The Gay and Trans Panic Defense: Focusing on the Homicides, Not the Court Room Strategy

Published date01 August 2024
DOIhttp://doi.org/10.1177/10887679231217112
AuthorWarren Carsten Andresen
Date01 August 2024
Subject MatterSpecial Issue Articles
https://doi.org/10.1177/10887679231217112
Homicide Studies
2024, Vol. 28(3) 270 –291
© 2023 SAGE Publications
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DOI: 10.1177/10887679231217112
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Special Issue Article
The Gay and Trans Panic
Defense: Focusing on the
Homicides, Not the Court
Room Strategy
Warren Carsten Andresen1
Abstract
This study analyzes 351 homicides where defendants raised gay or trans panic
defenses within the United States from 1970 to 2022. This work builds on prior
research by focusing on gay men and trans women as distinct groups to examine
the demographic and socio-economic variables of these victims and their killers.
This study also explores how the offenders killed their victims, focusing on the
fatal weapon, time of murder, and homicide location. Finally, this study investigates
situational variables, including relationship between victim and killer, use of drugs/
alcohol, offender’s stated motivation for murder, and whether the offender stole the
victim’s property.
Keywords
gay panic, trans panic, transgender women, gay men, homicide, bias homicide
During the early 1970s, the burgeoning gay and lesbian civil rights movement con-
fronted public prejudice and criminal justice persecution. In a 1973 opinion poll from
the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, 76% of respon-
dents believed same-sex intimacy was “always or almost always wrong” (Bowman,
2020). Politicians also attempted to stifle the civil rights activism of the day by pres-
suring police to target and arrest gays and lesbians for sodomy (American Civil
Liberties Union, 2023a). Police crackdowns posed real peril for gays and lesbians.
Indeed, gays and lesbians publicly outed by a sodomy arrest faced immediate job ter-
mination and eviction from their homes (Fieseler, 2018).
1St. Edwards University, Austin, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Warren Carsten Andresen, Criminal Justice, St. Edwards University, 3001 S Congress Ave, Austin, TX
78704, USA.
Email: warrena@stedwards.edu
1217112HSXXXX10.1177/10887679231217112Homicide StudiesAndresen
research-article2023
Andresen 271
Over the past 50 years, however, public opinion about people who are gay or les-
bian has undergone a profound transformation. While only 43% of respondents to a
1977 Gallup poll believed that sex between same-sex adults should be legal, in 2019,
83% of respondents answering the same Gallup poll question stated that same-sex
sexuality should be legal (McCarthy, 2019). This sea change in public opinion arose
from the persistence of the gay and lesbian civil rights movement. Gay and lesbian
activists fought for and achieved the decriminalization of sodomy for same-sex cou-
ples, the right to serve in the military, the right to marry, and the right to the same
federal civil rights protections in the workplace as any other Americans. As they suc-
cessfully pursued these changes, gays and lesbians also opened their civil rights move-
ment—finding common cause with people who were bisexual, transgender, queer,
intersex, or asexual—to become the LGBTQIA+ civil rights movement.
Despite this progress, gay men and transgender women remain vulnerable. During
the past five years, they have experienced an uptick in bias-based harassment and hate
violence (Li & Lartey, 2023). Reminiscent of the political backlash during the early
1970s, in the first 4 months of 2023, lawmakers across 47 states proposed at least 471
bills that limit the freedom of or criminalize LGBTQIA+ people and their allies
(American Civil Liberties Union, 2023b). This legislation criminalizes health profes-
sionals’ provision of gender-affirming treatment, public school teachers’ discussion or
mention of sexual orientation or gender identity, and public libraries having books that
reference sexual orientation or sexual identity. Finally, the Supreme Court’s ruling—
and Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion—on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health
Organization (2022) overturning Roe v. Wade, has led to fears that the Supreme Court
may overturn the prior legal precedents that legalized same-sex intimacy in 2003
(John Geddes Lawrence and Tyron Garner v. Texas) and marriage equality in 2015
(James Obergefell et al., Petitioners v. Richard Hodges, Director, Ohio Department of
Health, et al.).
Within this context of civil rights victories and political backlash, this study ana-
lyzes homicide events where murder defendants raised the gay and trans panic legal
defense.1 The gay and trans panic defense consists of four unofficial legal defenses
that homicide defendants or their criminal defense attorneys use to excuse or justify
the murder of a gay man or trans woman (Capers, 2011; Lee, 2008). For the gay
panic defense, defense attorneys often claim that a defendant who received a sexual
advance from a gay man became so traumatized or provoked by the overture that he
reacted violently (Lee, 2008). Defense attorneys raising trans panic defenses suggest
that a defendant, after learning a victim was a trans woman, was traumatized or pro-
voked into responding with homicidal violence (Lee, 2020).2 A vital feature of these
defense strategies involves using bigoted stereotypes to besmirch the victim’s char-
acter (Lee, 2008).
Literature Review
Several scholars have pressed for the field of criminology to consider how the criminal
justice system has impacted people who are LGBTQIA+ (Ball, 2016; Buist & Stone,

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