“Gay Panic” Defense Can No Longer Be Used to Excuse Murder, a Win for Trans Sex Workers

Just before the June 30, 2019, kickoff of the World Pride March in New York City, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed A2707, a new law that bans the "gay and transgender panic" defense from being used in murder cases prosecuted in New York State. The panic defense has historically been utilized to lessen charges in the case that the defendant alleges his or her violent actions with in response to the unwanted advances of someone of the same sexual orientation. The defense has also been used in the murder trials of transgender victims. New York is the sixth state to ban the use of such a defense, the first being California in 2014.

In 1944, 19-year-old Lucien Carr used it to excuse the murder of 33-year-old David Kammerer, whom he stabbed in Riverside Park and dumped into the Hudson River. Carr alleged that Kammerer had been following him around the country making continual, unwanted sexual advances. His killing was depicted in the media as an honorable response to such a threat. Though convicted of murder, Carr pled guilty to a lessened charge of manslaughter and served only two years. The defense has been used dozens of times since then, as an outgrowth of the traditional legal doctrine of "provocation," or that the victim is partially responsible for a crime by eliciting it through some offensive action (Suk Gersen, 2019).

The memory of institutionalized violence against the LGBTQIA community lingered as the world commemorated the 50-year anniversary of the Stonewall riots on June 30. In 2018, a federal bill to ban the "gay and trans panic" defense nationwide died in a U.S. House committee. The New York bill is a step towards protecting the health, safety, and very humanity of every individual in the United States, but we still have a long way to go.

The #DecriminalizeSexWork movement has played a vital role in speaking out about the criminalization of trans and queer bodies, especially for women of color and those involved in the sex trade. Grassroots activism has been vital to the passage of this bill. We are fighting against the unjustifiable deaths of those who are most vulnerable, such as Layleen Polanco, a 27-year-old transgender woman who died in her jail cell on June 7 at Rikers, where she was being held, unable to make a $500 bail resulting from a prostitution arrest in August 2017. Polanco is the tenth transgender woman of color to be found dead in the U.S. in 2019. Decriminalization is necessary to combat state-sponsored violence, such as that condoned by the "gay panic" defense. Our path forward is to focus on public health and harm reduction and to stop the murders of innocent people.

After signing A2707 to ban “gay/trans panic” legal defense in NY, Gov. Cuomo marched in the New York City Pride parade. (photo: Brittany Newman/NYT, 2019)