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Public safety
We don’t need a right to sexual privacy — we need a right to be safe when we’re public about our sexuality

WHAT DO TWO gay men arrested in Texas in 1998 for sodomy have to do with a United Nations weapons inspector who engages in sadomasochistic sex? A lot, it turns out. John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner have appealed their sodomy convictions to the US Supreme Court, which last week agreed to hear the case. Harvey John "Jack" McGeorge, recently hired to join the UN weapons-inspection team currently at work in Iraq, is a leader of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, which advocates in favor of sexual freedom for adults who practice sadomasochistic sex. We know about McGeorge because the Washington Post saw fit to publish news of his sex life on the front page of its Thanksgiving Day issue. Both cases have become causes célèbres for the American liberal press, which is now pushing for an absolute right to sexual privacy.

As attractive as that idea is — most people don’t want anyone poking around in their bedrooms (or, for that matter, Oval Offices) — it is a wrongheaded and even dangerous idea. Even in the Age of Ashcroft, Americans don’t need a right to be private about their sexual practices. Rather, they need to know that if they are public with this information, they will not be punished. The right to sexual privacy is a conservative notion that will ultimately destroy sexual freedom for everyone — not just homosexual sodomites and heterosexual sadomasochists.

On the face of it, the Texas case — Lawrence and Garner v. Texas — is outrageous. On September 17, 1998, sheriff’s deputies in Houston, Texas, arrested Lawrence and Garner in the former’s apartment and charged them with violating the state’s sodomy statute. The police had entered Lawrence’s home because a homophobic neighbor, trying to get the two openly gay men in trouble, had called the police claiming that a man with a gun was in the apartment. (The neighbor was later arrested and prosecuted for filing a false police report.) Once in the apartment, the police discovered the two — now very startled — men engaged in either oral or anal sex (no one will say which, specifically) and they did what any good Texas police officers would do: they arrested them. Both men were jailed overnight and eventually convicted of a Class C misdemeanor and fined $200 each (the court could have fined them up to $500).

Rather than suffer Texas justice in silence, Lawrence and Garner, with the help of the New York–based gay legal group Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, asked the court to quash the charges against them. The court refused, and Lambda appealed. On June 8, 2000, a Texas appellate court overturned Lawrence’s and Garner’s convictions. A year later, a higher intermediate court reinstated them. A year after that, on April 18, 2002, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to hear the case, stating that "preserving public morality" justified the law. Complicating matters was an earlier ruling by the Texas Supreme Court finding that the Court of Criminal Appeals had jurisdiction over any challenge to the sodomy law — which for all intents and purposes meant that Lawrence and Garner were barred from challenging the constitutionality of their convictions in Texas. So they appealed to the US Supreme Court.

The Texas law, while odious, isn’t all that unique. Originally written in 1860 to prohibit "sodomy" — defined as oral or anal sex — by any couple, it was rewritten in 1974 (at the height of the sexual revolution) to apply only to homosexual couples. At that time, 33 states had similar laws, some of which restricted the private, consensual sexual conduct of homosexuals only. Under pressure from gay-rights activists, a few states began repealing their sodomy laws. By 1986, it looked as if the rest of them would be stricken from the books when Lambda appealed Bowers v. Hardwick to the Supreme Court.

Bowers dealt with the 1982 case of Michael Hardwick, whom police found engaging in oral sex with another man when they entered his apartment to arrest him on an outstanding warrant for a ticket he had received for public drunkenness. They arrested Hardwick, an openly gay man who worked as a bartender in a gay bar, and charged him with violating Georgia’s sodomy law. With help from Lambda, he appealed his case to the US Supreme Court. In a 5-4 ruling that stunned long-time court observers as well as the gay community, the court upheld portions of Georgia’s sodomy law. Chief Justice Warren Burger’s concurring opinion noted that "to hold that the act of homosexual sodomy is somehow protected as a fundamental right would be to cast aside millennia of moral teaching" and that "in constitutional terms there is no such thing as a fundamental right to commit homosexual sodomy." The most legally important aspect of the Supreme Court’s ruling was that it applied only to sexual activity between two people of the same sex, even though Georgia’s sodomy law applied to heterosexual activity as well.

Not only was Bowers v. Hardwick lousy law — well, really lousy law — but it was a case study in judicial and legal hypocrisy. Justice Lewis Powell (considered a liberal) cast the deciding vote against granting homosexuals the constitutional right to privacy. He later admitted to the National Law Journal in October of 1990, three years after his retirement, that he "probably made a mistake" in Bowers. "That case was not a major case," he said, "and one of the reasons I voted the way I did was the case was a frivolous case" that was brought before the court "just to see what the court would do." While getting points for honesty, Powell deftly exposed the traditional liberal stance toward gay issues: fuck you and go to hell.

But Powell looks principled when his actions are contrasted with those of Michael J. Bowers, the Georgia attorney general who appealed the case (after lower state courts had sided with Hardwick) to the Supreme Court. Two years ago, Bowers admitted that for nearly a decade in the 1980s — which encompassed the time he persecuted Michael Hardwick for giving a blow job to another man — he was involved in an adulterous relationship. At that time, adultery was a crime under Georgia state law in the same classification as sodomy and carried the same penalties. In other words, if the police had been peering into Bowers’s bedroom — or, more likely, his hotel room — Bowers could have been the one charged with the crime. Instead, he was prosecuting it. And they say that homosexuals have no shame. These facts alone constitute a cultural imperative strong enough to overturn Bowers v. Hardwick.

The leering moralistic impulse that drove the Bowers case and is driving Lawrence and Garner also seems to be driving the publicity surrounding McGeorge — the S/M weapons inspector, as he’s come to be called. A Washington Post story, ostensibly about the shoddy hiring practices of the United Nations, made much of McGeorge’s history in Washington, DC’s S/M community, where McGeorge was a founder of the S/M support and advocacy group Black Rose. To be sure, the Post did come up with some disturbing details about how the UN chooses its inspectors: no background checks are conducted, and some inspectors are chosen on the grounds that they won’t offend Saddam Hussein. Ewen Buchanan, a spokesman for United Nations Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC), told the paper that the organization didn’t have the "capability" to conduct background checks on its applicants. "How would you check?" he asked. Checking the background of everyone who applies for a job ferreting out weapons of mass destruction might be difficult, but throwing up your hands in futility about such checks does seem, well, a little cavalier. Still, while the Post’s questions about McGeorge’s qualifications may have been on the mark, its focus on his involvement with S/M support and play groups was not.

The lead sentence — "The United Nations launched perhaps its most important weapons inspections ever yesterday with a team that includes a 53-year-old Virginia man with no specialized scientific degree and a leadership role in sadomasochistic sex clubs" — made clear that Post editors believed there was a connection between McGeorge’s public career and his private sex life, even though such a link was never demonstrated. When McGeorge offered to resign from the assignment to protect the UN from further smears by the press, Hans Blix, head of the weapons-inspections team, said he would not accept the resignation and that McGeorge’s private life was no one’s business.

But the whip and shackles were out of the bag, and soon McGeorge’s sex life was even more prominent in the news. The New York Post headlined a story on McGeorge SADDAMASOCHIST, and the Daily News announced BLIX STICKS WITH HIS S&M WEAPONS PROBER IN UPROAR. Slate ran a sophomoric piece that, while generally supportive of McGeorge and his right to privacy, actually compared the torturous acts of Hussein with those of sadists engaging in consensual sex. The British press responded by attacking American puritanism: UN TEAM FACES SMEAR CAMPAIGN claimed the Guardian on November 29, the day after the Post story appeared. Post ombudsman Michael Getler agreed. In a column about the Thanksgiving Day article, Getler wrote: "It seemed thin and rushed concerning the main premise — that the overall quality of the inspection team is suspect, which is a politically potent message at this time — and yielded to the titillation factor in featuring McGeorge so prominently. There are 100 inspectors, and McGeorge is the only one this story focused on." He added that "the dominant focus on McGeorge, and the questionable relevance of his sexual activities, seemed to me to distort what this story was about."

THE STORIES OF Jack McGeorge, John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner, and Michael Hardwick seem to have the same moral: Americans should have an inviolable right to sexual privacy. But that would be the wrong lesson to draw. McGeorge’s sex life — and his involvement with groups such as National Coalition for Sexual Freedom — was not particularly private. A quick Internet search yields details of McGeorge’s involvement with sadomasochism. Visit for a sense of McGeorge’s sexual interests and repertoire. Go to to learn about his advocacy on behalf of sexual minorities in the Washington, DC, area. And visit for his professional résumé. There’s nothing much private here.

McGeorge has stated quite simply that he is not embarrassed by his sexual activities — which are probably not much different from what was hinted at in Madonna’s music videos of the mid 1990s — and that he has no desire to hide them. To call for a right to sexual privacy in McGeorge’s case is disingenuous. The problem wasn’t that he is involved in a sexual subculture that many Americans feel is foreign to them (even though they may, indeed, practice similar activities in their own bedrooms), but that the Post used this information to try to discredit McGeorge in his professional life.

The lesson couldn’t be more obvious. We don’t need a right to sexual privacy — we need a right to be safe when we’re public about our sexuality. The same lesson can be applied to the Texas sodomy case, which involved two out gay men — Lawrence and Garner — who were persecuted by both a homophobic neighbor and the police for their public identity. The police should have left the premises once they realized that the real criminal was the man calling in a false crime report.

A right to be public with our sexuality is the only thing that will protect the lesbian couple who want to hold hands while walking down the street. A right to be public with our sexuality is the only thing that will protect a transgender teen. A right to be public with our sexuality is the only thing that will prevent more embarrassments like 2000’s infamous "Paddleboro" case, in which two people were arrested at an S/M sex party in Attleboro after police raided the premises. They seized partygoers’ Palm Pilots, which contained personal-contact information. One of the arrestees was charged with "possession of an item of self-abuse" — the sort of thing that you apparently know when you see it — and another was charged with "possession of a dangerous weapon," which turned out to be a large kitchen spoon (quick, call Julia Child). The bust was great fodder for puerile newspaper columnists, but it’s precisely this sort of case in which names appear in newspapers and people lose their jobs and livelihoods.

We live in a sex-obsessed culture. Sex is used to sell everything from milk to sports cars, from cigarettes to shoes. But despite all this, we remain deeply puritanical. How else do you explain why 13 states still have sodomy laws? Or the Bush administration’s highly successful attempt to replace, at least in part, sensible sex-education programs in 42 states with inane abstinence-only programs? The remedy to this problem isn’t the right to sexual privacy. It’s to give those like McGeorge, who choose to be public, and those like Lawrence and Garner, who were merely going about their business like any other couple, the right to be who they are without fear of public ridicule, fines, or jail time.

Michael Bronski can be reached at

Issue Date: December 12 - 19, 2002
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