By John Corvino
It started off as a pleasant evening. I was visiting Austin, Texas while working on some writing projects. One night I ran into a friend at a favorite coffee shop, and we walked to the nearby Texas Capitol grounds, where a number of people were biking, jogging, and strolling.
We sat on a bench and I put my arm around my friend. At one point I leaned over and kissed him, then looked up and noticed a state trooper walking by.
The trooper looked rather flustered by our display of affection. I wasn’t surprised. As an Italian-American from New York currently living in Detroit, I am often reminded that Midwesterners and Southerners have rather different ideas about “personal space” and public affection than I do Ñ especially between men. But the trooper said nothing and continued on his way.
About ten minutes later my friend and I noticed three troopers in the distance Ñ including the one who had passed us previously. “You don’t think they’re coming after us?” I joked.
“Of course not,” my friend replied.
We were wrong.
As the troopers approached, the one who had walked by earlier spoke first: “What are you guys doing tonight?”
“Just hanging out,” I responded.
“Just hanging out?” This time it was a second trooper who spoke.
“Just hanging out,” I said.
“Well,” the first trooper said, “homosexual conduct is against the law in Texas…”
“No it is not!” I blurted out.
I couldn’t help myself. I travel the country lecturing on gay-rights issues. I write a bi-weekly column for the gay press. I threw a huge party when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’s law against homosexual sodomy. I was not about to have a state trooper tell me that gay kissing was against the law.
But he insisted, “Oh yes it is.”
I told myself to remain calm. “Actually, Officer, in Lawrence v. Texas the Supreme Court struck down your homosexual conduct law, and besides, we were just kissing, which to my knowledge has never been against the law in Texas…”
“Homosexual conduct is against the law,” he repeated, clearly annoyed by my mini-lecture.
My instincts told me to extract myself from the situation as quickly as possible. Partly I feared that the troopers would make up some charge against us. Partly I was worried about my friend, whose reaction I couldn’t quite read. Mostly I just wanted to be left alone: three large bullies with guns and nightsticks were trying to ruin my evening, and I wasn’t about to let them.
“Look,” the first trooper finally said, “we’re not going to make an issue out of this…”
(“Of course not, asshole, because we’re not breaking the law,” I thought to myself.)
“… but we won’t have you doing this on Capitol grounds.”
So my friend and I left. But not before my friend asked the trooper for his name. Though we tried to joke about the incident (“Guys in uniform are hot, aren’t they?”), we were obviously both shaken. I had been gay-bashed once before, when I was 21, and it occurred to me that these guys might send some non-uniformed buddies after us.
The following week I filed a formal complaint with the Texas Department of Public Safety, which oversees the troopers. It read, in part, “Texas State Troopers are sworn to uphold the law, not to harass innocent citizens by making up laws to support their own prejudices. I am requesting appropriate disciplinary action for these officers and an effort to train all officers to respond professionally in such situations.”
Frankly, I did not know whether the trooper was just unforgivably ignorant of the law, or whether he simply thought he could get away with harassing gay people. My guess is the latter: if he really thought we were breaking the law, why didn’t he say something when he first noticed us?
Perhaps he was afraid we were armed with lip gloss and wanted to get backup.
Many people were incredulous when I shared the story. One thought I was repeating an urban legend. Another asked, “What part of your friend were you kissing, exactly?” I suppose it was hard to believe that a law-enforcement officer would harass people over a simple kiss.
Fortunately, the Texas DPS did believe it. After completing their investigation, they announced that the trooper will receive a written reprimand, will be placed on probation for six months, and will be required to take additional classes on Texas law.
Score one for justice.