Happy Pride Month! Did you know that in many states, people can still use a victim’s sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity as a “defense” in criminal cases, including murder? Yikes. This is known as the “gay panic” (or “trans panic,” or so on) defense. And New York state has finally passed legislation that will change that.
As of Wednesday, lawmakers in New York passed a bill that bans this sort of disgusting defense. California, Rhode Island, Illinois, Connecticut, and Nevada also have these bans. So while it’s great that New York has followed suit, the list is a scary-short reminder that much of the country needs to catch up.
Governor Andrew Cuomo tweeted about New York’s step in the right direction:
The ban on the 'gay and trans panic' legal defense just passed!
With the enactment of this measure we are sending this noxious legal defense strategy to the dustbin of history where it belongs.
This is an important win for LGBTQ people everywhere. pic.twitter.com/xMpXZfvnDT
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) June 19, 2019
Lest you think this is archaic, and that the ban is a formality more than anything practical, let’s review some recent history.
One of the most famous recent cases coming out of New York dates back to Islan Nettles in 2013. Nettles, a trans woman, was murdered by James Dixon after he found out she was transgender. He received 12 years in prison, and as the New York Times reports, Nettles’ family believes he would have gotten a lot more had he not been able to use the “trans panic” defense.
It should be common sense that someone can’t use “gay panic” or “trans panic” as a means to defend themselves, but sadly that’s far from the case. Make no mistake: The very notion of “trans panic” or “gay panic” is rooted in hate and othering. The idea that victims are to any degree at fault for the crimes committed against them—that upon discovery, they are so horrifying or upsetting, it could conceivably lead someone to kill them—is disturbing. No laws should, even from a sideways angle, permit or give space to harm rooted in queerphobia.
Daniel O’Donnell, an Assemblyman from New York City, sponsored the bill. It’s known as Assembly Bill A2707. For O’Donnell, who is openly gay, this bill has a special meaning. It’s also an example of why it’s so important that we have diverse representation in our government.
How are things looking across the country? In New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, Texas, New Mexico, and Minnesota, similar legislation has been introduced, though it hasn’t yet been passed. In Hawaii, a similar bill banning gay and trans panic defenses has been waiting for the Governor’s signature since April, when it passed via Hawaii state lawmakers.