Ryan Lee: The evolving redemption of gay Atlanta’s hero and villain

Happy belated birthday, Michael Hardwick.

You would’ve turned 61 on February 23, two days after your historic rival took the first step toward atoning for the wrong inflicted upon you 30 years ago. I thought of you as news spread of the Underwoodian coup pulled by Georgia Equality: the hiring of Michael Bowers to lobby against the so-called “religious freedom” bill that’s trolling through the Georgia General Assembly.

Yes, THAT Michael Bowers. Your Michael Bowers, the one you are eternally wedded to in the annals of American law. It’s a shame that your name is relegated to the sewer of U.S. Supreme Court decisions, with Bowers v. Hardwick swimming alongside rulings like Plessy v. Ferguson as instances when the lifeguard of civil liberties—the judicial branch—made sure the minority drowned.

But now Bowers is working for an LGBT organization, and offers our best, unexpected, hope for defeating a bill that codifies the same prejudice that was embedded in your court battle. I’ll give you a minute to wrap your head around that before I try to explain Grindr to you, although I think you’d find both equally enchanting developments.

The world has changed a lot since the early 1980s, when Atlanta police officer K.R. Torick entered your home with an invalid warrant, discovered you sixty-nining with an out-of-town fling, and arrested you for engaging in sodomy.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals concurred with your argument that the enforcement of Georgia’s anti-sodomy law violated your rights and dignity. The story could’ve ended there, except Bowers, as the state’s Attorney General, petitioned the nation’s high court to uphold a law that allowed gay Georgians to be plucked from their homes and thrown in jail.

“We agree with [Bowers],” Justice Byron White wrote for the majority. “[Hardwick] would have us announce … a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy. This we are quite unwilling to do.

“Proscriptions against that conduct have ancient roots,” the spiteful opinion continued. “To claim that a right to engage in such conduct is ‘deeply rooted in this Nation’s history and tradition’ or ‘implicit in the concept of ordered liberty’ is, at best, facetious.”

How many LGBT Americans were discharged from the military, or fired from their jobs (as lesbian attorney Robin Shahar was terminated by Bowers) because sodomy was considered a crime until the Supreme Court reversed itself 17 years later in Lawrence v. Texas?

“Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority in Lawrence. “[Homosexuals] are entitled to respect for their private lives. The State cannot demean their existence or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime.”

The world has changed a lot since you died in the early 1990s, Michael. Gay people are now more likely to be planning a wedding than a funeral, and police can no longer arrest us for giving blow jobs in our own homes.

However, there may soon be nothing to prevent a Chick-fil-A-inspired realty company from claiming its “deeply held religious beliefs” prohibit it from renting to Sodomites, or a Christian EMT from refusing care to someone her Bible, or her boss, deems “vile” or “unclean.” And Michael Bowers is fighting to prevent the sanctioning of this spiritually coated discrimination against LGBT Georgians.

It’s not yet clear whether Bowers is fully repentant for the bigotry he once championed, or if he is simply seizing an opportunity to scrub the tarnish off his legacy. Regardless, his conversion is an encouraging sign for us all, and I hope it brings you closer to peace.

For now, Bowers’ assistance is more valuable than his contrition, but history demands, and you deserve, the latter.