Your answer is probably no, and that is not at all surprising. Too many LGBTQ revolutionaries and community leaders remain unknown. For every Harvey Milk, there are hundreds of hardworking activists that have fought for equality without ever being named in a newspaper. And for a man whose name is misspelled in his own obituary, Tyrone Garner was a civil rights hero that was too easily forgotten.
Tyrone Garner was born in 1967 in Houston, Texas. Born into poverty and the youngest of ten children, Garner grew up working odd jobs and staying in motels… occasionally he would crash with friends or family for a week or two. In the 90s, Garner started dating a good ol’ boy named Robert Eubanks, an older, working-class white man. Garner and Eubanks, always looking for an odd job to earn some cash, took the bus twenty miles to John Lawrence’ house in a Texas suburb. Lawrence occasionally hired the men to “run errands” for him and do work around the house.
In the fall of 1998, Eubanks and Garner were helping John Lawrence at his house. At one point, Eubanks became jealous of the attention Lawrence was allegedly giving Garner, and Eubanks called the police. He called the police because he was jealous! Who does that?! Reports are unclear about what Eubanks actually reported… he told police something about a crazy, armed black man wielding a gun… or maybe robbing someone? In the house? Don’t worry, local Texas police showed up at the house after this ambiguous call. Eubanks let the police in, where they entered Lawrence’s bedroom and apparently witnessed Garner and Lawrence engaging in CRAZY GAY SEX (which Lawrence and Garner both denied). What a surprise that the homophobic and racist police officers arrested the two men. But wait, isn’t this the 90s? How can you arrest people for being gay? BECAUSE IT WAS THE MOTHERFUCKING LAW. Same sex sodomy was illegal in Texas, and the two were jailed overnight. Through the gay grapevine in Texas (yes, the gay grapevine exists even in Texas), LAMBDA Legal was called to represent both men, and the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
In 2003, the Court ruled under Lawrence v. Texas that sodomy bans were illegal, and validated the rights of same-sex couples to have private consensual sex in their own homes. YAY!!! GAY RIGHTS!!! Lawrence and Garner can finally be together!!!! Oh… wait. They weren’t dating. Both men vehemently denied EVER having sex!!!! How funny that the Supreme Court ruled on one of the most important civil rights cases in our history… all based on a projection of an archetype of what a gay relationship looks like.
The ruling in Lawrence is held not only as a precursor to Windsor v. U.S. (which struck down part of the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013), but also as a watershed in the fight for equality rights throughout the country. Before Lawrence, sodomy statutes had been upheld by the Supreme Court and in courts throughout the country, and gay men were continually being treated as second class citizens. We would NOT have gay marriage without the Lawrence holding today, and the fight for equality would certainly look very different.
Wow. Look at how amazing Lawrence and Garner are. Look at all they did for the LGBTQ community. So… what happened to Tyrone Garner? Nothing. After a failed attempt to be a spokesperson for the movement, Garner was shipped back to Texas because his speaking voice wasn’t up to par and he had a tendency to drink too much at fancy D.C. dinners (well… let’s face it… those dinners are AWFUL and I would get tipsy too). He died impoverished of an unknown illness in 2006, just shy of 40 years old. Garner’s body sat in a morgue while his family called LAMBDA, asking them to help raise money so that the family could afford cremation. They only needed a couple hundred dollars for the process, and then a few more hundred to purchase an urn for the civil rights hero’s remains. In over a month, LAMBDA only raised $225 dollars. Garner’s remains were shipped back to his family in a plastic bag. There was no funeral, no memorial service… nothing.
In 2012, Kevin Cathcart, the Executive Director of LAMBDA Legal, made $284,028 for his annual salary. Damn, Kevin. Annual donations for LAMBDA Legal in 2012 toppled over 16 million dollars. And the fact that Cathcart’s monthly latte stipend was more than the amount of funds they could raise in a fucking month for Garner should make you sick. It made me sick. Oh, the best part? THIS IS THE BEST PART!! If you go to LAMBDA’s website and click on the section entitled “History”, the first thing that pops up is a picture of Garner, on the steps of the Supreme Court, the day the case was decided. And LAMBDA’s slogan? “Making the Case for Equality.” Cool.
When I first read about the treatment of Garner’s remains after his death, I just sat in my office and cried. When my then girlfriend came upstairs to check on me, I could not stop crying. I blurted out the whole story and as we sat there, and she listened to me cry about a man I never even knew, we both realized how many of these stories existed and how few people knew about them.
This story should make you mad. I was livid about the treatment of a man that we as a community used and left with nothing. And you know what? There are many stories like Tyrone Garner out there. Bias and judgment doesn’t just come from one political party, or one ideological side… we can be discriminatory within our own community as well. So for this month, make a commitment to learn about more people, about one more story about a leader from the past, about one more moment that helped define our history, so that in the future, we can pay our respects to those who have paved the way for equality and acknowledge and support the work that activists are doing TODAY to protect our communities from bigotry and injustice.
Most of the information about Garner used in this article can be found in Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas by Dale Carpenter. A comprehensive review of this book can be found in Michigan Law Review and is entitled Tyrone Garner’s Lawrence v. Texas by Marc Spindelman. Also, Garner’s New York Times Obituary can be read here. Apologies to Kevin Cathcart from LAMBDA Legal for calling him out on his latte budget… word on the street is that he is more of a frappuccino kind of guy. Sorry, Kevin.