Heroes don’t need whitewashing

Timothy Kincaid

March 9th, 2012

When I read Extreme Makeover: The story behind the story of Lawrence v. Texas, Dahlia Lithwick’s review in the New Yorker of Dale Carpenter’s new book, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas, I was fascinated by the story. Some I knew already – that Lawrence and Garner were not a happily domesticated couple; some was new to me – that Robert Eubanks, the man who called in the false report, knew Lawrence and Garner; and some was shocking – that Eubanks and Garner were lovers. My only complaint was that I feared that Lithwick may not have left enough surprise.

My response was not universal.

It seems that Lithwick ruffled a few feathers by being a bit less deferential than some parties wished and used language that allowed some to infer criticism, whether or not intended.

Kevin Cathcart, executive director of Lambda Legal, wrote a huffy rebuttal in the Huffington Report. Well, not exactly a rebuttal; Cathcart doesn’t assert a single fact to dispute the story. Rather, Cathcart uses innuendo and implies that Carpenter (and thus Lithwick) is telling some distorted version of the tale.

In Dahlia Lithwick’s review in The New Yorker (March 12) of Dale Carpenter’s new book about the Lawrence case, Flagrant Conduct (Norton), she recounts Carpenter’s version of the events leading up to the arrest of the defendants, John Lawrence and Tyron Garner, in which Carpenter concludes that Garner and Lawrence were merely acquaintances who may not have been having sex when the police stormed into Lawrence’s apartment and arrested them. She accepts Carpenter’s conclusion, then writes, “That’s the punch line: the case that affirmed the right of gay couples to have consensual sex in private spaces seems to have involved two men who were neither a couple nor having sex.”

I strongly disagree. That certainly was not the punch line for the hundreds of thousands of gay men and lesbians who were finally relieved of the harms and the daily fear caused by laws that criminalized their sexuality. [emphasis added]

That is a tacky tactic. Hint that Carpenter is telling a distorted version and “strongly disagree”… with something else.

Dale Carpenter did not just conjure his “version of the events” out of thin air. He did not rely solely on legal briefs or news coverage. Being familiar with Carpenter’s writing for some time, I know that he is thoughtful and nuanced and, while at times controversial, not inclined to statements that lack support. Carpenter spent nine years of research, interviewing the parties and weighing the disparities, and “his version” is more a presentation of all versions, including those that Cathcart seems would rather have unknown.

As for the specific point of contention, either it is true that “Garner and Lawrence were merely acquaintances” or it is true that they were something more. Either it is true that they “may not have been having sex” or it is definite that they were so engaged. And, it should be noted, the assertions are actually “John Lawrence’s version of events”.

If Mr. Cathcart has any evidence – any statement by any person at any time – which contradicts Carpenter’s narrative, he should say so. And surely, as the executive director at the time of the case, Cathcart would be privy to all such information. Even if bound by confidentiality and unable to disclose details, he could say that Carpenter is incorrect, not just imply so.

Cathcart’s indignant response – which neither contradicts nor clarifies – seems to be in reaction to inferred criticism about Lambda’s methods. Personally, to me they seem to be but good representation: control the story, keep your client from torpedoing his own boat, and fight for the real issue at hand rather than the specifics of the unique situation. But perhaps Cathcart sees Lambda as above the riffraff ambulance chaser.

I continue to hold Lambda Legal in high regard and Lithwick’s review only increased my admiration. I’m sad that Cathcart responded in a manner that lowered my esteem.

Also jumping to Lambda Legal’s defense is Ari Ezra Waldman, writing at Towelroad. Waldman see’s Lithwick’s review as “obscuring the undisputed good work done by Lambda Legal, the American Foundation for Equal Rights (AFER), and other legal organizations to win our rights through impact litigation.” I think Waldman sees criticism where I see admiration, but in his taking of Lithwick to task, I see a misunderstanding of what it all means.

It is natural to want our heroes to be heroic. Whether Lambda Legal or John Lawrence or Tyrone Garner, we want them bigger than life, beyond reproach, and unworthy of criticism, implied, inferred or vaguely hinted.

But here’s the funny thing about heroes: they seldom are.

Heroes do not live above the fray, marshaling their power and reaping the consequence of their advantage. Heroes fight impossible odds with no resources and in defense of honor and justice, not for some personal gain.

Sure, it’s admirable when someone steps forward and puts their life on display to serve a cause. It is worthy of praise when beautiful people seeking marriage equality kiss their babies to rounds of applause at a podium. And surely those people do good work – they provide an image that the public can agree deserves respect and equality. I do not mean to diminish that contribution or in any way criticize those who live a life of quality and responsibility.

But that’s not heroism.

When a drunk and a loser, someone who isn’t respected by anyone, agrees to put their life on display so as to fight injustice, I see the seeds of heroism. And when, with nothing else to contribute, John Lawrence let his name become equated with sodomy – and let us not pretend that this did not come without cost – I see classic heroism.

The little guys, the ones with no resources or social standing, stood up to the system and fought for their rights – even before the big city lawyers got involved. And they deserve that their story, warts and all, be told. And, in a grander sense, theirs is the story of why we have a constitution.

And despite Cathcart’s huffy indignation, when lawyers look at their clients, see their personal limitations, know the burden of selling them to nine elderly ivy-league people whose lives have never encountered anyone like these plaintiffs, and still push forward with whatever they can muster – be it a carefully crafted image and clients who promise silence – to advance my freedom, I see heroism.

As Linda Hirshman at Slate notes, civil rights cases are seldom about pretty people. They are about the law and the victims of the law.

The law is for the powerful and influential. But the Constitution and it’s protections are for losers. And drunks. And the unpopular. And deviates and perverts and faggots and c*cksuckers and sodomites like John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner. And for radical homosexual activists like Lambda Legal who have to scrap and fight and work with what they have.

It does no disservice to acknowledge and honor that fact.

Jim Burroway

March 9th, 2012

Hear hear!

I absolutely couldn’t agree more. And I’m looking forward to reading Dale Carpenter’s book.

And I’m very dismayed that Cathcart seems to have become confused about what the issue before the court really was all about.


March 9th, 2012

“Being familiar with Carpenter’s writing for some time, I know that he is thoughtful and nuanced and, while at times controversial, not inclined to statements that lack support.”

This. This 10x.

David Waite

March 9th, 2012

You call yourself a conservative. I call myself a liberal. Labels are things that divide us even as they never truly define the real us: The map is not the territory.

All the things you’ve written here about heros, and everything you wrote in the column titled “Who Speaks For Jesus?” are things I’ve been saying all my life about both subjects. I can’t really say ‘kudos’ to you because it would feel like patting myself on the back.

The next time one of my progressive acquaintainces precedes a smear with the phrase “all conservatives” I’m going to link to these two columns and say a semi-polite version of “shut up.”


March 10th, 2012

MLK was abominably sexist and known to badger his wife into abandoning her professional aspirations to play the housewife traditional role. He kept Bayard Rustin in a glass closet, using him begrudgingly.

I don’t get this point about transforming leaders into deities. It happens with Obama as well and his star struck supporters. It happens with the other side as well.

The people I trust the least are those who go under a prim and proper visage. If you don’t know someone’s true depths and the ugliness that resides within, you don’t know them at all.


March 10th, 2012

@Lucrece, would you please provide a link or two to back up your specious assertions about Dr. King? Rustin was one of King’s closest and most trusted advisors. There were others who pushed King to leave Rustin in the shadows, but Rustin was his own man. If there were times he remained in the shadows, it was because he realized it was the 1960s and was able to see the larger picture. The Civil Right Movement had enemies who perpetuated the same misinformation you are repeating here. In fact, Rustin and Dr. King’s relationship was so close that efforts were made to try to paint Dr. King as a homosexual. What you’re saying is wrong, but if you can provide some links that aren’t from a website run by hate groups or based on surveillance docs from Hoover’s FBI, I’d be happy to read them.

This statement is insane:
The law is for the powerful and influential. But the Constitution and it’s protections are for losers. And drunks. And the unpopular. And deviates and perverts and faggots and c*cksuckers and sodomites like John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner. And for radical homosexual activists like Lambda Legal who have to scrap and fight and work with what they have.

The law is for one group and the Constitution is for “losers”? I thought the words etched on the US Supreme Court were, “Equal Justice Under Law.” Then, there are all these pesky ideals like, “All men are created equal” and “E Pluribus Unum.” We should be working to eliminate the imbalances in the law not embrace them.

We’re not “[deviants],” “perverts,” “faggots,” “c*cksuckers,” and “sodomites” and neither were Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Garner. They were gay, adult men and Americans. In fact, SCOTUS agreed and found their rights had been violated. The law and the Constitution are what protect us from our fellow ignorant, bigoted, hate-filled Americans. They are what says that, no matter what others think of us, we are are fully entitled to all the rights and protections guaranteed therein. Obviously, recognition of those rights and privileges isn’t always synched with their timely enforcement, but that’s when we fight.

I hope you would reconsider framing your view in such divisive terms. By the way, if you think the Constitution is for the dregs of humanity, does that include big corporations? SCOTUS recognizes them as people and gives them more right and protections than it affords LGBT people. You can think of yourself as a deviant or a pervert if you want, but please don’t paint the rest of us with your big, wide single color brush. Thanks.


March 10th, 2012

This assessment of Mr. Lawrence and Mr. Garner and their relationship is interesting in a number of ways. It prompts me to ask this question, though.

Does this information put Lawrence v Texas at risk of being reversed? No. I do not think it does.

“We weren’t doing anything except being gay,” means they were arrested simply for being gay, and that is what sodomy laws allowed to happen. That is what Lawrence ended in this country.

Timothy Kincaid

March 10th, 2012

David W, thank you.

Timothy Kincaid

March 10th, 2012


I think that we are in agreement, though perhaps the way I wrote the commentary led you to believe otherwise.

If it helps, think of it this way:

The law is for the powerful and influential. [they have the ability to convince legislators and sway voters] But the Constitution and it’s protections are for [those who society considers] losers. And drunks. And the unpopular. And [the people that are called] deviates and perverts and faggots and c*cksuckers and sodomites like John Lawrence and Tyrone Garner. And for [those who are called] radical homosexual activists like Lambda Legal who have to scrap and fight and work with what they have.


March 10th, 2012

A casual reading of the New Yorker review might leave the impression that Lawrence v Texas was misconceived — Lawrence could have justifiably pleaded Not Guilty and avoided all the fuss. Kevin Cathcart of Lambda Legal wrote to emphasize that the arrest of Lawrence and Garner was based on the exercise of an unjust law. The actual innocence of the parties only makes the injustice more apparent. That point needs to be understood, and I didn’t think his making it was “huffy.”

Juries decide on the basis of arguments and evidence presented to them. These seldom reflect the whole truth. Lawrence v Texas was a legitimate attack on an unjust law. The story behind the case shouldn’t be confused with the principles at stake.

The controversy reminds me of the case of Barry Winchell, the soldier murdered because he was perceived to be gay. The incident was pursued as a case of gay-bashing, which it was. In fact, however, Winchell was not gay — he had fallen in love with a woman who happened to be transgender. The woman, Calpernia Addams, allowed the gay angle to be dominant until Winchell’s killers were convicted — it made a simpler story at the time.

Jay Jonson

March 11th, 2012

I think you are misunderstanding both Lithwick and Cathcart. It is Litwick who implies that the Lawrence decision is something of a sham because Lawrence and Garner were not poster models for gay relationships. She implicitly criticizes Lambda and other organizations for not pushing the plaintiffs to the forefront of the case. But the case was not about them. It was about the law. It is the law that was evil and needed to be at the forefront of the case. Lamdba did not whitwash Lawrence and Garner. They simply avoided the rather louche circumstances of their relationships and histories. The fact that the police lied about whether they were having sex or not just makes the injustice done them even worse. Sodomy laws were used to punish people regardless of whether they had sex or not.

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