Stephanie Grace: Fear behind gay issue

So East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff Sid Gautreaux is embarrassed that his office is facing widespread ridicule over its serial arrests of gay men for violating a law that the U.S. Supreme Court long ago declared unconstitutional. Good.

And so Gautreaux has responded by issuing a blanket mea culpa, vowing to learn from his department’s mistakes, meeting with gay rights groups and even promising to lobby the state Legislature to delete the offending statute from the books. Even better.

The very best resolution to this situation, which was first publicized by The Advocate last week, would be to wipe the slate clean for the unfortunate dozen-plus men who were handcuffed, carted off to jail, harassed and humiliated and perhaps involuntarily outed — all with no legal basis, in the view of District Attorney Hillar Moore III.

But since we can’t exactly travel back to that happier time before the sheriff’s crackdown on cruising at Manchac Park, we’ll have to settle for the best realistic outcome: That people in authority will learn a few lessons.

Gautreaux says he’s ready to do just that.

The more important question is whether that also applies to members of the Louisiana Legislature.

They, after all, are the ones who enabled Gautreaux’s deputies by keeping the outdated crimes-against-nature prohibition officially on the books despite the Supreme Court’s landmark 2003 decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which legalized same-sex relations. The people arrested were not accused of lewd conduct in public, simply of responding to propositions by undercover deputies and discussing or agreeing to have consensual sex in private.

Although it makes logical sense to clean up the criminal code, the Legislature has avoided the matter for entirely obvious reasons: the possibility of political peril in a state where self-proclaimed family-values types hold plenty of sway.

Some lawmakers admitted as much this week, including several who said their colleagues feared being targeted by powerful social conservative lobbyists such as the Louisiana Family Forum and being portrayed by opponents as pro-gay. Many probably figured — and hoped — it would just never come up.

Since it has, though, the controversy has added one more example to a growing list of ways that the Legislature has signaled a stubborn backwardness on issues affecting the gay community.

Lawmakers have consistently rejected anti-bullying legislation that specifically addresses sexual orientation or perceived sexual orientation, and a few lawmakers have been known to mock such efforts.

Last year, a Senate committee approved an effort to ban public entities from including broad anti-discriminatory language in public contracts. The star witness in state Sen. A.G. Crowe’s hearing was Leslie Ellison, then the board chair of a New Orleans charter school, who said she’d refused to sign a document agreeing not to discriminate against gay students because it violated her religious beliefs.

Just one incredulous senator on the committee, Ed Murray, spoke against the measure; it passed 5-1 but died in the full Senate, probably under the weight of all the bad publicity. (Ellison has since joined the Orleans Parish School Board and is trying to remove mention of the sexual orientation from the board’s anti-bullying policy.)

Then there was the bill to prevent unmarried (in Louisiana’s eyes, anyway) adoptive couples of children born in the state from obtaining birth certificates naming both parents, which could affect the omitted parent’s ability to enroll children in school or sign them up for health insurance.

And don’t forget the state’s constitutional amendment that prohibits the recognition of same-sex marriages performed in the growing number of states where the such unions are now legal — which, like other bans nationwide, will surely be tested against the Supreme Court’s big decision invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act.

If some of the scuttlebutt from lawmakers about the recent crimes-against-nature arrests is to be believed, at least some of them — probably more than you’d think — would just as soon get the bad law off the books and change the subject.

Maybe a newly sensitized Gautreaux can rally his fellow sheriffs, and perhaps the district attorneys, to give all those nervous politicians some cover. They could even cast the position as a conservative one and argue that big government has no place in anyone’s bedroom.

Still, the sad truth is that fear remains a powerful emotion.

The even sadder truth is that nobody knows that better than the innocent victims of Gautreaux’s tragically misguided stings.

Stephanie Grace can be contacted at sgrace@theadvocate.com.