Gay like me

The personal and political dimensions of last week’s Supreme Court ruling

Kel Munger in 1979 at Des Moines, Iowa’s, first gay-pride march.

Kel Munger in 1979 at Des Moines, Iowa’s, first gay-pride march.

Courtesy Of Kel Munger

In addition to overturning Bowers v. Hardwick and removing the right it gave states to criminalize sexual behavior between consenting adults, last week’s Supreme Court decision in Lawrence v. Texas also marks a watershed moment for those of us who are gay.

The reports of gay vets replacing the rainbow flag on Castro Street with an American flag while singing a national anthem that is, finally, ours, too, marks the end of a piecemeal approach to equality that required overturning each state’s prohibitions on same-sex relationships. In every state, we’re now simply citizens, rather than potential criminals.

Contrary to the right-wing talking heads, we’re not celebrating the right to commit sodomy. We’re celebrating the fact that the Supreme Court has decided that gay people are people first, and therefore full citizens, with citizenship’s rights and responsibilities.

I wasn’t sure I’d ever see it. I came out as a teenager, at the same time as the rainbow flag first appeared, in 1978. Iowa had just repealed its sodomy laws, but, as in most of the country, gays and lesbians still lived an underground existence in drab little bars with names like “Our Place.” When a group of us organized Des Moines’ first-ever gay-pride march in 1979, reporters and evangelizing counter-protesters almost outnumbered the 40 marchers. Everybody I knew wanted to move to California.

I finally did, but I took the scenic route: first Missouri and then Vermont, where, three years ago this week, my partner and I were joined in a civil union, a status that the justice of the peace assured us was “the equivalent of matrimony.” But that status was only ours until we moved to California. Halfway across Lake Champlain on the ferry, we were transformed from spouses to strangers in the eyes of the law. Our civil-union license became one more piece of paper in the collection of documents we’ve used to try to establish our right to be treated as the couple we are, and we had to file for domestic partnership to get a few dozen of the 4,600 rights California grants to married heterosexual couples.

News of last week’s Supreme Court decision reminded me of what it was like to live in a state with a same-sex sodomy law. Within a week of landing in a Missouri college town, where a white fraternity proudly flew the Stars and Bars and intentionally pointed the cannon on its front lawn at the Jewish frat across the street, I knew I wasn’t in a gay-friendly place.

Until last week, homosexuals in Missouri were potentially guilty of a Class A misdemeanor (Section 556.090 of the Missouri Criminal Code), even if it wasn’t being actively prosecuted. That’s “deviate sexual intercourse with another person of the same sex”; in the sexual-misconduct section of the code, it’s right next to rape.

It might seem as if the only people who’d feel the consequences of that law were the ones charged under it—like the six Missouri men who had sodomy charges against them dropped last Thursday, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

But that’s not the case. Twice while we lived there, the University of Missouri-Columbia, where my partner was a post-doctoral fellow, asked to extend domestic-partner insurance benefits to its employees and was turned down by the Legislature. The reason? Same-sex relationships were illegal under Missouri’s sodomy law. That lack of insurance benefits cost us close to seven grand in two years.

That’s chump change compared with losses in the two cases where women were deprived of custody of their children simply because, as lesbians, they were potentially in violation of the state’s sodomy law.

There was simply no way to get even basic protection from discrimination in employment and housing, let alone rights and responsibilities as domestic partners, from a state that could throw us in jail for a year any time it chose to start enforcing the statute.

Though California is second only to Vermont in treating gays and lesbians like human beings instead of sexual outlaws, the decision in Lawrence v. Texas will have an effect here, as well. Aside from the obvious—a trip to St. Louis or Dallas no longer carries with it the threat of trouble from an overzealous prosecutor who thinks the state should regulate our bedrooms—the legal ground on which those who oppose equal protection for gays and lesbians has disappeared overnight. Susan Sommer of Lambda Legal called this “a transformative decision.” She pointed out that Bowers v. Hardwick has been cited in opposition to the rights of gays and lesbians in defense of every sort of discriminatory practice.

As much as we’d like to believe that it’s not all about sex, what it boils down to is this: As long as the Supreme Court allowed states to criminalize sexual behavior between consenting adults, and as long as any state made our sex lives illegal, we didn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to fair treatment in other arenas.

In 1987, when I was hired by the Ames, Iowa, Police Department, the chief noted that my background check had turned up my college gay-rights activism, and he pointed out that Ames was one of two Iowa towns with ordinances prohibiting discrimination in employment on the basis of sexual orientation. Then he said, rather pointedly, “But remember, this isn’t San Francisco. Be discreet.” I translated that as, “Stay in the closet,” which I did, for a number of years.

The reality is that gays and lesbians all over the United States are still forced into closets of circumscribed lives and undermined freedoms because they can’t move to California or New York City or Vermont. As Americans, we shouldn’t have to relocate in order to exercise our liberties. Neither should we lose those liberties when we drive to Reno and, by crossing a state line, go from having a legal relationship to being strangers in the eyes of the law. The U.S. Supreme Court has finally recognized that fact.

Kel Munger is the editorial assistant for SN&R.