The majority of straight people — likely barring some attorneys and other legal scholars — have almost assuredly never heard of “gay panic,” a defense used in instances of hate crimes and murders in which the attacker isn’t held accountable due to sexual advances by the victim that made him (or her) temporarily insane. But straight people should know about this shameful stain on the justice system, and one of our favorite comedians, Jaboukie Young-White, is doing his part to ensure they do.
Jaboukie appeared on last night’s episode of The Daily Show, and while sitting across from the show’s host, Trevor Noah, he offered up his thoughts on the Jussie Smollett scandal currently raging online. Amid his jokes about the scandal’s “crazy plot” (“I mean, Trump supporters who watch Empire?” he quips), about the actor-singer’s motive (“If he wanted attention, he could have just leaked his nudes”) and about hopefully playing Smollett in the sure-to-happen Lifetime movie version of what went down, Trevor Noah asks Jaboukie a question: “Won’t this make it harder for victims of real hate crimes to come forward and get justice?”
It’s something that has come up incessantly since the media first caught wind that Smollett’s account of events may have been fabricated. And while most would say, yes, it does create a harder time for true victims, Jaboukie looks at it differently: “Not really, because that would have required people to have cared about queer people, specifically queer Black people, in the first place.”
And while Trevor Noah attempts to push back against the idea that society “doesn’t care” about LGBTQ people of color, Jaboukie brings up the “gay panic” and “trans panic” defense as the perfect illustration (though, to be clear, the “gay panic” defense has been used in cases involving all colors of queer people).
Here’s how Jaboukie explains the “gay panic” defense, with a little humor mixed in:
It’s a totally admissible legal defense where someone can get a lighter sentence for killing a gay or trans person by claiming the victim hit on them. In 47 states, including New York, someone could beat a gay person like me to death and then go, “Well, I don’t know, he wanted to suck my dick.” And you know what? Maybe I did. But that’s still not a good reason, you know?
He also makes the funny-but-true point that if women were allowed to use a similar defense — if women could get away with killing men because they hit on them — there would quite literally be no men left.
Understanding the gay panic defense
While you won’t find “gay panic” listed as an official legal defense in law books, it’s often invoked in murder trials to help explain a defendant’s temporary insanity, diminished capacity or self-defense. Defense lawyers use it in hopes of getting first-degree murder charges reduced to second-degree (non-premeditated) murder or even manslaughter.
The “gay panic” defense (and its twin, the “trans panic” defense) was invoked in the trials following the 1993 murder of trans man Brandon Teena (of Boys Don’t Cry fame), the 1995 murder of Jenny Jones guest Scott Amedure, the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard and the 2008 murder of 14-year-old Larry King.
As recently as May 2018, in Texas, a 69-year-old former police officer was sentenced to just 10 years probation and six months in jail for stabbing his 32-year-old neighbor to death. He claimed Spencer tried to kiss him. Read about that case here.
While “gay panic” and “trans panic” defenses don’t always work in court, they apparently did in that Texas case. The defense essentially blames queer people for their own murders by claiming they provoked an attack. The defense also plays off societal queerphobia while reinforcing negative stereotypes of queer people as sexual deviants and predators.
Currently there is a legal movement to ban the “gay panic” defense nationwide.
Watch the entire segment on the “gay panic” defense with Jaboukie Young-White here:
— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) February 20, 2019