N.Y. becomes eighth state to ban ‘gay panic’ defense

By : Chris Johnson OF THE WASHINGTON BLADE, COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL LGBT MEDIA ASSOCIATION
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ABOVE: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed into law a ban on gay panic defense. Photo courtesy of the Office of Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Amid celebrations of WorldPride and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots in New York City, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a measure banning the use of trans and gay panic as a legal defense.

Cuomo penned his name to the legislation Sunday during a signing ceremony with LGBT advocacy leaders who supported passage of the ban on gay and trans panic defense in court.

“The gay and trans panic defense is essentially a codification of homophobia and transphobia, and it is repugnant to our values of equality and inclusion,”  Cuomo said in a statement. “This defense strategy isn’t just offensive — it also sends a dangerous message that violence toward LGBTQ people is somehow OK. It’s not, and today we’re sending this noxious legal tool to the dustbin of history where it belongs.”

Individuals accused of violent crimes against LGBT people have in the past invoked gay and trans panic defenses in court to receive a lesser sentence, and in some cases, avoid conviction. In essence, the accused would blame the emotional disturbance of finding their victim was LGBT to avoid legal consequences for the act of violence.

Ethan Rice, senior attorney at Fair Courts Project at Lambda Legal, said in a statement the new law is “an important and long overdue step toward treating the LGBTQ community equitably.”

“LGBTQ people in New York should never have to experience violence,” Rice said. “When it happens, LGBTQ people certainly should not be faced with blame for this violence. These ‘defenses’ have no place in our justice system.”

On the same day Cuomo signed the ban, his office unveiled a video featuring Delores Nettles, the mother of Islan Nettles, a transgender woman who was murdered in Harlem in 2013 and whose assailant used the trans panic legal defense in court.

“I am so grateful that New York is banning this legislation so that no mother has to go through this again,” Delores Nettles said in a statement. “We must keep fighting so that all trans people can live free from violence and discrimination.”

The Washington Blade has placed a request in with Cuomo’s office seeking data on how often the gay and trans panic was invoked as a legal defense in New York before the governor signed the law.

Present at the signing ceremony were Chad Griffin, outgoing president of the Human Rights Campaign, and Alphoso David, a counselor to Cuomo who’ll begin serving as the next Human Rights Campaign president in August.

State Sen. Brad Holyman (D-Chelsea) pushed the legislation, S3293/A2707, through the state legislature with Assembly member Daniel O’Donnell and was present at the signing ceremony.

“By banning the so-called gay and trans panic defense, New York is sending a message to prosecutors, defense attorneys, juries and judges that a victim’s LGBTQ identity shouldn’t be weaponized against them,” Holyman said.

New York becomes the eighth state to have banned the use of gay and trans panic defense. Other jurisdictions with bans are California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Hawaii, Maine and Connecticut.

California became the first state to ban gay and trans panic defense in 2014 after Kamala Harris—then California attorney general, now a U.S. senator and 2020—pushed legislation through the state legislature that former Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law.

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