What is Gay Panic?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 25 May 2020
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Gay panic is a rarely used criminal defense in which the defendant claims that he or she was so offended or upset at the revelation that the victim was homosexual that a state of temporary insanity occurred. One of the most high profile cases in which the gay panic defense was used involved Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student who was viciously murdered in 1998 because of his sexual orientation.

According to the logic behind this defense, the perpetrator of a crime is thrown into a state of intense confusion and upset when the sexual orientation or gender of the victim is revealed. This state made the defendant temporarily incapable of distinguishing between right and wrong, thereby leading to an assault or murder as the defendant “instinctively” struck out at the victim. Gay panic could occur as a result of sexual advances, argue lawyers who use this defense, or it might occur when a transgender individual is outed, as was the case with Gwen Araujo, a transwoman who was murdered in 2002.

This defense is designed to reduce the culpability of the defendant in the eyes of the jury, thereby generating a reduced sentence. Defendants who use the gay panic defense are rarely absolved altogether, but the gay panic may be regarded as a mitigating circumstance which justifies a reduction of penalties.

Critics of this defense argue that because homosexuality is growing much more accepted in society, the likelihood of totally panicking at the revelation of someone's sexual orientation is unlikely. Furthermore, the gay panic defense has been used in cases where premeditation was involved, suggesting that the defendant had time to cool down and consider the situation, and he or she decided to proceed with the crime anyway.

Opponents to the gay panic defense would like to see cases like these prosecuted as hate crimes, in addition to being treated as assault or murder cases. They suggest that people who assault people on the basis of their sexual or gender orientation are fully aware of what they are doing, and while they may proceed with such assaults because of violent emotions, they are not in a state of temporary insanity. Prosecutors in several regions around the world have banded together to fight the gay panic defense, arguing that they will crack down on defense teams who attempt to use it.

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Post 6

@irontoenail - Society still isn't at the point where people of different orientations or who don't fit into gender norms are treated as being equal. The fact that gay panic could possibly still be used as a defense is proof of that. Almost any other issue you could possibly name that someone might have "panicked" over would not be used as defense for murder or violence.

Post 5

@pleonasm - I think this adds to the argument I've always found most compelling about the origins of homophobia. It's that some men are terrified that they are going to be treated the way they treat women. If you are a misogynist who believes they have a right to attention from women, and are suddenly faced with someone who could potentially try to get that same attention from you, it could very possibly put you into a panic.

I'm not saying it's justified, I'm just speculating on the origins of this kind of violence.

Post 4

This is such a specious argument, I can't believe they actually allowed it to be used in court, in any age, let alone in the last few decades. I mean, are we really willing to claim that someone has such little control over themselves that something like gay panic can happen and be used as an excuse? I don't see how that is different from claiming insanity in which case, the person should be locked up.

If a person attacked someone dressed up as a clown because they had a phobia about clowns, then they wouldn't get off the hook because of their phobia. At least, I hope they wouldn't. People should be held responsible for their actions, and very little can justify murder.

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