Up until 1962, gay sex between two consenting adults was a felony in every state in the United States. So-called “crime against nature” or “sodomy” laws — the term "sodomy” is a reference to the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah — typically punished violators with lengthy prison sentences, fines, and even hard labor. Although these laws typically targeted gays and lesbians, some statutes were written broadly enough to cover any form of non-vaginal intercourse, including oral and anal sex between heterosexuals.
While many states moved to repeal their sodomy laws in the late 1900s, others — like Georgia — moved in the opposite direction. In the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision, the Supreme Court upheld Georgia’s sodomy law, arguing that there was no “fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy.”
After Bowers, several more states began moving towards decriminalizing private acts of gay sex between consenting adults. It wasn’t until 2003, however, that the Supreme Court finally reconsidered its position on sodomy laws.
In Lawrence v. Texas (2003), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that Texas’ sodomy statute was unconstitutional, marking a major legal victory on the path towards LGBT equality. With the remainder of state sodomy laws technically invalidated by Lawrence, the LGBT community began to shift its focus. Alexis Agathocleous, staff attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, recently wrote:
Coming seventeen years after Bowers v. Hardwick, the Supreme Court’s seething antigay decision that upheld a Georgia sodomy law, Lawrence felt like a sea change. Laws actually criminalizing the community, many people assumed, were a relic of the past. And accordingly, the LGBT rights movement shifted gears: litigation, lobbying, advocacy, and resources in the years since Lawrence have overwhelmingly focused on civil institutions such as marriage and visibility in the mainstream media. In short, the mainstream LGBT community stopped talking about criminal justice.
Eight years later, however, eighteen states still refuse to rewrite their laws and take these anti-gay relics off their books, with countless LGBT Americans continuing to feel their devastating effects as a result. Several state legislatures and courts have exploited loopholes in the Lawrence decision, while others have simply refused to acknowledge the decision altogether.
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