01/06/2012 07:12 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

When Ordinary People Say 'No' to Injustice

When ordinary people say "no" to injustice, the world changes. It does not change without effort; meaningful change requires collective action, vision, and organization. Change under the law requires strategy and great attorneys. But without the courage of ordinary people who refuse to accept inequality, change is not possible.

Three ordinary people who stood up against injustice and became heroes died in the past two months. Lambda Legal was proud to represent each of them in court, winning victories that improved the lives of many. One, John Lawrence, was well-known because he was the named petitioner in our landmark 2003 Supreme Court case, Lawrence v. Texas, which reshaped the legal landscape for lesbian and gay rights. The other two, Anthony Colin and Rev. Dr. Robert Franke, also had the courage to fight back when they were denied equality, and we are grateful to all of them.

In 1998, John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner were arrested in Lawrence's Houston home and jailed overnight after officers responding to a false report about gunshots said they found the men having sex. The two men were convicted of violating Texas' "Homosexual Conduct" law, which made it a crime for two people of the same sex to have oral or anal sex, even though the same sexual conduct was not illegal between people of different sexes. Lawrence was not an activist, but he knew that the law was wrong, and he was willing to challenge it. "Why should there be a law passed that only prosecutes certain people?" he asked years later in an interview with law professor Dale Carpenter. "Why build a law that only says, 'Because you're a gay man, you can't do this. But because you're a heterosexual, you can do the same thing'?"

Lambda Legal represented John Lawrence and Tyron Garner (who passed away in 2006). Battling for years in the Texas courts, we sought to overturn their criminal convictions and have Texas' law declared unconstitutional. When the highest court in Texas refused to hear our arguments, we convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. In a stunning victory, the highest court in the land found the "Homosexual Conduct" law unconstitutional and established, for the first time, that all Americans have a fundamental liberty right to private sexual intimacy with another adult, including lesbians and gay men. In the powerful Supreme Court decision Justice Kennedy wrote, "The petitioners 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."

John Lawrence and Tyron Garner were ordinary gay men who said no to injustice. Their lives changed all of ours. Lawrence died Nov. 20 at the age of 68.

Anthony Colin was a gay teenager in high school in California in 1999. He and some other students wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), but their school would not let them. In fact, the Orange Unified School Board formally voted 7-0 to deny the students their legal rights to meet at the school. Anthony was unwilling to accept unfairness, and with the help of Lambda Legal and People for the American Way, he fought back. A federal court granted a preliminary injunction against the school and ordered the school district to allow the GSA to meet while the lawsuit was pending -- the first time a court ordered a school district to allow a gay-affirming club to meet. In 2000 Anthony and members of the GSA reached a settlement with the school district, obtaining everything they sought in their lawsuit.

Anthony Colin died Nov. 22 at the age of 27. His strength and determination opened the way for thousands of other LGBTQ youth around the country.

The Rev. Dr. Robert Franke was a retired university provost and Unitarian-Universalist minister. When Dr. Franke relocated to Little Rock, Ark. in 2009 to be closer to his daughter, he moved in to Parkstone's Fox Ridge, an assisted living facility, which promptly evicted him because he had HIV. He came to Lambda Legal because he knew that the actions of the facility were wrong. And even though he and his daughter had many personal issues to address in order to secure housing for Dr. Franke, they were determined to change the policy at Fox Ridge and to make sure that others would not face this kind of discrimination. An educator to the end, he wanted his struggle to be a :teachable moment." The case was settled in September 2010.

The importance of Dr. Franke's stand against discrimination has been acknowledged by many: Dr. Franke was recognized for his contributions in the battle against HIV stigma and discrimination at a 2010 White House conference on HIV and aging. He died Dec. 26 at the age of 78.

We make change when ordinary people show extraordinary courage. We honor John Geddes Lawrence, Anthony Colin, and the Rev. Dr. Robert Franke. What happened to each of them made our work at Lambda Legal necessary; what they did in response made it possible.