THE UNITED States Supreme Court will revisit the question of whether sodomy laws should remain legal this term when it takes up the case of Lawrence and Garner v. Texas. That case (see "Public Safety," News and Features, December 13, 2002) involves the arrest of two men who were engaged in private, consensual sex when police, called to their house by a nosy neighbor who wanted to see the men arrested for having sex, filed a false report of a break-in. When considering sodomy laws, it doesnít get any neater than that: police bursting into the bedroom of two men engaged in consensual sex. (Of course, the facts in 1986ís Bowers v. Hardwick, in which the Supreme Court affirmed the legality of sodomy laws, were very similar.)
But another sodomy case thatís been appealed to the court, which the court has yet to say it will hear, raises more complicated questions about sodomy. If the Supreme Court were to hear it and rule against the law in question, it would deal a decisive blow against archaic sex laws in this country.
That case, Matthew R. Limon v. the State of Kansas, involves sex between teenagers, one of whom is mentally retarded. In February 2000, Matthew Limon, who was then 18, was sentenced to 17 years and two months in prison for performing oral sex on a 14-year-old male. Limon suffers from a mild form of mental retardation; his diagnosis places his mental capacity between "borderline intellectual functioning" and "mild mental retardation." The sexual encounter took place at the Lakemary Center in Paola, Kansas, which is a residential school for developmentally delayed children and where Limon had been living since July 1999. Sometime in mid February, a few weeks after his 18th birthday, Limon engaged in oral sex with another male student ó named in the court papers only as M.A.R. ó who was a few weeks short of his 15th birthday (their ages, as will become clear, are significant in the case). M.A.R. initially consented to the sex, but then changed his mind. When he told Limon to stop, Limon did so immediately. Although it remains unclear how the police became involved in the case ó presumably someone from the Lakemary Center called them in ó both Limon and M.A.R. stated that the sex was consensual. But that didn't stop the Kansas state court from locking Limon away for a huge chunk of his life.
So how does a consensual blowjob between males ó the older of whom has the mental functioning of someone much younger ó end with a conviction under one of the harshest state sodomy laws still on the books and a jail sentence of nearly two decades? And how were the courts able to hand down such a draconian sentence, given that Kansas has a "Romeo and Juliet law," which is designed to decriminalize sexual activity between young people? Passed in 1998, that law covers young people under the age of 19 who engage in consensual sexual activity with teens between 14 and 16 years old. Recognizing that there may be developmental differences in the teen years, the law also stipulates that the ages of the sexual partners be less than four years apart. While the law does not legalize this sexual behavior, it greatly reduces the penalties involved in punishing it. When the interaction between Limon and M.A.R. took place, Limon was three years, one month, and a few days older than M.A.R.
Well, unfortunately for Limon, Kansasís Romeo and Juliet law is meant to be taken literally. It applies only to Romeos and Juliets, not to Romeos and Mercutios. It was explicitly written to exclude application in cases involving same-sex activity. So Limon was tried as an adult under the stateís harsh sodomy law. Specifically, he was charged with engaging in criminal sodomy with a minor. The Kansas sodomy law was written in 1855 (when Kansas was still a territory), but was revised in 1983 to exclude heterosexual activity.
Limonís court-appointed lawyer, David Estes, first argued that the Kansas law is patently unfair given that such radically different standards are applied to heterosexuals and homosexuals. Estesís motion was denied, and a district court eventually found Limon guilty because he admitted to the sexual activity. And since he had previously been found guilty of a sodomy charge (once again, a consensual encounter with someone his own age) when he was 15, the judge sentenced him to 17 years in jail. He was also required to undergo five years of court supervision after his release and to be classified as a "sexual offender," a categorization that will stay with him the rest of his life and, depending upon changes in Kansas law, could mean that his name and address would be publicly available ó kept on file at police departments or even listed on Web sites.
If he or M.A.R. had been female, Limon would have been charged under the Romeo and Juliet law and received, at most, a sentence of 15 months. Itís also entirely possible that if this had been a heterosexual liaison instead of a homosexual one, the incident would never have been brought to the attention of the police and simply dealt with as an internal management problem at the Lakemary Center. As it stands now, Limon will not get out of prison until he is in his mid 30s. And letís face it, his limited mental capacity, his sentence for a crime of homosexual sodomy, and his sex-with-a-minor charge are going to make prison a living hell for the young man: Limon will be a prime target for prison assault, rape, and general persecution.
WHILE THE American court system commits horrendous miscarriages of justice on a daily basis, surely the obvious inequality of Matthew Limonís case should make it ripe for reversal on appeal. Well, not in Kansas. On November 15, 2001, the appeal, brought by Estes and the American Civil Liberties Union, was heard by a three-member panel of the Kansas Court of Appeals. Estes and the ACLUís argument was simple: having two standards of justice, one for queers and one for heterosexuals, was an obvious violation of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees equal protection under the law. Limonís lawyers argued that Kansasís Romeo and Juliet law, as it was written, was unconstitutional and should be struck down, and that Matthew Limonís 17-year sentence was a product of discrimination based on sexual orientation.
On February 20, 2002, the appeals court shocked gay-rights and civil-liberties groups by upholding Limonís conviction and declaring that the state of Kansas has the right to make ó and enforce ó a law that holds homosexuals and heterosexuals to different standards. Their Catch-22ish reasoning was based on the fact that the Kansas sodomy statute ó under which Limon was convicted ó applied only to same-sex activity, so there was a legal precedent for treating homosexuals differently. But more important, they argued, the Kansas sodomy law was constitutional because the US Supreme Court had ruled in the infamous Bowers v. Hardwick that the Constitution "does not confer a fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy." Simply put, the idea that homosexuals and heterosexuals should be treated equally before the law was nonsense. By this time, Limon had already spent nearly two years in the Ellsworth Correctional Facility.
But observers shouldnít have been so surprised. Given Kansasís cultural climate, the ruling was predictable. Shortly after the Limon case first surfaced in the media, Kansas state representative Mike OíNeal, chair of the Kansas House Judiciary Committee, happily admitted in interviews that legislators, in refusing to amend the stateís sodomy statute or the Romeo and Juliet law, were upholding the stateís long-standing refusal to confer approval on same-sex relationships. This commitment, OíNeal told the Associated Press, was based on a very specific tradition: "The history is really biblically based. Kansas has kind of consistently gone back on that biblical reference." (This is no doubt the same thinking that led the stateís Board of Education, in August 1999, to mandate that creationism be taught in its public schools.)
Limonís lawyers and the ACLU then appealed his case to the Kansas Supreme Court. On June 13, 2002, the Court denied the appeal. The denial was expected ó in 1995, the court had refused to hear the appeal of Max Movsovitz, who was convicted under the sodomy law (and Topekaís solicitation law) for simply replying, "Yeah" when a plainclothes cop asked him if he wanted a blowjob. Still, it merely reinforced the sense that arguments of equal protection for homosexuals have no legal merit under Kansas state law.
Now the immediate question is whether the US Supreme Court will elect to hear Matthew R. Limon v. Kansas. As with Garner and Lawrence v. Texas, which involves a sodomy statute that applies only to homosexual activity, the case is being argued on equal-protection grounds. There is no doubt that both of these cases bring into focus the immediate need for the Supreme Court to reverse its 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick decision ó a decision that has provided the secure constitutional foundation for maintaining a national policy that treats heterosexuals with more dignity and legal protection than that afforded homosexuals.
But Limon v. Kansas is important for many more reasons than these. Although it embodies one of the most important issues in the contemporary fight for gay rights ó simple equality under the law ó it touches on a host of other, more moral issues as well: the right of gay youth to have consensual sexual relationships, the right of the mentally challenged to be treated with respect to their capabilities, and the rights of gay people to be understood and accepted as sexual beings.
In this, itís important to note that the case of Matthew Limon stands in confusing juxtaposition with the case of that other noted Matthew: Matthew Shepard. In 1998, Matthew Shepard became a worldwide symbol of the horror of anti-gay violence. Unlike Matthew Limon, whose picture is almost never printed with news reports of his plight, Shepard ó middle-class, college-educated, highly intelligent, and creative ó was a perfect poster child for the cause publicized by his terrible death. Shepard was presented to the American public as an unadulterated victim. At the time of his death and even during the trial of his murderers, it was seen as inappropriate for the media to discuss his HIV status, his possible sexual intentions in chatting up his eventual killers in the bar that night, or even his probably run-of-the-mill sexual history. Of course, there was good reason for this: to avoid playing into the basest homophobic (and sexist) stereotype that he "was asking for it." But the reality was that the image of Shepard as "innocent victim" presented the public with a less-than-full portrait of his unique, complex life as a young gay man.
However Matthew Shepard was perceived, thereís no getting around the fact that Matthew Limon makes people much more uncomfortable. Think about it: Limon was an 18-year-old having sex with a 14-year-old. Even under Kansasís Romeo and Juliet law, that is illegal. Many Americans have problems with queers who are "consenting adults," never mind "consenting teens." If this werenít enough, there is Matthew Limonís mental functioning to consider. For many, the idea of the mentally retarded having sex, or even having the capacity to make sexual decisions, is upsetting. (In this regard, Limon is lucky that he was prosecuted in 2001 and not 1964. Under auspices of a 1913 law that wasnít repealed until 1965, officials of the state of the Kansas sterilized over 3000 women and men who had been classified as "insane" or "retarded." At least 25 percent of them, presumably all men, had been sterilized through castration.)
Fundamentally, the Limon case is about the right to have sex. Historically, the American legal system has been able to address issues of sexual freedom by ruling on subjects that are intimately connected to sex. The breakthrough decision about birth control was Griswold v. Connecticut, which gave married couples the right to purchase contraceptives (that they would use while having sex). The breakthrough decision on interracial marriages was the appropriately named Loving v. Virginia, which gave interracial couples the right to marry (and then have sex). The breakthrough decision on abortion was Roe v. Wade, which gave women the right to choose whether or not to carry an unexpected pregnancy to term (after having had sex). The issue in Limon is: should gay teens ó as young as 14 ó be able to have sex under the same legal conditions as heterosexual teens?
It is easy to make law, and generate public sympathy, for cases that feature poster boys and easy, unmessy situations. Even the facts of Lawrence and Garner v. Texas play better in the American media because both defendants are adults. But as much as Limonís case is a harder sell, it also has the potential for a much larger victory because it takes up a complicated situation that raises complicated issues. And when you get right down to it, thatís what life is all about. Because most of us, anyway, lead complicated lives.
Michael Bronski is most recently the author of Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulps (St. Martinís Press, 2003). He can be reached at email@example.com