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Pushing the Gay Panic Button

It’s been over a year, but there is progress in the murder case of Lawrence King, the California student who was shot in the head during class in February 2008.

A judge has ruled that fifteen year old Brandon McInerney, who has been charged with first degree murder and a hate crime, will be tried as an adult. His attorneys had been hoping to have him tried as a juvenile. He faces a maximum sentence of 53 years.

The case has drawn national attention not only for its heinous nature, but also the many issues involved leading up to the shooting. For example, the school they attended has been criticized for not intervening despite a history of antagonism between the students, and McInerney was acquainted with white supremacists and neo-Nazis. When police searched his bedroom, they found a notebook of Nazi symbols, seven Hitler speeches translated into English, and a book about SS troopers who were members of Hitler youth.

This sounds like an open-and-shut case, but if history is any indication, a conviction is not guaranteed. Early signs point towards the use of a gay panic defense, wherein the victim is blamed for the crime by causing the perpetrator to “lose control” due to their actions, usually described as sexual advances. I first heard of gay panic in 1995, during the infamous trial of Jonathan Schmitz, who killed his friend Scott Amedure after learning that Amedure was attracted to him on the Jenny Jones Show.

Schmitz was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison, so it did not work for him. But while LGBTs may look at gay panic defenses as a desperate, laughable attempt by defendants when there is overwhelming evidence against them, this strategy works more often than you may think.

During this month alone, gay panic prevailed in two cases involving the deaths of gay men. In Illinois, Joseph Biedermann was acquitted of murder in the death of Terrence Hauser. Even though they met in a bar and went to Hauser’s home afterwards, Bidermann was able to successfully claim it was necessary to stab Hauser 61 times in order to ward off Hauser’s sexual overtures.

In Washington, D.C., Robert Hanna pled guilty to misdeameanor assault in the beating death of Tony Hunter, who was attacked as he walked to a gay club. Hanna told police Hunter had grabbed his buttocks, which was disputed by a friend who witnessed the incident. Originally arrested for voluntary manslaughter, Hanna negotiated the charge down to a maximum sentence of 180 days. Six months for killing somebody! Needless to say, people in Washington and elsewhere are demanding answers, with openly gay D.C. Council member Jim Graham calling it “a major miscarriage of justice.”

Authorities aren’t above using a gay panic defense either. Down in Fort Worth, Texas, while people were celebrating the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, police raided a gay bar called the Rainbow Lounge. During the fracas, a patron named Chad Gibson had his head slammed against the floor and spent a week in the hospital for bleeding in the brain. What had Gibson done to warrant such harsh treatment? According to the police, he grabbed an officer’s groin. As in Hunter’s case, witnesses say the violence was unprovoked. At least Gibson has a somewhat happy ending he lived and is calling for the police to be prosecuted.

How can the patently offensive attitude at the core of gay panic defenses be used as justification for discrimination or violence? When the Valley Club of suburban Philadelphia prevented the black and Latino children of the Creative Steps day camp from swimming in their pool, it was a national story within days and outrage was so great that many organizations opened their doors to the children (Tyler Perry is sending them on an expenses-paid trip to Disney World) and the Valley Club is being sued for discrimination.

In contrast, not only are people able to use a gay panic defense to avoid the consequences of their actions, the incidents I described are probably unknown to anyone who doesn’t pay close attention to LGBT media. This tells me that unless it’s an especially horrific crime like Matthew Shepard or Lawrence King, stories about violence and discrimination against LGBTs are not seen as worth reporting because we are not considered equal to heterosexuals. Violence against us is still socially acceptable to a significant portion of the population.

This realization may bring people down, but in my mind it’s a reminder that while we have been making steady progress for decades, there is still work to be done and we should not get complacent when it comes to our rights.

From “Blackout” for 7/27/09 by Anthony Rucker


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