2024 Carol Horton Tullis Memorial Prize, Texas State Historical Association
The grassroots queer activism and legal challenges that led to a landmark Supreme Court decision in favor of gay and lesbian equality.
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 at the University of North Texas and the author of A People's War on Poverty: Urban Politics and Grassroots Activists in Houston.
Wesley Phelps tells the compelling story of how Texas’s sodomy law—which rendered all homosexuals presumptive criminals—served as the cornerstone for discrimination in employment and housing, as well as the cause of harassment from police, gangs of teenage boys, and generic bullies. Yet, as Phelps shows in this well-researched book, it was in response to the sodomy law that gay and lesbian Texans waged a heroic struggle for equal rights. At a time when those hard-won rights are threatened, Before Lawrence v. Texas serves as a reminder of how crucial grassroots organizing, lobbying, and litigation are in the fight for LGBTQ equality.
~Lillian Faderman, California State University, Fresno, author of The Gay Revolution: The Story of the Struggle
Wesley Phelps has written a fascinating and much-needed history of the political and legal developments that confronted the gay and lesbian community in Texas from the 1960s to the 1990s. It's a story of repression and resistance told in a compelling and accessible way. Through interviews and archival spadework, the author has brought to life the mostly forgotten people and organizations that helped lay the foundations for the successful challenge to the state sodomy law in Lawrence v. Texas.
~Dale Carpenter, Southern Methodist University, author of Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas
In Before Lawrence v. Texas, Wesley Phelps offers a new origin story for the landmark 2003 Supreme Court decision that overturned all remaining sodomy laws in the US. Phelps’s work highlights the connections between local advocacy and judicial outcomes. Centering an often-overlooked set of activists and legal struggles in the Lone Star State, Phelps provides an important contribution to our understanding of the long and continuing struggle for LGBTQ rights and offers a hopeful reminder of the importance of grassroots activism in creating change.
~David K. Johnson, University of South Florida, author of The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government
[An] insightful account...Scholarly yet accessible, this valuable history reveals that Lawrence v. Texas was less of a 'sudden explosion' than 'a raging fire fueled by the burning embers of several decades of citizen activism.'
An urgent exploration of equality at a moment rife with fresh threats against queer communities.
~Kirkus, starred review
Phelps...links the legal saga to the human struggle that inspired it and in the process sketches out a path for civil rights battles to come.
This is an excellent contribution to the historiography and should be read by those interested in modern LGBTQ+ and legal history.
~Pacific Historical Review
Introduction. Before Lawrence v. Texas
Chapter 1. Buchanan v. Batchelor and the Evolution of the Texas Sodomy Statute, 1965–1974
Chapter 2. The Texas Homosexual Conduct Law in Action, 1974–1982
Chapter 3. Resisting the Effects of the Texas Homosexual Conduct Law, 1974–1982
Chapter 4. Baker v. Wade, 1975–1986
Chapter 5. Morales v. Texas and England v. City of Dallas, 1986–1994
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