Virginia Becomes the First Southern State to Ban Gay and Trans Panic Defense

Jourdyn Grandison | Staff Writer

A week after trans-visibility week, Virginia became the 12th state to ban LBGTQ+ panic and the first state in the South to ban panic as a defense for murder and manslaughter.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam signed a bill against the defense on April 7, which previously allowed people convicted of murder to get lighter sentences by claiming they were panicked after learning the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to the American Bar Association, the bill’s creator, Democrat Delegate Danica Roem, first learned of the defense after the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard, where the men who killed him used the defense in court. The defense was used again in 2004, where a convicted man used the defense in the case of killing Gwen Araujo, a transgender teenager. 

When Roem learned of Araujo’s passing, she was a college freshman who already identified as trans. She confessed that learning of Araujo’s murder scared her. 

But it was a letter from a 15-year-old LGBTQ constituent that inspired her to introduce a bill to outlaw the defense in Virginia.

“He’s out, and he sent me an email asking me to pass this bill, and I came to realize that in 2021, my out teenage constituents are living with the same fear that I did in 1998 after Matthew was killed and that I did in 2002 after Gwen Araujo was killed,” Roem said in an interview with NBC News. “And you think of how many other people will stay closeted because they have a fear of being attacked, let alone all the other fears that a closeted person who wants to come out has.”

In the early stages of the bill, Roem and her team of researchers testified that panic defense had been used at least eight times in Virginia. Some Virginia legislators challenged it, claiming that other legal defenses aren’t prohibited, which Roem denied.

“What we were showing was, sometimes things are so egregious that when we have this universal acknowledgment that this shouldn’t be happening, we codify that,” Roem said to NBC News. “And so that’s what we did with this bill.”

For LGBTQ+ students at Hampton University, Roem’s push for the panic defense banning makes room for continuous conversation about gay and trans social acceptance on campus.

“Delegate Roem pushing this bill is a great first step towards protecting Black trans women, particularly in Virginia, and hopefully the rest of the South,” said Zior Glover, Vice President of MOSAIC at Hampton University. “Panic defense essentially protects anyone who commits a hate crime or murder, based on someone’s sexual identity or gender. It suggests that trans people are a threat to others and that the comfort of cishet people is more important than our safety or wellbeing. If we want to be a progressive institution, there must be the protection of LGBTQ+ individuals.”

Delegate Roem hopes that with the passing of the bill, state legislatures will begin to change. According to Roem, as the first Southern state to enact a ban on panic security, Virginia provides a precedent for other states. Roem hopes the Mid-Atlantic states will send a message to LGBTQ people once Delaware “gets on board.”

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