Homophobic “Romeo and Juliet” Laws Fail to Decriminalize Queer Youth in Texas. Can It Be Fixed?
Consensual gay sex was a felony in every state until Illinois repealed its sodomy law in 1961. Connecticut, Ohio, California, and other states soon followed. By 2002, thirty-six states either selectively enforced or had overturned their statutes. Lawrence v Texas (2003) marked the federal end of sodomy laws. Even though sodomy statutes are unconstitutional, a handful of states still think sex between same-sex partners is illegal. State Representative Mary Gonzalez of Texas is valiantly attempting to equalize the unfair treatment and criminalization of queer adolescents.
Matthew Limon had just turned eighteen when he performed consensual oral sex on a nearly fifteen-year-old boy. Both boys were residents at a home for developmentally disabled adolescents. At that time, Kansas law recommended a sentence of fifteen months, as the boys were close in age. However, there was a caveat: to benefit from this “Romeo and Juliet” law, the “offender” and “victim” could not be the same sex. Consequently, Limon was sentenced to seventeen years in prison for statutory rape. He served five and a half years, or more than four times as long a sentence than if it had been heterosexual contact, before the Supreme Court vacated his conviction. Limon’s case was a milestone in obtaining equal protection for LGBT youth under the law.
Matthew Limon’s legal battle highlights how far states will go to prevent adolescents from engaging in sexual contact through age of consent laws. This is not surprising as over half of adults disapprove of teenage sexual activity. Despite the backlash from public opinion and the legal consequences, a majority of teens continue to engage in sexual activity. Most states recognize that consensual sexual acts between teens will happen, but their protections are selective. Romeo and Juliet laws don’t require a higher age of consent for LGBT youth, but in at least one state queer youth are specifically excluded from protection. There should not be legal disparities for LGBT youth but, unfortunately, incongruities still exist in Texas.
Texas makes it illegal for someone to have sexual contact with any person younger than 17, even if both parties are teens themselves. These laws are a cruel irony as statutory rape laws were crafted to protect children. Puberty happens earlier than age seventeen and not all adolescents are asexual. Sexual intercourse is bound to happen. In fact, the CDC reports that roughly fifty percent of Texan adolescents engage in sexual activity. Fortunately, there is a bit of legal leeway if the parties have a three-year age gap, but if it is two Romeos or two Juliets, the leeway grows taut.
Texas Penal Code specifically mandates adolescents to be “of the opposite sex” for the Romeo and Juliet protection to be enacted. This means LGBT youth can face jail time, a felony offense, and sex offender registration for the same sexual act that their straight peer would be protected against. Sex offender registration creates numerous collateral consequences ranging from trouble obtaining employment to difficulty in securing housing. In other words, Romeo and Juliet protections unfairly saddle LGBT youth with life-long repercussions before they have the maturity to understand the consequences of their actions.
LGBT youth face the same growing pains as their straight counterparts, but also have unique experiences. Queer youth face a stigmatized coming out process that leads to bullying, rejection, isolation, and other negative consequences. Accepting and loving themselves as they are is a daily struggle. Romeo and Juliet laws like those in Texas reinforce the dangerous notion that who they are is unacceptable.
State Representative Mary Gonzalez believes Texas should be more tolerant. She is championing House Bill 71 to change this blatant homophobia and extend legal protections to all youth, regardless of sexual orientation. Specifically, her bill is seeking to remove the stipulation that the sexual contact be exclusively heterosexual. Gonzalez is working in tandem with Senator John Whitmire and Equality Texas to afford “a sense of fairness” to those in same-sex relationships. While her bill failed to pass during this legislative session, don’t expect State Rep Gonzalez to give up so easily. She has been behind this bill in some form or other for a few years now.
The legislative push exemplified by politicos like Gonzalez and Whitmire is a good sign: the LGBT presence is becoming normalized. Queers are no longer to be disparaged, but to be treated as equals. It is about time we, as a community, start realizing that even though we have made progress toward equality, the road ahead is still fraught with challenge. We may be reducing the stigmatization, but there are still laws in place that validate discrimination.