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Virginia Is First Southern State to Ban ‘Trans Panic’ Defense for Murder, Assault

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Virginia has become the first southern state to ban gay and transgender panic defenses in murder and assault cases.

The ban, signed into law on Wednesday by the state’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, seeks to forbid accused attackers from claiming that their alleged victim’s perceived sexual orientation or gender identity inspired a violent, panicked reaction.

Similar bans have been passed in 10 other states. Virginia’s was authored by state Democratic Delegate Danica Roem, the state’s first out transgender elected official.

“Given that today is the Trans Day of Visibility, I’m grateful as a transgender state legislator to get this done so no one has to live with the same fear in 2021 that I had as a 14-year-old closet case in 1998,” Roem wrote on March 31, according to Planet Transgender, a transgender news and culture website.

Virginia has become the first southern state to ban gay and transgender panic defenses in murder and assault cases. In this photo, LGBTQ activists and their supporters rally in support of transgender people on the steps of New York City Hall, October 24, 2018 in New York City.
Drew Angerer/Getty

While “gay panic” and “transgender panic” aren’t mentioned in any law books, defendants will sometimes use the defenses to claim a form of temporary insanity.

Such defenses essentially blame LGBTQ people for their own victimization and for “provoking” their attackers, according to the National LGBT Bar Association. The defenses also play off of longstanding societal stereotypes that view LGBTQ people as dishonest, immoral and sexually aggressive, the association adds.

In a study of 104 court cases, such panic defenses only reduced a defendant’s sentencing in 32 percent of cases, according to W. Carsten Andresen, assistant professor of criminal justice at St. Edward’s University. In nearly all of the remaining cases, defendants who used the defense received harsher penalties than the minimums allowed.

Nevertheless, defendants have used the defenses in the following trials: the 1993 murder of trans man Brandon Teena, the 1995 murder of Jenny Jones guest Scott Amedure, the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, the 2008 murder of 14-year-old Larry King and the 2015 murder of Daniel Spencer.

In 2013, the American Bar Association called for states to ban the defenses nationwide. Since then, Virginia and 10 other states have done so: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Nevada, Rhode Island and Washington. Washington D.C. has banned them as well.

When New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a similar ban into law in 2019, he tweeted, “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.”

Democratic New York Senator Brad Hoylman, author of the state’s Senate version, said the ban “is sending a message to prosecutors, to defense attorneys, juries and judges that a victim’s LGBTQ identity can’t be weaponized.”

The Liberty Buzz contacted Roem’s office for comment.

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