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John Geddes Lawrence Jr., lead plaintiff in landmark LGBT civil rights case, dies at 68

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SILSBEE, Texas – John Geddes Lawrence Jr., the lead plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Lawrence v. Texas, died Nov. 20, according to an obituary posted online by a funeral home in Texas. He was 68 years old.

The obituary, posted by the RS Farmer Funeral Home in Silsbee, Texas, stated that Lawrence lived in Texas his entire life, working as a medical technologist at hospitals in Houston and Kountze until his retirement in 2009. Ironically, the funeral home’s notice made no mention of the famous Supreme Court case.

In the 2003 case, the Supreme Court held that the Texas statute that made it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate conduct violates the Due Process Clause. Lawrence was considered a landmark victory for the LGBT community, as it overturned sodomy laws that still existed in Texas and 12 other states.

Lawrence and his partner, Tyron Garner (who died in 2006), were arrested under Texas’ “Homosexual Conduct Law” in 1998 after police were sent to their home in response to a weapons disturbance call. Houston police entered the apartment and saw the couple engaged in a private, consensual act.

The two were arrested and convicted of deviate sexual intercourse, in violation of the Texas law.

In a 2004 interview with The Houston Chronicle, Lawrence recalled being shoved to the couch, which shattered a set of porcelain birds that were a gift from his mother. He says he was humiliated, driven to the police station wearing only handcuffs and underwear.

Lawrence, who was not completely out of the closet to all of his family and co-workers, also remembered the difficult call to his elderly father to explain what happened.

“I was a little worried,” Lawrence told the Chronicle. “I didn’t know how I was going to handle this. So I called my dad, and my dad said, ‘You will find a good lawyer.’”

The court ruled in the case on June 26, 2003, which overturned a 1986 ruling, Bowers v. Hardwick, which had upheld Georgia’s sodomy law, which was later repealed by the state.

Many considered the ruling to dramatically change the way that gay and lesbian people are treated under the law, setting precedent for civil rights advances that have occurred in the 8½ years since.

Celebrations erupted across the nation following the ruling.

Locally, the Gay & Lesbian Times reported that a news conference was held at The San Diego LGBT Community Center following the ruling.

“Today will go down as one of the milestones of the civil rights movement,” Kevin Tilden, then-chair of The Center’s board of directors, said at the event. “For more than 600,000 same-sex households counted in the last census, it means in 13 states those households will not have to worry about being sex offenders.”

In writing about Lawrence’s death, former SDGLN contributor Ari Ezra Waldman wrote on Towleroad.com that Lawrence’s case has made a huge impact on the legal community:

His name will be part of every constitutional law class, every gay rights class, and every future case in which liberty and privacy are at stake. His case overturned every anti-sodomy law at the state level, overturned the odious Bowers v. Hardwick that misunderstood the quest for gay equality, and made our post-gay world possible. Mr. Lawrence allowed us to argue that we have the liberty to love whom we choose, the liberty to marry whom we choose, and the right to be left alone about it. Every successful piece of gay rights litigation cites Lawrence v. Texas and every success we have is thanks to our advocates’ skillful interpretation and use of that case.

At the time of his death, Lawrence was being cared for by his partner, Jose Garcia. Lawrence is survived by a brother and a sister who reside in Texas, two nieces, two nephews, and numerous grand nieces and nephews.

Services were here held Nov. 22 and 23 in Texas. It is not known why news of Lawrence’s death is just now being reported.

Today, Lambda Legal issued a statement:

“John Lawrence was a quiet, unassuming and heroic man, whose courage shaped the LGBT rights movement, and we look back on his accomplishment with profound respect and pride,” said Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal. “The impact of Lawrence v. Texas is felt every time a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person steps into a courtroom. We honor John for his courage and willingness to represent the community in a watershed moment that has forever changed our march to equality.”

For more information about the Lawrence v. Texas case, visit HERE.

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