July 16, 2018

Harris, Colleagues Introduce Legislation to Ban Use of Gay and Trans Panic Defense

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Aiming to end the use of so-called “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses in federal court, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris joined democratic lawmakers in the Senate and House to introduce the Gay and Trans Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2018. “Gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses seek to excuse crimes such as murder and assault by arguing that the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity provoked the defendant’s violent reaction, blaming victims for the violence committed against them. The legislation would curtail the availability and effectiveness of the gay and trans panic defenses, a step that many in the legal community have been urging for years. Nearly 20 years ago, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. One of Shepard’s killers raised the gay panic defense, arguing that Shepard’s unwanted sexual advances excused his violent acts. 

“There is no place for prejudice against people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender in our country,” said Sen. Harris. “The so-called gay and trans ‘panic’ defense allows people carry out hate crimes and denies justice to the victims of those crimes. I was proud to be part of the effort to outlaw it in California and am committed to banning it nationwide.”

As San Francisco District Attorney, Harris established an LGBTQ hate crimes unit and led efforts to ban LGBTQ “panic defenses” in criminal trials. Harris sponsored legislation as Attorney General of California which made it clear that a defendant’s discovery of a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not sufficient provocation to reduce a charge. The bill was signed by Governor Jerry Brown in September 2014 and California became the first state to ban the “gay panic” defense.

Several states have already taken legislative action to limit or prohibit the use of gay panic and trans panic defenses, including Illinois. Similar legislation has been introduced in New Jersey, Washington, Rhode Island, New York, Georgia, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia.

The Senate legislation is led by Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and co-sponsored by Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Tim Kaine (D-Va.). The House bill is led by Representative Joseph Kennedy III (MA-04) and co-sponsored by Representatives Alan Lowenthal (CA-47), Eleanor Holmes Norton (DC-01), Raul Grijalva (AZ-03), Brian Higgins (NY-26), and David N. Cicilline (RI-01).

The legislation is endorsed by the American Bar Association, the National LGBT Bar Association, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, Equality California, and the American Unity Fund.

National LGBT Bar Association

“The LGBT Bar has been working to end gay and trans ‘panic’ defenses for over a decade and is hopeful that the Gay and Trans Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2018 will bring an end to these heinous defenses. Gay and trans ‘panic’ defenses have long stood as a symbol of dangerous and outdated thinking. An individual’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression should never justify a violent attack or murder. To say otherwise sends a message to the LGBT community that their lives are inherently less valued. The continued allowance of these defenses is a failure of the justice system.”

American Bar Association

“The ‘gay panic’ and ‘trans panic’ legal defenses are remnants of a by-gone era – an era when legalized discrimination and widespread hostility toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals was the norm. These defenses have no place in either our society or justice system and should be legislated out of existence.”

American Unity Fund

“Gay and trans ‘panic’ defenses deprive LGBT Americans of the blessing of liberty because they enshrine in law the idea that murder is a justifiable response to a life lived freely. This is a dishonor to LGBT people’s right to life and an egregious blot on the American justice system.”

Equality California

“For too long, criminal defendants across our country have been able to blame their violent acts on their victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity — a grotesque reversal of justice. We’re proud to have successfully sponsored the first state ban of such ‘gay panic’ and ‘trans panic’ defenses in California, and we appreciate Rep. Joe Kennedy and Senator Ed Markey’s leadership in the fight to protect LGBTQ people from violence and hate crimes.”

A copy of the legislation can be found HERE.