Mike Bowers is not one for introspection. Try to get the 73-year-old West Point-educated, U.S. Air Force veteran to open up about how exactly he went from being the most vilified person in the state’s LGBT history to a partner in the community’s fight against discrimination and you’ll be met with a thick Southern drawl.
“Now I didn’t agree to reveal my sooouuul in this process,” he says.
What he did agree to was to write a legal analysis of SB 129 and HB 218, the so-called “religious freedom” bills that many believe will lead to anti-LGBT discrimination. And Bowers is one of those believers.
That Mike Bowers. The former Attorney General of Georgia who defended the state’s sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick in the 1980s—and won. The one who withdrew a job offer to Robin Shahar in 1990 when he found out she was a lesbian, got sued for doing so—and won.
Which raises the question: is he still that Mike Bowers? And does he even know?
Michael Hardwick and the birth of an activist
One day in 1982, Michael Hardwick was engaging in consensual sex with another man in his bedroom when Atlanta police walked in and arrested him. They were there to serve a warrant to Hardwick for public drinking and were let in by his roommate.
The charges were later dropped, but Hardwick sued Bowers in federal court to establish that the state’s sodomy laws were unconstitutional. Bowers refused and the case made its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1986. Justice Byron White wrote in his majority opinion that the Constitution did not confer “a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy,” and Georgia’s sodomy law was upheld. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court ruling. It sided with Mike Bowers.
Jeff Graham was a 21-year-old doing summer stock theater in the fields of Illinois when he heard about the verdict.
“I remember reading that Supreme Court decision and feeling as though there were people who doubted my rights to even claim to be a full citizen of the United States,” Graham says. “It was a very pivotal moment in my life because I didn’t feel anyone had the right to take away my value as an American.”
The ruling was a springboard for Graham to dedicate his adult life to LGBT rights activism. Nearly three decades later, the executive director of Georgia Equality would hear that infamous name come up again in an entirely unexpected way.
It was mid-February of this year and Graham heard whispers down at the Capitol—”did you know Mike Bowers thinks the ‘religious freedom’ legislation is a bad idea?”
He reached out to Bowers, set up a meeting, and Bowers confirmed it—he was against the bills. One or two meetings to iron out the details later, and Georgia Equality had a new ally.
“The 21-year-old inside of me still cannot actually believe that I am actually working with Mike Bowers because we have common interests,” Graham says.
But after the initial surprise wore off, it started to make sense. Bowers could provide a different perspective from others because of his deep knowledge of how the law is applied and interpreted in Georgia.
“One specific example, where he talks about the anti-mask law and the impact on the Klan,” Graham says. “That is not something that I would have ever thought to bring up myself. That is something that’s uniquely Mike Bowers and it shows his true understanding of the nuances of Georgia law.”
Plus, it’s one thing for an LGBT rights organization to confront the bills and for people to dismiss it as pushing the “gay agenda.” It’s quite another to try to paint Bowers with that brush.
“Certainly no one could claim that Mike Bowers is an LGBT rights activist,” Graham says.
‘It’s quite sad he didn’t live to see the vindication’
Michael Hardwick didn’t live to see the U.S. Supreme Court overturn sodomy laws across the country in 2003 in the Lawrence v. Texas case. He died in Gainesville, Florida, on June 13, 1991, from complications from AIDS. His obituary carried no mention of his sexual orientation or his role in the famous case that bears his name.
“He was great fun,” remembers Kathleen Wilde. “He was just trying to live his life.”
Wilde represented Hardwick against Bowers from the day the criminal charges were dropped until Bowers appealed the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, when Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe took over.
Wilde, now litigation director for Disability Rights Oregon, says Hardwick was game for the lawsuit from the beginning.
“He basically said, ‘This is about privacy, they don’t belong in my bedroom, and I’m willing to stand up,'” she says.
Wilde recalls that Hardwick was badly beaten by people he believed were the Atlanta police.
“They tore the cartilage out of his nose and he had fairly extensive facial damage,” she says. “His mother said, ‘Get the hell out of Atlanta,’ and he finally did.”
But he didn’t disappear. He became a crusader against the state’s sodomy laws, doing a speaking tour at various law schools and making a notable appearance on “The Phil Donahue Show.” After the high court sided against him, he and Wilde (who were born just days apart) kept in touch.
“We talked about doing hikes together, but we never wound up getting to do that,” she says. “In the final days he got very discouraged and felt like his life had been wasted. We’d lost the case and what was there to show for the energy and time? So it’s quite sad he didn’t live to see the vindication in the Lawrence case.”
But what if Hardwick had lived to see the man he’s linked with forever in legal history advocate for his rights?
“I think he might be somewhat wary of his motives, but obviously it’s a good thing and Bowers does have some political clout still in Georgia,” she says, but she says Hardwick had no strong opinions about Bowers the man one way or the other.
“It wasn’t personal. It was just another case of the state being repressive.”
Robin Shahar and the job that never was
Someone who is still around to witness the surprising re-emergence of a former adversary is Robin Shahar, who currently serves as LGBT adviser to Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed.
Shahar accepted a job offer from Bowers in November, 1990, and was ready to start work the following fall, but Bowers rescinded the offer when he found out she planned to marry her same-sex partner. The then-attorney general claimed Shahar’s sexual orientation would prevent her from enforcing the state’s sodomy law. Shahar sued Bowers, but lost.
Shahar says that while she’s still processing her feelings about the news from a personal standpoint, as an LGBT rights advocate she views Bowers’ move to publicly denounce the so-called “religious freedom” bills as a “courageous act.”
She says Georgia Equality contacted her in advance of the announcement to give her a heads-up about their plans to hire Bowers.
“I respond from two different perspectives. From my perspective as an LGBT rights advocate and a human rights advocate in general, I thought the information was exciting. It’s amazing when people who have been across from each other in the courtroom, Mr. Bowers and gay rights advocates, years down the road are able to stand side by side. That felt powerful and exciting to me,” she says.
“From a personal perspective, my lawsuit with Mr. Bowers was an emotional experience and the outcome was devastating. So from a personal perspective I need to spend time processing those difficult feelings.”
Shahar has not seen Bowers nor had any interaction with him since the hearings on her case in the 1990s, and she declined to comment on what she would say to him if she ran into him again today.
Awarding an old enemy
It was 2006 when longtime Atlanta LGBT activists Don George and Floyd Taylor heard the news—the Atlanta Bar Association was presenting an award to Bowers at an upcoming banquet. They were not happy.
“It didn’t really sit well with us because the damage he had done in the case Bowers v Hardwick was irreparable,” says George, the one-time president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Georgia. “We thought that there were two sides to Michael Bowers and we wanted to present the other side.”
That “other side” was the highly publicized decade-long extramarital affair Bowers admitted to during his campaign for the 1998 Republican gubernatorial nomination. It rocked Georgia political circles at the time—this was the staunch defender of the state’s so-called “morality laws?” Bowers went on to lose the nomination to Guy Millner, and he retreated from the spotlight to enter private practice.
But George and Taylor couldn’t stand to see Bowers honored for his work, so they came up with the idea of giving him an award of their own. Taylor figured out the wording, George picked up the plaques, and they forked over the $100 each for tickets to the event and sat in waiting as Bowers went up to receive his award.
“We each had a plaque because we wanted to double team him and make sure that he couldn’t escape,” George says. “After he received his award and it was time for him to leave, Floyd and I descended on him.”
Taylor got to Bowers first and presented him with his second award of the evening—the “Gross Hypocrisy Award.”
“Floyd presented it in a very matter of fact, nuanced tone of voice and Bowers was shocked and the people around him were shocked,” George says. “But to his credit, he stood there and listened to Floyd’s little speech about why he was getting it and the harm he had done.”
Surprisingly, the pair was not thrown out. Flash-forward to a couple of weeks ago as George, now a retired physician, was reorganizing the photos stored on his computer. He came across the pictures from that day in 2006 of Taylor presenting the award to Bowers. It brought back some smiles, and he thought about them again the following Monday, when news broke about Bowers being hired by Georgia Equality. George calls it a “masterstroke” by the LGBT rights group, and says Bowers’ legal analysis was “brilliant.”
“I appreciate what he did. I have forgiven him, but I can’t forget what he did in the past,” George says. “I think people take various times to evolve or learn or become educated. God knows I was not on the correct side of history on many of the big social issues when they first got presented to me.”
Taylor, however, appears still to be stung by old wounds, alluding to Bowers’ comment at the Feb. 24 press conference, when he said, “If this bill passes, I hope somebody hires me to challenge it.”
“I think he’s secretly talking with his good old boy network and playing both sides of the fence,” he says. “That said, I’m still very proud of Jeff Graham and the Georgia Equality team for bringing him on board for this issue.”
‘Other folks are going to have to judge me when the judging time comes’
When Bowers hit the lectern at the press conference at his downtown law firm, Balch & Bingham, to introduce his analysis of the bills, he was fired up.
“Above all, this bill in my judgment is nothing but an excuse to discriminate,” he said. “And I would ask you this: why is the bill needed if not for the purpose of discriminating? To tell a gay couple you can’t have a marriage license, or to tell someone, an interfaith couple you can’t have this apartment. Why else do you need it?”
The re-emergence into the spotlight appeared to give Bowers a noticeable boost, as he reeled off one-liners throughout the press conference, then went around shaking hands with reporters from the old days and their younger colleagues.
He shrugs off criticism he’s since received, saying that while he doesn’t enjoy it, he knew it would happen. Those critics include a group of Republican state representatives who say the legal opinion of the former top attorney in the state is not credible.
“I think everybody’s entitled to their view,” Bowers says. “I think they’re dead wrong. But they’re entitled to their view.”
He says that despite what supporters of the bill might think or portray, he is still a Republican. He doesn’t remember exactly how he voted in the 2004 ballot initiative to amend the Georgia Constitution to state that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but he suspects he voted for it.
He’s quick to add, however, “Regardless of what my personal beliefs are, I don’t want to see anybody discriminated against. And I especially don’t want to see the law violated or the law contorted and that’s why I undertook this assignment.”
He steers things back to the law when asked his personal view on whether same-sex couples should have the right to marry.
“I have changed about that over the years and if that’s what the law is going to be, yes they should,” he says. “If that’s the way the law goes, yes. And if that is what the law is going to be, then their right ought to be protected—absolutely, positively, no question about it.”
However, when asked whether there should be legal protections to keep employees from being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity—in other words, protections from the same thing that he did to Shahar in 1991—he pauses briefly but doesn’t hedge in his response.
“Yes. Listen, I’ve worked with a bunch of people for many years that are gay. I couldn’t care less,” he says. “I’m not telling you that to judge me in a particular way. Other folks are going to have to judge me when the judging time comes.”
Bowers isn’t much for what-ifs or do-overs when it comes to whether he would still make the same decisions today that he did in the Hardwick and Shahar cases, saying, “At the time I thought I was doing right, and as I look back I still think I did what I had to do given the law.”
But then he rounds the corner and pulls up just short of an apology for his actions, saying, “I wished, especially with the Shahar case, that it had never happened. I really do. Because it caused a lot of grief for Ms. Shahar, it caused a lot of grief for me. It caused a lot of grief for the state law department. I wished it had never happened. Can I undo it? No. I think I was right on the law, but I wished it had never, ever happened.”
Bowers’ comments and actions in recent days are bound to alter his legacy, but broach the “L” word with him and he’ll throw it back at you rapid fire, unleashing an extended rant that finally approaches as near to a moment of introspection as you’ll get from this Georgia son born in a farmhouse with no utilities.
“I’m not worried about a legacy, good grief! I’m just getting older. I’m 73 years old. I worry about the next client that’s coming in the door. The last thing on Earth I’m worried about is a legacy. I’m worried about what my wife’s fixing for supper tonight. Good grief. Legacy my ass! That’s wacko,” he says.
“I’m just an ordinary everyday lawyer. I’m proud just to get to be a lawyer. My father was a truck driver. When people start talking about legacies, they’re way overblowing their importance, and the cemeteries are full of important people. I’m just proud to get to be a lawyer and to get to work on interesting things like this, and for anyone to even listen to me.”