What Is Gay Panic Defense?

There are many terms that can be used in a court of law – some good and some bad. The gay panic defense is one term that is not considered a good option for defense, and many are still trying to get it banned from courtrooms today. 

Let’s take a look at what the gay panic defense is, how it’s used in courtrooms, and how we can do our part to end its usage altogether. 

What is the gay panic defence? 

The gay panic defense is a strategy used in legal terms. It requests that the jury excuses violent reactions on account of the victim’s sexual orientation of gender identity. For example, a lawyer might ask the jury to excuse an assault due to the victim being gay. 

One well-known case of the usage of gay panic defense was the Matthew Shepard case in 1998. Shepard, who was a 21-year-old college student at the time, was beaten to death by two men. 

The defense that these men chose to use was the gay panic defense, attempting to excuse their actions because Shepard was a part of the LBGTQ+ community. 

The gay panic defense is often used to enhance other defense strategies instead of being used on its own. This is assumed to be because if it were to be used on its own, any respectable jury would understand that this is not an excuse for any violent crime. 

When a defendant uses the gay panic defense, they are saying that the sexual orientation of their victim not only explains why they were violent towards them, but also excuses it. If the jury were to accept this as a reasonable defense, they would be implying that LGBTQ+ lives are less worthy than people who are cis-gendered. 

Unfortunately, despite its absurdity, the gay panic defense is still being used in courtrooms today.

How is the gay panic defense used in court? 

There are three main ways that the gay panic defense would usually be used in courtrooms. While these are the most common, they are not the only strategies that some lawyers adopt. 

Defense of insanity

The first defense sees the defendant was triggered enough by the victim’s sexual orientation that they experienced a nervous breakdown. This caused LGBTQ+ panic and diminished their capacity to think rationally, which then led to a violent outburst. 

This defense is incredibly outdated as it is based on the term ‘gay panic disorder’, which was once thought to be a psychological problem that people suffered from. However, this disorder was disproved by the AMerican Psychiatric Association and removed from the DSM in 1973. 

Despite the theory being disproved almost 50 years ago, the legal world has yet to catch up and is still using this as a worthy defense for violence. 

Defense of self-defense

Here you’ll see the defendant claiming that they believed that the victim was about to cause them harm due to their sexual identity. This isn’t a good defense to use as it informs people that you believe people of the LGBTQ+ community are more of a threat to you than others.

Moreover, defendants typically fall short with this defense as they cannot justify the amount of force they used to supposedly defend themselves. For example, using weapons is unnecessary when trying to remove yourself from a dangerous situation, but defendants still like to use this ploy. 

Defense of provocation

Finally, this defense shows the defendant stating that the proposition of the victim induced a need to kill the victim. The proposition doesn’t need to be sexual, as it can also be considered a ‘non-violent sexual advance’, which is apparently ‘provocative’ enough to be met with violence. 

Using the defense of provocation stigmatizes people of the LGBTQ+ community and spurs people to consider them to be ‘provocative’, when they are in fact not. 

How can you help getting the gay panic defense banned from courtrooms? 

There are several efforts being conducted at the moment in many states to try and ban this harmful defense. We want the gay panic defense both banned and denounces from the law field. 

Here are the states currently working towards this end goal and their progress so far: 

  • Washington DC: in committee
  • New Mexico: in committee
  • Texas: in committee
  • Minnesota: in committee
  • Pennsylvania: in committee
  • New Jersey: in committee
  • Massachusetts: in committee
  • District of Columbia: in committee

As you can see, there has not been much progress to ban this defense as of yet. However, the fact that these states have begun the process is promising and we hope to see some positive development soon. 

At a federal level, the Equality Act has just been introduced, which bans the gay and trans panic defense, which is a great step in the right direction. 

So, how can we do our part and keep this momentum going? First of all, it is imperative that we stand strong in solidarity with members of the LGBTQ+ community. By supporting the legislative bans on the gay panic defense we can inform officials that we are not stopping until the ban is finalized. 

Here are a list of steps that you can take to show that you’re in support of banning the gay panic defense.  

  1. Contact your state legislators and governors if they’re working on banning the defense already. You can also reach out to federal legislators to show your solidarity with the ban. 
  2. Inform your own politicians that equality under the law should apply to victims of hate crimes as well. 
  3. Support organizations that are rallying for the ban and let them know that you are an ally. Advocate for LGBTQ+ members in states that aren’t currently working on a ban.

Summary

The gay panic defense is an incrediby outdated and harmful defense that should be banned globally by now. Out of the three main uses of this defense, none of them should be successful in excusing a hate crime. 

There are a number of ways that you can show your support in getting this defense banned in your state. These include advocating, contacting people of higher powers, and supporting organizations.