I just finished one of the best books I’ve read in a long time: Flagrant Conduct by Dale Carpenter.
Even though I’ve been supportive of gay rights as long as I can remember, I’m not as well-versed in its history. Early in the book, Carpenter sets us up with where the gay rights movement in Texas (specifically, Houston) used to be and what they were up against. Along the way, we’re taken to John Lawrence‘s apartment, where a string of events led to police arriving at his home late one night in 1998. Carpenter documents exactly what happened that night — evidence that contradicts what the police said — and we come to find out there’s a story behind the Supreme Court case Lawrence v Texas that most of the public never knew about.
As I understood it, the case involved police breaking into a gay couples’ home and arresting them for having sex because they were violating Texas’ Anti-Sodomy Law. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, where the couple prevailed in a 6-3 decision, overturning sodomy laws across the country.
It turns out the actual story leading to the case was nothing like that. The Supreme Court justices didn’t know that when they decided the case and I didn’t know about it until I read Dahlia Lithwick‘s brilliant article about the book in the New Yorker a couple of months ago.
What if, Carpenter asks, this weren’t a story about love, or even sex? What if, in the end, Lawrence v. Texas was less a whodunnit than a who didn’t? And, if there was no sex, let alone an intimate relationship, in John Lawrence’s apartment that night, how did the case come to be about both?
After reading that article, I had to get the book. It’s always strange to read a book when you already know the ending, but it didn’t stop me. I was captivated for weeks, reading whatever I could during lunch breaks at work, on planes, at red lights (don’t judge me)… hell, the footnotes were just as interesting as the book itself.
When I got to the end, I realized the namesake for the case, John Lawrence, died this past November and I never even heard about it. For as much as I read online, that one completely slipped past me. Lambda Legal attempted to raise money to give him a decent burial, but they barely raised anything… and I thought to myself I’m sure I could’ve donated or raised what they needed to cover those expenses. The whole book made me reconsider how much I’m really doing as an activist and how much more I could be doing. That’s a good sign.
Even more importantly, as you read about the chain of improbable events — all the people who had minor-but-vital roles in the case getting to the Supreme Court, all the things that had to go right for this case to get out of just the local court system in Texas — you realize we all have a part to play if we want to see justice served, not just for LGBT folks but for atheists, too.
Read this book. It’s incredible.