January 22, 2010 at 2:52 am EDT | by Peter Rosenstein
Fighting the ‘gay panic’ defense

I recently heard about another case where a gay man was murdered and the assailant wanted to use the “gay panic” defense. Although this defense goes to a perceived mental state, every time I hear it I wonder if anyone has ever used the “straight panic” defense.

If a gay man walks into a bar and a woman accosts him, kisses him and grabs his genitals and he strangles her, can he use the straight panic defense? If a lesbian walks into a bar or down the street and a man comes onto her, maybe grabs her breasts or forces a kiss and puts his tongue down her throat, can she then murder him and claim that she was so scared she had to kill him and use the straight panic defense?

Most people would find these scenarios absurd and yet many of the same people would also say it is legitimate to use the gay panic defense. It is time that society, police, prosecutors and judges realize how unacceptable this is and how homophobic it is to even consider it.

We prosecute sexual abuse, or sexual harassment, in the workplace, and those charges should be just as acceptable whether they involve a man and a woman or people of the same gender. But nothing should allow someone, gay or straight, to commit murder because of a perceived fear, or in retaliation for sex or attempted sex, if their life isn’t clearly threatened.

Society today is more willing to accept same-sex relationships. While a majority of Americans may not yet approve of same-sex marriage, they do by increasing numbers support domestic partnerships and civil unions. For some strange reason they cling to reserving the word marriage, as in civil marriage, for a man and a woman even though more than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce and many occur without the intent of procreation.

Politicians like D.C.’s former Mayor Marion Barry frame their opposition by saying “marriage is sacred.” I was in the room when he made that statement and my seat mate, a young straight woman, turned to me and asked, “Which one of his four marriages is he referring to?”

But the reality is that people like Sen. John Ensign, and a host of others like Newt Gingrich (who I think is on his third wife) can still get away with saying things like that in the name of religion when it is actually homophobia.

There is a lot of work to be done before we can get rid of the gay panic defense and make people realize how ridiculous it is. The LGBT community will need to move people, one by one, to recognize that they can’t continue to be hypocrites in the name of homophobia. We will have to call people out when they make hypocritical comments and respond to each and every one. We will have to work to get fellow members of the community to come out and be counted. Nearly every family has a member who is part of the LGBT community, or a close friend who is, and they need to know it.

We need to convince the older political generation who are members of the LGBT community to come out. They need to show the public that those they have elected or who serve in high positions are both respected and gay. In the case of senators, governors and cabinet members, their friends need to give them a gentle push out of the closet. Convince them that they can shine a light on the fact that LGBT people are successful leaders and public servants in our nation. We need to show our young people, both straight and gay, that you can grow up, be out, and be successful.

I understand maybe not pushing out those who are still building their careers and climbing the ladder. We shouldn’t harm them if they are not yet comfortable in their own skin or feel their careers will suffer by coming out. But those who have reached the pinnacle of their careers, and are very public people, need to be convinced to come out if we are to move forward and change society’s response to gay people. These are people, often with partners and lovers, who have been out to their close friends but for some reason are still afraid to take that final step out of the closet.

After seeing the movie “Outrage,” I realized that in the not too distant future it will be unacceptable to run for public office or be appointed to a high-level public position without being “out” if you are gay or lesbian. Maybe to end the gay panic defense, we can move that timetable up a little.

Peter Rosenstein is a D.C.-based LGBT rights and Democratic Party activist.

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