Monday, April 25, 2005

Unequal Protection Under Law

It isn’t an everyday occurrence for me to agree with one of Salon’s writers. In fact, Salon usually makes me roll my eyes in exhasperation, wishing that their writers weren’t wobbling quite so far to the left. Today’s story about the unfair treatment of Matthew Limon was compelling, though. While I think that the author, Ayelet Waldman overstates her case (particularly in relation to making the enforcement of laws like the statutory rape law a classist exercise--absent proof, I’m not sure that her assertion is supportable), the fact is that if there exists a discrepancy between the way a state handles statutory rape in the case of homosexual acts and heterosexual acts, then that state is not offering equal protection under the law.

Matthew Limon gave his boyfriend a blow job and got himself a 17-year prison sentence. The boys were residents at the Lakemary Center, a school for developmentally delayed youngsters in Paola, Kan. It’s generous, perhaps, to call them boyfriends. What they did was more akin to sexual experimentation, two boys in a dormitory at night, messing around. Matthew had just turned 18 the week before, and his partner was just shy of his 15th birthday. The younger boy, identified only as M.A.R., consented to the sex, but changed his mind. As soon as he asked Matthew to stop, Matthew did, and M.A.R. has always been steadfast in his statement that what happened was consensual.
If Matthew had had consensual sex with a girl, and the state had prosecuted him at all, the longest sentence they could have given him was 15 months. Instead, because Matthew had sex with another boy, and only because he had sex with another boy, he has spent the past five years in Ellsworth Correctional Facility in central Kansas.

There is, on the face of it, a ridiculousness in a sentence of 17 years for this offense--there is a distinct difference between a man my age (34) having sex with a 15 year old and what happened between these two young men. While a sexual predator and pedophile may well have deserved a lengthy stay in prison, the context of the exchange would have suggested a much lighter sentence.

Worse, though, is the idea that because of the same sex gender of the participants (whether the younger was a victim in anything other than a legal sense is questionable to me), the punishment was so severe and so remarkably different.

When the Texas sodomy law was struck down, I wasn’t particularly happy with the Supreme Court’s reasoning (although I was quite happy with the decision). Basing the ruling on a right to privacy was nebulous and confusing--what, precise, right to privacy? Does a drug dealer have the right to privacy simply because he conducts business in his bedroom? The right to privacy stops where an illegal act begins. No, I was opposed to the Texas sodomy law for three reasons: first, that anti-sodomy laws are ridiculously difficult to enforce, second, that the laws are far beyond the scope of what the government should be governing, and, third, that the law prohibited same sex acts specifically while leaving sodomy as a valid sexual expression for the rest of us straight folks.

That is, it was an anti-gay law offering a different set of bedroom rules for straight adults and making any homosexual acts illegal ("sodomy" refers not only to anal sex, but oral sex as well).

The Kansas laws that don’t offer the same protection to young, gay people that they do to young, straight people create a situation where not only does the punishment not match the supposed crime, but is unjust in application. I’m not well educated enough in the right areas to offer up an opinion of the constitutionality of the laws in question, but I feel competent to make a judgment about their fairness.

That Limon was sent to jail for 17 years is utterly unjustifiable. That the laws were set up to punish him so unfairly is quite simply discriminatory.

Read the story. (You must view an ad or purchase a membership to see the full article.)

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