Although the majority of its citizens are in favour of same-sex marriage, homophobia is very much still alive and well in the United States of America. Typical reasons for being anti-gay are a lack of understanding, a homophobic upbringing or even on religious grounds.
And while that homophobia might manifest in epithets and social media posts, at its extremes it can be used as a reason for murder. In some states in the US, ‘gay panic’ can be used as a defence for murderers on trial for having killed a gay person (or someone believed to be gay) upon learning their sexuality or if the killer has been the subject of unwanted advances from the victim.
Many states agree that gay panic is not a valid reason – especially as it usually results in manslaughter charges being brought to the defendant rather than murder – and have since repealed it. In New Jersey however, although it is rarely used in law, the gay panic defence is still legal but now one New Jersey lawmaker is looking to ban it.
New Jersey, Assemblyman Tim Eustace (D-Bergen), who is also the Legislature’s second ever openly gay member, has introduced a bill to do away with the gay panic defence. His bill states that a murder cannot be classed as ‘reasonable’ if it has been committed upon “the discovery of, knowledge about, or potential disclosure of the homicide victim’s actual or perceived gender identity or expression,” which includes “circumstances in which the victim made an unwanted, non-forcible romantic or sexual advance toward the actor, or if the victim and actor dated or had a romantic or sexual relationship.”
Fairly comprehensive, the bill looks to close off all loopholes of the gay panic defence, including the fact that it is also used to dismiss murders against trans* people who do not always identify as gay.
Of the fact that the gay panic defence is rarely used (Equality California says that it has been used in at least 45 cases nationwide) Eustace says that “I want to make sure that we’re paying attention to things before they happen”. Better safe than sorry, effectively.
New Jersey gay rights activist Steven Goldstein has said that the bill “has merit” while it has also been supported by the National LGBT Bar Association and will hopefully have good chance at becoming a law. We’ll keep you posted once we know more.