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Gay and trans panic defenses continue to be used in court cases in many US states

Cases often involve robbery or a pre-existing relationship between the victim and defendant

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Gay and trans panic defenses first appeared in court cases in the 1960s and continue to be raised in criminal trials today. In these cases, defendants have argued that their violent behavior was a rational response to discovering by surprise that the victim was LGBTQ. Currently, 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.

A new study by the Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law examines current research on violence against LGBTQ people in the U.S. and the use of the gay and trans panic defenses over the last six decades.  The study also provides model language that states may use to ban the gay and trans panic defenses through legislation. These laws are one way of addressing disproportionate exposure to violence, including interpersonal violence, for LGBTQ people.

“In many cases where the gay and trans panic defenses have been raised, we see that the victim and the defendant had a relationship prior to the homicide or the homicide occurred in the course of a robbery,” said lead author Christy Mallory, Legal Director at the Williams Institute. “These findings suggest that defendants were not surprised or in a state of panic when the homicides occurred.”

KEY FINDINGS

  • Williams Institute research found LGBTQ people were about four times more likely to experience serious violence, including rape or sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated or simple assault than non-LGBTQ people. LGBTQ people were more likely than non-LGBTQ people to experience violence at the hands of someone well-known to them.
  • A separate Williams Institute study found that transgender people were more than four times more likely to experience violent victimization compared to cisgender people.
  • The 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey found 47% of transgender respondents reported that they had been sexually assaulted at some point in their lives. One in ten had been sexually assaulted in the prior year.
  • A 2017 analysis of 2,144 incidents of LGBTQ intimate partner violence by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found the majority (59%) of survivors were people of color, including 21% who were Black and 27% who were Latino/a.
  • 2020 research by W. Carsten Andresen, associate professor at St. Edwards University, found that the gay and trans panic defenses were used at least 104 times across 35 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico between 1970 and 2020.
    • Charges were reduced for defendants who used the gay and trans panic defenses about one-third of the time (33% of cases).
    • Over half of the murders (54%) were committed in the course of theft or robbery.
    • Of the 80 cases where the relationship between defendant and victim was known, the victim and defendant had a preexisting relationship prior to the homicide in 30 of them.

The Williams Institute at UCLA School of Law, a think tank on sexual orientation and gender identity law and public policy, is dedicated to conducting rigorous, independent research with real-world relevance.

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october 2021

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