In 2003, Bella Evangelista, a respected performer and transgender woman was shot to death on a D.C. street. Five years later, Tony Hunter, an openly gay man, was on his way to a bar when he was assaulted and ultimately died due to a sustained head injury from the attack. Both perpetrators argued that the reason they murdered Bella and Tony was because they “panicked” when they realized their respective sexual orientation and identity. They claimed the murders were justified self-defense due to this panic. That was a legitimate argument made in court. And it was legal.
The root causes of these hate crimes were transphobia and homophobia, and despite having the highest LGBTQ community per capita, the District of Columbia’s legal code does not go far enough in protecting everyone in our community. This rationalization of harmful actions based on fear or concern of one’s sexual identity or orientation is called the “panic defense.” To sweep these cases under the rug were judicial missteps that further fostered a culture of fear and dissent in the District.
The panic defense must be banned and removed from the legal toolkit for bigots, harassers, and abusers. It is the right thing to do for the victims, past and present, their families, and our broader community. Moreover, it will send a clear message to all that this type of hate will not be tolerated by our society and will not be accepted by a court of law.
Thanks to community leaders such as ANC 2B Commissioner Mike Silverstein persistently advocating for this to change, we are seeing movement. Both Chairman Mendelson and Council member David Grosso have introduced versions of a bill that prohibit the so-called “gay panic” defense. Additionally, I have spoken to my colleague, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee Chairman Charles Allen, who has assured me that this bill will move out of the Judiciary Committee and be ready for a vote by the full Council before the end of this year.
Over the last decade, the District has seen a rise in hate crimes, specifically against the LGBTQ community. However, the rise in crime was not immediately met with increased prosecution rates for the perpetrators. In fact, in 2018, only 59 of 204 potentially bias-related incidents flagged by the Metropolitan Police Department resulted in arrests that were presented for prosecution. In 2017, those figures were just 55 of 178. That is why we are working to empower the D.C. Office of the Attorney General to prosecute these crimes, so that our own elected prosecutor can pursue our values as a city. We will not stand for individuals or groups being discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation or identity.
If there is any lesson that we should learn from 2020, it is that the status quo will no longer stand. Our community is safer, stronger, and more just when we work together to identify our failings and collectively aim to remedy them. Not only will I work with my Council colleagues to ensure that this legislation is passed, I will also support efforts that provide opportunities for community engagement, anti-bias training and education, and other efforts that will help us to change the culture that perpetuates feelings of trans and homophobia.
In the spirit of the late and great Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who championed the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex, we must continue fighting for protections from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and identity. Equality does not end with what is written in the law. Without clarity from us, our lawmakers, that each person has a right to be and feel safe from harassment and abuse, we cannot expect it to permeate into our society. I am eager to continue working with my colleagues to ensure that these steps are taken quickly and that we continue seeking proactive ways to support our entire community.
Brooke Pinto is a D.C. Council member from Ward 2.