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In 2003 the US Supreme Court overturned anti-sodomy laws across the country, ruling in Lawrence v. Texas that the Constitution protects private consensual sex between adults. To some, the decision seemed to come like lightning from above, altering the landscape of America’s sexual politics all at once. In actuality, many years of work and organizing led up to the legal case, and the landmark ruling might never have happened were it not for the passionate struggle of Texans who rejected their state’s discriminatory laws.
Before Lawrence v. Texas tells the story of the long, troubled, and ultimately hopeful road to constitutional change. Wesley G. Phelps describes the achievements, setbacks, and unlikely alliances along the way. Over the course of decades, and at great risk to themselves, gay and lesbian Texans and their supporters launched political campaigns and legal challenges, laying the groundwork for Lawrence. Phelps shares the personal experiences of the people and couples who contributed to the legal strategy that ultimately overturned the state’s discriminatory law. Even when their individual court cases were unsuccessful, justice seekers and activists collectively influenced public opinion by insisting that their voices be heard. Nine Supreme Court justices ruled, but it was grassroots politics that vindicated the ideal of equality under the law.
Wesley G. Phelps is an associate professor of history and director of undergraduate studies at the University of North Texas in Denton, where he teaches courses on recent United States history and queer history. He received his Ph.D. in history from Rice University in 2010 and taught for eight years at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville before joining the history department at UNT in 2019. His research focuses on how democracy operates at the grassroots level and how marginalized groups of people have struggled to participate in the democratic experiment. His book, A People’s War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston, was published by the University of Georgia Press in 2014. Phelps’ new book, titled Before Lawrence v. Texas: The Making of a Queer Social Movement, will be published by the University of Texas Press in February 2023. He is also currently producing a 10-episode podcast series titled “Queering the Lone Star State,” which will chronicle landmark legal cases in the struggle for queer equality in Texas. The series is scheduled to be released during Pride Month in June 2023.
In 2003 the US Supreme Court overturned anti-sodomy laws across the country, ruling in Lawrence v. Texas that the Constitution protects private consensual sex between adults. To some, the decision seemed to come like lightning from above, altering the landscape of America’s sexual politics all at once.