Virginia Bans Gay and Trans 'Panic' Defenses

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday April 5, 2021

In this Jan. 10, 2018 file photo, Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, the first transgender delegate, takes her oath of office during opening ceremonies of the 2018 session of the Virginia House of Delegates at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.
In this Jan. 10, 2018 file photo, Del. Danica Roem, D-Prince William, the first transgender delegate, takes her oath of office during opening ceremonies of the 2018 session of the Virginia House of Delegates at the Capitol in Richmond, Va.  (Source:AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

Virginia has become the 12th state to ban so-called "gay" and "trans panic" defenses, with the governor signing into law legislation introduced by out trans State Delegate Danica Roem, NBC News reports.

Northam signed the bill into law on March 31, NBC News reported, detailing that the "panic" defense "has allowed those accused of homicide to receive lesser sentences by saying they panicked after finding out the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity."

Critics have long said that such defense strategies among to blaming victims for their own murders.

Delegate Roem was familiar with the defense, having read about its use by the killers of Matthew Shepard, a gay university student murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. Roem was also familiar with how, "in 2004, one of the four men who were convicted of killing Gwen Araujo, a trans teenager, also used it," NBC News said.

"Roem was a college freshman and knew she was trans when she read about Araujo's death," NBC News noted. "It terrified her, she said.

"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," the article added.

"He's out...he emailed me 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 "after Gwen Araujo was killed," Roem told NBC News.

"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."

Gay and trans "panic" defenses have been used in Virginia in several court cases, including "five murders and three assaults," noted newspaper the Virginia Mercury.

"Mark Hayes murdered Tracie Gainer, a transgender woman, in 2002. Hayes claimed he 'lost it' and murdered Gainer after engaging in sexual intercourse," the newspaper reported. "In 2011, Deandre Moore, age 18, pleaded guilty to killing 20-year-old Jacques Cowell by stabbing him multiple times. Cowell was openly gay and there were witness accounts that the two had a physical relationship. Moore received a 40-year prison sentence, with 15 years suspended."

"In these cases, criminal defense attorneys used gay and trans panic defense to put the victim (rather than the offender) on trial," criminal justice expert Carsten Andresen noted, the newspaper said.

Andersen added that the use of such defense tactics " 'suggests that it is permissible to commit violence' against LGBTQ people," the newspaper article continued.

In remarks on the measure, Roem said, "This means someone's mere existence as an LGBTQ person does not excuse someone else and does not constitute a reasonable provocation to commit such a heat of passion attack," the article reported.

"The statute does not dismiss traditional self-defense lawsuits," the newspaper account clarified. "This means LGBTQ people can still be prosecuted for attacking someone."

Roem, the first openly trans person to win office in a state legislature, was elected in 2017.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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