When Delegate Danica Roem received an email from a fifteen year old constituent asking her to take on the LGBTQ “Panic Defense”, she was reminded of her own experience of being a queer teenager. When she was around the same age as her constituent, Matthew Shepard was murdered for his sexuality, and the nation watched as his killers were tried and convicted. The national conversation that seemed to condone the brutal murder of queer people was agonizing for her, and she heard that same pain in her constituent’s email.
“As a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, seeing this still legal is scary and I think anyone should be worried about this,” he wrote.
The LGBTQ Panic Defense, also called the trans panic defense or the gay panic defense. According to the LGBT Bar, “The LGBTQ+ “panic” defense strategy is a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity/expression is to blame for a defendant’s violent reaction, including murder. It is not a free-standing defense to criminal liability, but rather a legal tactic used to bolster other defenses.”
Researcher W. Carsten Andresen, a criminal justice scholar and researcher wrote to Delegate Roem with an inexhaustive list of several instances of the defense being used in Virginia. All cases listed described an extremely grizzly manner of death–being stabbed dozens of times, being ‘beaten to a pulp’, being ‘dragged to death’–but due to their lawyer’s use of the panic defense, the defendants did less jail time than they would have otherwise.
“In these cases, criminal defense attorneys used gay and trans panic defense to put the victim (rather than the offender) on trial,” Andresen told Roem in an email.
While the material policy implications are large, Delegate Roem says that the symbolic meaning is also substantial.
“Virginia has just told the country that not only do we welcome, respect, and celebrate our lgbtq constituents, but we will protect you for who you are,” she said.
When the Governor signed HB2132 into law on March 31, Virginia became the twelfth state to outlaw the LGBTQ+ panic defense. The final vote was 58-42, with three Republicans– Carrie Coyner, James Edmunds, and Roxann Robinson reaching across party lines to vote in favor of banning the panic defense.
“I’m going to outright scold the majority of members across the aisle for Virginia being the only state in the country that this became a partisan issue,” said Roem.
For Delegate Roem, the passage of the bill underscored the value of representation in government.
“The fact that I have an out student constituent who is willing to reach out to me, to come out to me, and to feel safe enough to make that request–I can’t tell you that that would or wouldn’t happen if he had a cis, straight representative like most districts. But I can tell you that me being transgender meant that he knew he would have a friend. He knew that I would listen, that I would get it. When you’ve established that common ground, and that empathy, that’s why you need diversity in your elected officials.”
Delegate Roem is proud to have brought an end to the kinds of cases that caused her so much pain years ago, like the Matthew Shepard case. In a full circle kind of moment, the last person to testify in favor of ending the panic defense was none other than Shepard’s mother Judy.
“The LGBTQ+ panic defense is a direct affront to the memory of Matt and all the other LGBTQ+ victims of hate crimes,” Mrs. Shepard told delegates. “This so-called defense upholds in court the notion that violence, even homicide, is a reasonable or understandable response to a life lived openly.”
Roem knows the fight for equality for LGBTQ people in Virginia is far from over, and hopes to tackle the treatment that trans women receive in interactions with the criminal justice system next, but she’s created a strong legacy of fighting for queer rights in Virginia so far, having passed over two dozen pro LGBTQ rights bills in her time in the house. She prides herself on being an advocate for constituent service.
To the student constituent who inspired this law, Roem wrote: “You should be proud. Your voice changed the law.”