New York bans legal defense that discriminates against gay and trans people

Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks to reporters before kicking off the 2019 WorldPride/Stonewall50 Parade in New York City. Photo by Don Pollard/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo talks to reporters before kicking off the 2019 WorldPride/Stonewall50 Parade in New York City. Photo by Don Pollard/Office of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

By Phineas Rueckert 

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation Sunday officially banning the use of “gay and trans panic legal defense” in court rooms. 

The legal defense, which dates back to the 1960s, was used by defendants accused of crimes against LGBTQIA+ people to plead down their cases by saying that learning about the sexual orientation or gender identity of the victim caused them to spiral into an uncontrollable rage called “homosexual panic” and inflict violence upon the victim. 

The bill signing took place as New Yorkers participated in the Pride march marking the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising that galvanized the modern LGBTQIA+ rights movement.

"The gay and trans panic defense is essentially a codification of homophobia and transphobia, and it is repugnant to our values of equality and inclusion," Gov. Cuomo said in a statement Sunday. "This defense strategy isn't just offensive — it also sends a dangerous message that violence toward LGBTQ people is somehow OK. It's not, and today we're sending this noxious legal tool to the dustbin of history where it belongs."

The defense has appeared in numerous cases, including a 2013 case in Manhattan’s Supreme Court pertaining to the fatal beating of Islan Nettles, a trans woman. Nettles’ attacker was sentenced to 12 years in prison after using the gay and trans panic legal defense in court. Nettles’ family said the sentence was too light. 

New York is the seventh state to ban the legal defense, according to the New York Times. A number of other states have banned the practice in recent months, including Connecticut and Maine, according to the Gay Trans Panic Defense Legislation Map, a tool developed by the LGBT Bar Association. 

According to a press release from the Governor’s office, the ban closes a loophole that allowed the gay and trans panic defense to be used in court. 

“By banning the so-called gay and trans panic defense, New York is sending a message to prosecutors, defense attorneys, juries and judges that a victim's LGBTQ identity shouldn't be weaponized against them,” said State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who introduced the legislation in 2014.

The gay and trans panic defense has not always worked to reduce sentences for perpetrators of violent crimes. 

Last year, a Bronx man was sentenced to 25 years in prison for second-degree murder after stabbing a Queens resident to death under the 90th Street-Elmhurst Avenue stop. He claimed that the victim, who was gay, blew kisses at him and made sexual advances, which caused him to violently attack. 

In other cases, however, it has allowed people accused of killing or harming LGBTQ people to walk away from violent crimes with significantly reduced punishments. In 2015, an Austin, TX man accused of stabbing a gay man to death was sentenced to 10 years probation after he allegedly used the gay panic defense. A jury found him guilty of criminally negligent homicide, instead of manslaughter.

“Gay and trans ‘panic’ defenses stand as more than a mere symbol of dangerous and outdated thinking — these defenses show up in trial courts across the nation and in your backyard whenever a victim’s identity as LGBT is brought up to excuse violence,” said D'Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the LGBT Bar Association. 

Despite significant civil rights progress, violence against the LGBTQ community remains high in the United States. According to the most recent FBI hate crime statistics, nearly one in five hate crimes in 2017 were based on gender identity or sexual orientation.