“Gay panic” or “trans panic” is a common legal defense in many trials for violent crimes and murders where the perpetrator claims they were driven into a violent rage and temporarily went “insane” after discovering the sexuality or gender identity of the person they attacked, thereby allowing the assailant to ask for a lesser sentence. But a growing number of states have moved to ban the hate-filled and discriminatory legal defense. On March 31, Virginia became the 12th state to strip the defense from its legal playbook when Gov. Ralph Northam signed the recently passed bill into law.
The bill was introduced to the state legislature by Danica Roem, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates representing the state’s 13th district — and the first openly transgender person to be elected and seated in a U.S. statehouse.
Jo Yurcaba of NBC News has reported that “Roem said she first became aware of the defense after Matthew Shepard, a gay man, was murdered in 1998, and the men who killed him used the defense in court, according to the American Bar Association. Then, in 2004, one of the four men who were convicted of killing Gwen Araujo, a trans teenager, also used it.”
“Roem was a college freshman and knew she was trans when she read about Araujo’s death. It terrified her,” Yurcaba said. “But what made her determined to introduce a bill to ban the defense in Virginia was a letter she has received from a 15-year-old LGBTQ constituent.”
“He’s out, and he sent me an email asking me to pass this bill, and I came to realize that in 2021, my out teenage constituents are living with the same fear that I did in 1998, after Matthew was killed, and that I did in 2002 after Gwen Araujo was killed,” Roem told Yurcaba. “And you think of how many other people will stay closeted because they have a fear of being attacked, let alone all the other fears that a closeted person who wants to come out has.”
"In my case, my teenage constituent — who knows his delegate is trans and he as someone who's out feels safe talking to her — can send me a bill idea and say, ‘Delegate Roem, can you carry this, can you make this happen?’ And my answer to that constituent…is ‘yes.’ And we did.” https://t.co/66n2avusBD
— Del. Danica Roem (@pwcdanica) April 3, 2021
During the debate of the bill, an expert on LGBTQ panic defense testified that it had been used at least eight times in the past in Virginia. According to Roem, some Virginia lawmakers also questioned the legality of banning trial defenses, but she pointed out that there is ample evidence of this happening in the past.
“We went through the list. The rape shield law — you cannot blame a rape survivor or a rape victim’s past sex life, more or less, for that person’s rape in that encounter. Their sexual history is irrelevant,” Roem said. “What we were showing was, sometimes things are so egregious that when we have this universal acknowledgment that this shouldn’t be happening, we codify that. And so that’s what we did with this bill.”
Although, at present, only a dozen states have banned “panic” defense — including California, Illinois, Rhode Island, New York, Hawaii, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, New Jersey, Washington and Colorado — Roem believes the nation is making progress, and she hopes Virginia’s bill could serve as a model for other states considering the legislation in the future.
With Maryland and Delaware also considering similar laws, Roem told Yurcaba that she hopes her region of the U.S. can soon send a shared message to LGBTQ people.
“I hope that as a region, the Mid-Atlantic can really tell people that you are welcome here because of who you are, and we will protect you here because of who you are,” she said, “and [not] let them use your mere existence as an out-LGBTQ person — or the perception of you being LGBTQ — be a reason that they can hurt you.”