When LGBTQ people are killed and the gay and trans panic defense is invoked, those fatal acts of violence need to be understood within the broader context of widespread violence that LGBTQ people face in general—starting from an early age—and often from people they know including romantic and dating partners.
LGBTQ people in the U.S. face widespread stigma, discrimination, and violence. Recent media accounts detail an epidemic of violence against transgender women, particularly transgender women of color; federal data show that a substantial percentage of hate crimes are related to anti-LGBTQ bias; and decades of research establish that LGBTQ people are at increased risk of violent victimization. Much of this violence is hate-based or occurs within the context of a dating or romantic relationship. Often, violence against LGBTQ people starts early in their lives, at the hands of family members or other students at school. Violence against LGBTQ people can result in death, and even when victims survive, has lasting effects on their physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being.
LGBTQ people face several barriers to addressing violence. LGBTQ people may be reluctant to seek help due to experiences of, or fear of, discrimination and harassment by law enforcement. LGBTQ survivors may also be reluctant to seek help from health care and service providers out of fear of being mistreated or turned away. Moreover, in many states, laws do not adequately protect LGBTQ survivors of intimate partner violence and hate violence.
One way states can combat the epidemic of violence against LGBTQ people is by passing laws that bar defendants from asserting gay and trans panic defenses in court. Gay and trans panic defenses are rooted in antiquated ideas that being LGBTQ is a mental illness, and rely on the assumption that it is reasonable for a perpetrator to react violently to discovering the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity or to a romantic advance by an LGBTQ victim. Since the 1960s, the gay and trans panic defenses have appeared in publicly reported court opinions in approximately one-half of the states. To date, 12 states and the District of Columbia have passed legislation eliminating the use of gay and trans panic defenses, but the defenses remain available in most states.
This report presents evidence of violence against LGBTQ people in the U.S., provides an overview of how the gay and trans panic defenses have been used in court, and presents model legislation to eliminate use of the gay and trans panic defenses.