On Friday, Governor Bruce Rauner (R) signed a law prohibiting the use of “gay panic” and “trans panic” legal defenses. SB 1761 was unanimously passed by both the Illinois State Senate and House of Representatives back in June. This law makes Illinois only the second state in the country to ban defendants from using the argument that unwanted sexual advances from an LGTBQ person or trans person created a panic that justified physical violence.
Gay panic or trans panic defenses have been utilized in several high-profile murders in recent decades, including those of Matthew Shepard, Brandon Teena, Marco McMillan, Gwen Araujo, and Angie Zapata. Being able to submit it as a defense at trial doesn’t automatically guarantee success to the defendant, but it has resulted in defendants being convicted of lesser charges, and been used as a mitigating factor in sentencing. In 2009, an Illinois jury acquitted Joseph Biedermann of first-degree murder after he stabbed his neighbor, Terrance Michael Hauser, 61 times. Biedermann claimed Hauser made an unwanted sexual advances and that he had merely been defending himself.
The American Bar Association has come out against the gay and trans panic defense, and urged local, state, and federal governments to pass legislation banning it. Lambda Legal has called the passing of this bill a victory and Christopher Clark, the Midwest Regional Director for Lambda Legal said “Today, our state is a fairer and more inclusive place for all people. ‘Gay panic’ and ‘trans panic’ defenses rely on anti-LGBT bias and reinforce it, perpetuating a vicious cycle of violence against our communities.” Clark added, “LGBT people, especially transgender women of color, are more likely to be victims of violent crime. We look to courts for justice, not to put victims on trial. We hope that other states will take Illinois’ example and do the same.”
“At the heart of gay and trans panic defenses is the idea that individuals who do not conform to gender norms are abnormal and should be feared,” said law professor Anthony Michael Kreis, who helped draft SB 1761. “They reinforce outdated notions that LGBT persons are mentally ill and predatory. They endorse the proposition that violence against LGBT people is excusable.”