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HomoPHOBIA and the Gay Panic Defense


 Sexism, ageism, racism—what do these all have in common? They all involve prejudice and discrimination against someone who cannot change who they are. The suffix “-ism” refers to a specific practice, system, or philosophy. This suffix also commands respect and is often viewed as an “authority” for certain groups. 


 Arachnophobia, trypophobia, and zoophobia—what do these all have in common? They’re all common fears. The suffix of “-phobia” comes from the Greek Phobos, which means fear, and the word phobia means “an irrational fear of something that’s unlikely to cause harm.” They’re often not taken seriously, as most people can rationalize these fears. 


 Words and language are complicated and are an intricate part of the way we interact with the world. The word homophobia indicates discrimination and prejudice against the LGBTQ+ community for merely being who they are. Many people do not see the problem with using the term homophobia to describe discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. The suffix of “-phobia” implies that those who are discriminatory and hateful towards the LGBTQ+ community are just ‘scared.’ “Phobia” leads to this sort of discrimination not being taken seriously, leading to increased violence against LGBTQ+ people.


 In an article of The University News, the author agrees, saying, “The suffix ‘-phobia’ indicates a legitimate fear that a person might have. This fear is oftentimes irrational; however, it is deeply ingrained in the person’s psyche, and it is therefore valid. ‘Homophobia,’ on the other hand, is not. There is nothing valid about hating an entire group of people for the way that they were born, the way that they feel, the way that they love.”


 This is all just to say that the word “homophobia” is problematic because it promotes an environment that allows people to claim they are ‘afraid’ of the LGBTQ+ community and continue to disguise hate as fear. 


 Nothing demonstrates this more than the “Gay Panic Defense.” The Gay Panic defense is a legal defense that allows a defendant to claim they were “provoked” or “threatened” by the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity. While this defense cannot be used in itself, it is typically used to support a plea of self-defense, provocation, or in the defense of insanity. This defense is rooted in homophobia and is still legal in 38 out of 50 states in America, and many other places in the world, including Canada. Out of the 12 states that have introduced legislation to ban the defense, 9 have only happened in the past 2 years. In many cases, using this defense lessens charges from murder to manslaughter, a much-reduced sentence with more opportunity for parole.   


 The most recent case belonged to Daniel Spencer. In 2015, Spencer invited a friend, James Miller, over to his house. The night ended with Miller killing Spencer by stabbing him 4 times and then reporting himself to the police. Neither man had any prior convictions or problems with the police, and neither had any reported incidences of violence. Miller’s attorney argued that the only possible reason for this murder was that Spencer had tried to sexually assault Miller, even though there was no evidence of this. In this instance, the Gay Panic Defense was used as an addition to a Self Defense plea. It was successful, and Miller’s charge was reduced to criminally negligent homicide, which is a far cry from the murder charge that he clearly committed. 


 There are many other cases like this, where people are killed in extreme violence and then given lighter sentences as a result of using the Gay Panic Defense. In research done by Carsten Andresen, a journalist and Professor of Criminal Justice at St. Edward’s University, about one-third of the cases that use the Gay Panic Defense end up with reduced charges. Many of these cases are bumped from murder (the intentional killing of another person) to manslaughter or homicide (unintentional). “Homicides” often involve the same amount of violence associated with premeditated murder, with many offenders using knives or their hands to kill the victim. These cases often involve ‘overkill’: stabbing the victim multiple times, sometimes more than 10. However, even in these violent cases, defendants are allowed to claim they were provoked or threatened—which is successful one-third of the time. 


 One of the most famous of these cases was that of Matthew Shepard, who was a student at the University of Wyoming. Shepard was lured from a bar in Wyoming, beaten to within an inch of his life, tied to a fence, and left there for two days. He later died from his injuries. The attackers, Russell Hendersen and Aaron McKinney, had planned to steal from Shepard the second they saw him in the bar, even pretending to be gay to gain his trust. Once outside the bar, Henderson and McKinney beat Shepard and stole his wallet, then drove about a mile out of town, tied Shepard to a fence, and beat him 20 times with the butt of a revolver. The officer on the case, Sheriff O’Malley of Albany County, said, “The only time I’ve ever seen those dramatic of injuries were in high-speed traffic crashes, you know, where there was just extremely violent compression fractures to the skull.” Then they left him to die; it took 18 hours before he was found. The lawyers of Henderson and McKinney tried to use the Gay Panic Defence, but the judge dismissed this claim. The Gay Panic Defense is hard to document because it is often not found in official reports of trials, and many times it may show in the form of conscious or unconscious bias. 


 Since Matthew Shepard, anti-LGBTQ+ hate crimes have continued to be some of the most violent crimes on record. For instance, in 2020 alone, 28 transgender people have been murdered (or are suspected to have been murdered), with Black transgender women making up the majority of those killed. In many of these cases, no one has been charged. The fact that many of these cases have not received the justice associated with putting a guilty person behind bars shows that the deaths of members of the LGBTQ+ community are not taken seriously. 


 There needs to be a change, and that change starts with redefining what homophobia is and how we can protect the LGBTQ+ community.

Giulia Vilardi is an undergrad student in the Behaviour, Cognition and Neuroscience program. In her free time she enjoys reading, playing flute and making art. She always appreciates a good music recommendation and can't get through the day without at least two cups of coffee!
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