Why You Need to Read Flagrant Conduct

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.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • http://northierthanthou.com/ northierthanthou

    Sounds interesting.

  • Edje54

    Back during my ill-conceived time in law school, Dale Carpenter taught my year long course in  Constitutional Law.  It was abundantly obvious just how obnixiously smart and remarkably scholarly yet interesting and funny he was.  Just based on that, I’m sure that the book is really well done

  • Daniel

    Just related to a sidebar, but I get a lot of reading done at red lights, fast food drive-throughs, Fed Ex, supermarket lines, restrooms, doctors office, and just about anywhere else where I’m going to be hanging out for over a minute. 

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/FDGYHBEWVNGUG763L5X4TON3JQ Nazani14

    Off-topic a bit…. As an atheist, “a decent burial” is one if the last things you could get me to pony up for.   A historical marker at the site of the arrest?  Sure.  A book for middle and high schoolers on the case, along with free lesson plans for teachers?  Even better.

    • http://twitter.com/Cluisanna Cluisanna

      The thing is, this is often also about the family/friends who just can’t afford it… I don’t know how it was in this case, but I think that is important to consider.

  • Brian Westley

    Correction: Lawrence v. Texas was a 6-3 decision.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      Whoops. Fixed!

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    Well, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know.

    The story of Lawrence and Garner should give you a glimpse into the assimilationism vs liberationism dispute among LGBT people.  In the courts, activists feel the need to show people how LGBT people are just like everyone else, having sex in loving committed relationships.  But the truth is that even people who don’t fit this normative narrative deserve respect.

  • Onamission5

    Adding the book to my list at the library.

    As a going on 20+ years activist for gay rights myself, it constantly surprises me how little many of us know about the backstory of the movement as a whole. I mean, even growing up on the west coast I knew about Stonewall, but I didn’t learn about Harvey Milk until the movie started being made.  It’s shameful. We know so little about our history in the US when it comes to “invisible” minority groups. The same can be said about the struggles of early Chinese immigrants too, for example, because it just hasn’t made part of the public consciousness. Sure, we might know a smidgen here or there but it’s not the same as with our history of marginalizing Native people or black, we pretty much all know about that, but when I tell people that Chinese immigrants were conscripted to work in west coast mines because they were considered disposable or pretty much built the first transcontinental railroad, I get a lot of wha’s?

  • http://twitter.com/mywall mywall

    “a string of events led to police arriving at his home late one night in 1998″
    That date cannot be right, surely?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=628665833 Bill Santagata

      It is correct. Lawrence v. Texas was decided in 2003, overturning a prior decision in Bowers v. Hardwick. Until 2003, it was illegal to be in a gay relationship in 16 states.

  • charvakan

    “The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, where the couple prevailed in a 6-3 decision”
    What staggers me is that there were 3 supreme court justices who thought this was OK ….

  • Yukimi

    I learnt about the story a few months back (along with the story of the Loving family) and it was truly interesting.


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