Updated: Aug 18, 2020
By Gabriela Zasada, Emma Willard School
LGBTQ+ “Panic” Defense
In 1998, Matthew Sheppard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming, was brutally assaulted and tortured by two men. After being deserted by the side of the road, Sheppard was later taken to Poudre Valley Hospital, but died from traumatic brain injuries a few days later. In court, the men who assaulted him attempted to justify their horrible actions and excuse their crimes by using an LGBTQ+ “panic” defense strategy.
According to the LGBT Bar, when perpetrators use an LGBTQ+ “panic” defense, they are claiming that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity caused them to panic and react violently, thereby provoking the assault.
Using this legal tactic, many defendants have been acquitted by juries; they have walked away innocent while the plaintiff is blamed. In 2015, Daniel Spencer was murdered by Robert Miller, who claimed that Spencer was making sexual advances on him. By using an LGBTQ+ “panic” defense, Miller was convicted of criminally negligent manslaughter instead of being charged with murder.
Even though the LGBTQ+ “panic” strategy is still being used today, 10 states have outrightly banned it, while 9 others have introduced legislation to prohibit it. In order to prevent the use of this defense, courts need to thoroughly instruct juries about making unprejudiced decisions and local governments need to instruct and educate prosecutors, defense counsel, and the public about this ploy.
The LGBTQ+ “panic” defense demeans the lives of LGBTQ+ people and allows perpetrators to avoid responsibility for their actions.
Trump and the LGBTQ+ Community
On June 4, 2020 the Trump Administration submitted a brief to the Supreme Court declaring that a taxpayer-funded organization should be able to refuse to work with same sex couples whom the group considers to be in violation of its religious beliefs. This statement pertained to the case of Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a dispute based on whether or not a religious nonprofit child welfare agency could deny same sex couples the right to adopt.
This news coincided with Trump’s efforts to rollback LGBTQ+ healthcare protections. This would allow doctors to discriminate against patients based on their gender identity, making it harder for transgender people to access care.
As a presidential candidate, Trump professed his support and allyship for this community; but now as president, he directly attacks LGBTQ+ people with his discriminatory policies and practices.
According to the New York Times, “While Mr. Trump said in 2016, while running for president, that transgender people should be allowed to use whatever bathroom they feel most comfortable with, he rescinded protections for transgender students in 2017 that had allowed them to use bathrooms corresponding with their gender identity.” By resisting the Equality Act, approving a military ban, and seeking to erase protections for transgender patients, Trump relentlessly attempts to strip LGBTQ+ people of their rights.
Sources: lgbtbar.org, nbcnews.com, nytimes.com, plannedparenthoodaction.org