worked selling barbecue on a catering truck and maintained friendships with older people, whom he found joy in helping. A skillful dancer, he enjoyed parties -- and people enjoyed watching his moves on the dance floor.


“He lived a joyful life,” Darrell Garner said.