Tyron Garner, a plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down sodomy bans in 13 states, died on Sept. 11 from complications of meningitis. He was 39.
In 1998, the Harris County Sheriff’s Department received a false report of an armed intruder inside the Houston, Texas, home of medical technologist John Lawrence. Two deputies entered the apartment without a warrant and found Garner and Lawrence engaging in consensual sex. The police arrested the men and charged them with breaking the Homosexual Conduct Law, a misdemeanor, which banned oral and anal sex between people of the same gender.
Garner and Lawrence were jailed overnight. They pleaded not guilty at their arraignment, but changed their pleas to no contest in order to challenge the constitutionality of Texas’ sodomy law. Both were found guilty of “deviate sexual intercourse” and ordered to pay fines of $125, plus $141.25 in court costs. Subsequent appeals challenging the law failed, forcing the men to seek an audience with the U.S. Supreme Court.
On June 26, 2003, the Supreme Court declared homosexual relations a basic civil right under the 14th Amendment, and ruled that what gay men and women do in the privacy of their bedrooms was not the government’s business. The 6-3 decision in Lawrence v. Texas invalidated sodomy laws in 13 states and fueled the civil rights debate over gay marriage and adoption.
“Because Tyrone Garner and John Lawrence had the courage to challenge homophobic sodomy laws, the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that love, sexuality and family play the same role in gay people’s lives as they do for everyone else. That’s a colossal legacy and one for which his community will forever be thankful,” Kevin Cathcart, executive director of the legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, stated.
Although Garner was unemployed at the time of his arrest, he had worked as a home health care provider and restaurant cook. In recent years, he operated a barbecue stand in Houston. Last January, Garner was diagnosed with meningitis, a condition that causes fluid to build up on the brain. He lost the use of his legs in August and was recuperating in a physical rehabilitation center when his condition worsened. Garner was then rushed to the hospital, where he later died. His brother, Darrell Garner, described Tyrone (as he preferred to be called) as an “easy-going person, very giving and a nice guy all around who helped out elderly neighbors all the time.”
Read the 2003 Supreme Court Decision in Lawrence v. Texas (.pdf)