- INTERESTING PAST: This rest area at Morgan, now closed, was once frequented by gay men seeking anonymous sexual encounters.
The interstate highway system, the great victory of the automotive lobby, begun in the 1950s, soon symbolized the postwar economic boom, connecting far-flung cities and the citizens therein, and the American love affair with the automobile and leisure in general. The highway rest area offered travelers services to aid them in their journey, including toilets, picnic facilities, tourist information, and other services along the interstate highways. The Morgan Rest Area was opened in October of 1973, at a cost of almost half a million dollars for this very purpose. It sat near mile marker 146 on Interstate 40, meaning it was 146 miles from the Oklahoma border to the west. From that point, it was 138 miles east to Memphis on Interstate 40, which now runs coast to coast. The Morgan Rest Area was at that time one of 36 rest areas in the state.
In 1991, Robert Howard found himself on the road making his regular commute from Little Rock to the smaller bedroom communities surrounding the city. He now ran his own business, Self Image, Inc., a licensed massage and beauty service that offered in-home services to clients, some in Conway about 30 miles northwest of his home in Little Rock. He usually worked late, to accommodate clients after their workday. By the time he left his last client on February 1, 1991, it was almost 11:30 p.m. Howard stopped off to use the public toilets at the Morgan Rest Area, sitting roughly halfway between Conway and Little Rock.
The rest area already had a reputation. The fact that a great many men used the space for anonymous sexual encounters was not lost on Howard, nor was it lost on local law enforcement officers. Howard parked his car and entered the men's toilets. He had noticed a few men loitering around the building and in the nearby woods that surrounded the rest area on one side. He paid little attention although he knew of the men's intentions. Robert Howard is a gay man, but he did differ from the loitering individuals in that his intention was only to use the toilet for its intended purpose. Afterward, as he was walking back to his automobile, an attractive young man in his late twenties stopped him. Intrigued though not necessarily interested, Howard felt sympathy for the young cruiser and obliged him with idle chit-chat. The small talk took the usual route of first conversing about the weather, then rather abruptly, as Howard remembers, the young man propositioned him for oral sex. A bit put off, Howard told the young man that "cruising an interstate rest stop for sex was no way for a gay man to meet people." The man persisted, asking Howard to join him in his car, although Howard kept declining and walked briskly away. At this point, the young man produced a badge from under his shirt, revealing himself to be a Pulaski County sheriff's deputy. Robert Howard was under arrest for loitering for deviant sexual activity, a misdemeanor.
Howard was not the only man arrested during the two-hour sheriff's office sting that night. A total of eight men were arrested on various charges, including two for violation of the Arkansas sodomy statute. For many, especially those arrested on sodomy charges, the raid would seem peculiarly well timed.
On Thursday Jan. 17, 1991, two weeks prior to Howard's arrest, Arkansas State Sen. Vic Snyder introduced a bill into the legislature that quickly sparked opposition from his fellow legislators as well as various religious groups. Snyder, a Democrat representing, among other places, Pulaski County, introduced Senate Bill 125 aimed at removing homosexual activity between consenting adults from the state's sodomy statute.
Snyder's bill would have left intact the bestiality portion of the law. Snyder, a Little Rock physician, noted that the law was contradictory to Arkansas's efforts to contain the AIDS virus. Snyder stated that on the one hand, the state wished to stop the spread of AIDS by encouraging both homosexuals and heterosexuals to undergo blood tests and confide in their doctors, who promised confidentiality. On the other hand, Snyder pointed out, the activity that prompted their testing was deemed illegal by the state. Essentially, sodomy's illegality would drive both it and testing for HIV/AIDS underground, thereby creating a severe public health dilemma that Snyder contended the state was simply unprepared for. To have yourself tested would be tantamount to turning yourself in. An imposed silence on the gay community would equal death for many.
Senate Bill 125 was first discussed by the Senate Judiciary Committee, where emotions ran high. Snyder pleaded with the committee not to "incorporate one moral perspective or one religious view" when considering the bill. After all the testimony was offered, the committee, without further discussion, voted on the bill on Jan. 20, 1991. The next day, the Arkansas Gazette ran a bold three-column headline: "Committee Rejects Sodomy Law Repeal." The committee had given Snyder's bill a rare unanimous do-not-pass motion. Snyder had no illusions concerning the chances of Senate Bill 125. Nevertheless, he felt it necessary to introduce the measure, hoping that subsequent attempts would prove successful. Later, as committee members were approached by Gazette reporters, many stated that they were simply following the wishes of their constituents, though they may have personally agreed with Snyder and his rationale for removing homosexuality from the sodomy law. Sen. Wayne Dowd of Texarkana, who offered the do-not-pass motion in the committee, explained with surprising candor that "what it comes down to is I guess I have a lack of backbone." Dowd, an attorney in Texarkana, stated that as a lawyer and lawmaker, he felt that any legal challenge to the sodomy law would most likely see it declared unconstitutional by Arkansas courts. However, Dowd noted that he "had so many communications from constituents opposed to the bill that, trying to represent the people that elected me, I voted against it."
The day after the Gazette ran its front-page story, Robert Howard was on his way to the Pulaski County jail. Both in the cramped confines of the back of a state trooper's patrol car and within the holding cell, Howard was bombarded with antagonistic and homophobic remarks from the arresting officers, who called him "worthless" and "faggot." He was released later on bond posted by his partner. To say that Howard and the other men arrested that night were in the wrong place at the wrong time would not begin to describe their predicament.
Editor's note: It would take a court ruling to strike down Arkansas's sodomy law. The Morgan rest stop is now closed, in part to end its use as a place of sexual encounters. Budget constraints have further restricted stops along Arkansas interstates.