Officials discuss ‘gay panic’ defence

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Prosecutors and law enforcement officials from across the nation gathered in San Francisco last week to discuss strategies to counter the “gay panic” or “transgender panic” defences used in courtrooms to gain acquittals or reduced punishments for violent crimes.

According to The San Francisco Chronicle, the term “gay panic” had its origins in decades-old research suggesting that certain men are terrified by their own latent homosexual tendencies-prompting the theory that a gay advance might yank all those emotions out into the open and trigger an aggressive, even murderous, response.

Several men convicted of gay bashing said they had previously been molested by a man or suffered guilt over participating in consensual gay sex.

The panic strategy was employed in Alameda County by the defendants in the Gwen Araujo murder case, as they attempted to blame the transgendered teen for her own murder. Two of the defendants were convicted of second-degree murder; the third entered a plea bargain and pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter.

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris said she decided to host the conference as a way to provide law enforcement, prosecutors, and the public with tools, experience, and information needed to ensure criminals face the consequences of their actions.

“We need to be able to understand who the victims are and explain why who they are can never be argued as a justification for their demise,” said Harris.

According to The San Francisco Chronicle, prosecutors and legal experts define gay or transgender panic as when a person is provoked to violent action against another person after learning the other person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Such provocation is used as an argument for justification of the action or for lessening the punishment for the action.

“The standard for these kinds of cases has been ‘Would a reasonable person react that way?'” Angela Harris, a professor of law at Boalt Hall School of Law at UC Berkeley, told The Chronicle. “Our culture, being a very sexist and homophobic culture, has said ‘yes,’ but now I think people are starting to say that’s not where our culture is anymore.”

Conference speakers included former Laramie, Wyo., police Chief Dave O’Malley, who investigated the killing of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in 1998 and Chris Daley, executive director of the Transgender Law Centre in San Francisco.

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