The early returns on Dale Carpenter’s Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas have persistently been in the mode of high praise. It is easy to see why. This history of Lawrence v. Texas—culturally and legally, one of the most discussed U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the last decade, and for lesbian and gay equality the most significant constitutional breakthrough to date—brings many of the people and events behind the decision, hence the decision itself, to life in a thoroughly engaging and informative way. The book’s deeply human-centered approach, in which Lawrence, as a legal, political, and cultural event, is revealed as the product of a vast and complex set of human actions and interactions over extended time and space, humanizes Lawrence by naming many of the figures who made it possible along the way. In the process, the book also humanizes the legal process itself, showing that it is populated by individuals—not nameless, faceless bureaucrats—who can be recognized, identified with, and, in many cases, thanked. By returning the legal system to the public this way, the book reveals the democratic and egalitarian spirit animating it, a spirit that is felt in its narrative progression—Lawrence v. Texas as progress and justice achieved—as well as in its crystal-clear, at times beautiful, prose.
As it happens, the same democratic and egalitarian spirit that animates the book also animates its unabashedly pro-lesbian-and-gay-equality stance, a stance within which the book achieves what many readers will regard as a notable degree of fairness and balance. Carpenter has his views, of course, and his own pro-gay political blend. But despite his associations with libertarianism and Log Cabin Republicanism, and his conservative advocacy for marriage equality, the book does not read like it is pushing a conservative political brand. Yes, at moments—some subtle, some not—the book evinces sympathies for conservatisms that might track Carpenter’s views. But in one of the book’s many surprises, it offers grist for a more radically progressive outlook and perspective on Lawrence than any true conservative, pro-gay manifesto ordinarily would choose. Through this telling, the book thus surpasses its title’s claim. “The Story of Lawrence v. Texas” actually packs plurals—stories—with facets and dimensions that exceed a single plotline linked to a single-minded political game.