Virginia Bans Gay and Transgender Panic Defense


Ted Eytan

Delegate Danica Roem pictured above.

Emilyanne Richart, Reporter

Virginia became the 12th state to ban “gay and transgender panic” as a defense in court thanks to the state’s only transgender lawmaker, Democratic Delegate Danica Roem.

The defense grants people charged with murdering LGBTQ+ people a lesser sentence by, “Placing the blame for homicide on a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity,” according to Williams Institute, UCLA Law’s LGBTQ think tank. There are instances where this defense has been used in court, such as in Matthew Shepard’s case. In 1998, Matthew Shepard was an openly gay college freshman who was a victim of a brutal hate crime that ultimately led to his death. According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), the men charged with killing Shepard aimed to use the “gay panic” defense. At the trial, “lawyers argued that Shepard had made their client fly into a rage by touching his leg. But the judge dismissed this “gay panic” claim.”

D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association, states that the “gay panic” defense, “sends a message that violence against LGBTQ people is acceptable and that their lives are worth less due to their gender identity or sexual orientation.”

Danica Roem fought against this defense through the new bill. Under Virginia’s new law, “Another person’s actual or perceived sex, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation is not in and of itself, or together with an oral solicitation, a defense to any charge of capital murder, murder in the first degree, murder in the second degree, or voluntary manslaughter and is not in and of itself, or together with an oral solicitation, provocation negating or excluding malice as an element of murder.”

Roem introduced the bill banning the defense after a 15-year-old LGBTQ+ child reached out to her regarding the gay/trans panic defense. Roem recounts the encounter, saying, “He’s out, and he sent me an email asking me to pass this bill, and I came to realize that in 2021, my out teenage constituents are living with the same fear that I did in 1998, after Matthew [Shepard] was killed, and that I did in 2002 after Gwen Araujo was killed.” Gwen Araujo, a young 17-year-old transgender Latina, was brutally murdered by four men, one of them later used the “transgender panic” defense at his trial. Roem then added, “you think of how many other people will stay closeted because they have a fear of being attacked, let alone all the other fears that a closeted person who wants to come out has.”

Roem became the first transgender lawmaker elected to a state legislature in 2017 and believes that having openly LGBTQ+ representatives is crucial. She believes that this representation ensures that people feel as though their concerns will be heard, stating that, “In my case, my teenage constituent — who knows that his delegate is trans, and he as someone who’s out feels safe talking to her — can send me a bill idea and say, ‘Delegate Roem, can you carry this, can you make this happen?’ And my answer to that constituent, my answer is ‘yes.’ And we did.”

Although only 12 states have banned the defense so far, Roem remains hopeful. Vermont state Representative Taylor Small is Vermont’s first openly trans legislator and is introducing a similar bill. Roem cited this, stating, “You’ll notice with me introducing this bill, with Taylor Small introducing this bill in Vermont, that, as more of us who are coming from the very communities that are most affected by legislation like this have that lived experience that we were bringing to the table, we are able to speak to this.”

Roem stresses the importance of having similar bills passed across the nation, stating, “I hope that as a region, the Mid-Atlantic can really tell people that you are welcome here because of who you are, and we will protect you here because of who you are.”

Earlier this year, Roem introduced the bill in the Virginia House of Delegates and last week Governor Ralph Northam signed the bill which is going into effect in July.