Nevada Bans Gay & Trans "Panic" Defenses — Here's Why That's A Big Deal

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In a major victory for LGBTQ rights, legislators in Nevada have banned gay and trans "panic" defenses from being used in criminal cases. Use of the controversial legal strategy became a topic of national debate in the late 1990s when defendants in the Matthew Shepard case attempted to argue that discovering Shepard's sexual orientation drove them temporarily insane, resulting in them beating, torturing, and tying him to a fence to die, according to The National LGBT Bar.

"To end the antiquated notion that the lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons are worth less than the lives of other persons and to reflect a modern understanding of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons as equal to other persons under the law, the use of 'gay panic' and 'trans panic' defenses must end," Nevada Senate Bill 97, which was signed into law earlier this week, read. The bill goes onto state that "a person is not justified in using force against another person based on the discovery of, knowledge about or potential disclosure of the actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity or expression of the victim."

So-called gay and trans "panic" defenses are defined by the National LGBT Bar as legal strategies that argue a victim's sexual orientation or gender identity is responsible for the alleged violent reaction of the defendant, including murder. According to the organization, Shepard's murder and the subsequent trial that followed was one of the most recognized criminal cases in which defendants employed the gay "panic" defense. In signing Nevada Senate Bill 97, state lawmakers decreed that such defenses are "anachronistic" and serve only to reinforce institutionalized prejudice.

LGBTQ rights advocates hailed Nevada's decision to outlaw the legal strategy. "These 'defenses' send the destructive message that LGBTQ victims are less worthy of justice and their attackers justified in their violence," Briana Escamilla, Human Rights Campaign's Nevada state director, told NBC News. "Every victim of violent crime and their families deserve equal justice, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity."

While Nevada's Senate Bill 97 is a victory for LGBTQ rights in the Silver State, the vast majority of states have no laws preventing defendants from employing so-called gay and trans "panic" defenses in court. In fact, the legal strategy remains unrestricted despite the American Bar Association issuing a resolution in 2013 urging states to take legislative action to prohibit the practice. According to NBC News, Nevada is only the fourth state to have barred the legal strategy, following in the footsteps of California in 2014, Illinois in 2017, and Rhode Island in 2018.

However, legislation similar to that which was recently passed in Nevada has been introduced in several other states, according to the National LGBT Bar. In fact, Connecticut, New Mexico, New York, Washington, and Texas have all seen bills introduced earlier this year that, if passed, would ban the use of gay and trans "panic" defenses. What's more, similar bills were introduced in Minnesota, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania last year.