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The Trans Panic Defense: What is it and why you should care?

Updated on January 18, 2015


The Trans-Panic Defense is a legal argument whose purpose is to eliminate the possibility of a first-degree murder charge by leveraging widely-held prejudiced "gut-reactions" to transgender identity.

An Example (This is purely hypothetical, but based on many real-life encounters): A man, let's call him Paul, has just come back to his hotel room after a hard night of drinking and partying. However, Paul is not by himself. Paul got lucky tonight after bumping into a Belgian model named "Alva." They struck up a decent conversation at a local bar, danced a bit, and now Paul and Alva are retiring to Paul's bachelor pad for the night. After finishing a bottle of champagne as a nightcap, Paul and Alva are now in the midst of a passionate embrace. Caught up in the moment, they both go to the bedroom and close the door.

Only minutes later, a blood curdling scream emanates from the closed bedroom door. The faint sounds of a struggle follow shortly thereafter. And just as quickly as the ruckus started, an eerie silence falls upon the apartment. Paul, bloody and battered, finally appears from the bedroom door. He has just killed Alva upon finding out that she has a rather prominent part of the male anatomy. At trial, Paul would later say: "When I found out she had a d$@&, I panicked. I felt betrayed and angry. Like I was being forced to participate in some really cruel joke. The rage overwhelmed me and I couldn't stop myself."

Gwen Araujo, a woman killed by four men who discovered she was transgender.  None of the men were charged with a hate crme.  Pinterest post by Lexie Cannes
Gwen Araujo, a woman killed by four men who discovered she was transgender. None of the men were charged with a hate crme. Pinterest post by Lexie Cannes | Source

The Essence of the Argument:

The hypothetical situation described above is exactly the type of scenario that brings about the use of the trans-panic defense in a courtroom. The defendant, Paul in the above case, is basically claiming that he was so enraged by the victim's "transgenderness" that he could not be held fully accountable for his actions. In the process of bringing up this argument, defendant's like Paul are basically trying to avoid a first degree murder charge. A charge that usually carries with it the harshest capital punishments available.

But wait a second, isn't a murder....just that....a murder. How can someone escape a murder conviction based on something like this? Well, my lovely reader it all has to do with two little things called "premeditation" and "intent."

How a 1st Degree Murder is Made and Unmade.

You see, for a first degree murder conviction to stick in most U.S. states; the prosecution must prove that the defendant had both the premeditation and intent to cause death. Meanwhile, the defense will use every trick in the book to show the court that the defendant had no time to premeditate; and moreover had no intent to kill the victim but was merely lashing out in the "heat of passion."

Regardless of whether or not the case involves a transgender victim, the same song and dance between the defense and prosecution plays out in courtrooms all across America. This of course is understandable as the stakes are extremely high for both sides of the courtroom. If the defense can take a first degree murder charge off the table, the defendant can avoid punishment like life imprisonment or the death penalty. Moreover, a lesser charge of manslaughter usually carries with it much lighter low as a mere 10 years in prison depending on the state and the situation.

However, the issue at hand is not the inner workings of the courtroom. Rather, it is the use of a prejudiced and bigoted argument to partially justify homicide.


Why You Should Care

The use of the trans panic defense and its cousin the gay panic defense unfairly targets members of the LGBT community. It treats members of this community as an alien force deserving of repulsion and derision. Moreover, it takes advantage of prejudiced values about the LGBT community. With the use of this defense, judges and juries alike are more inclined to reflect on what they would do in a similar situation rather than focusing on the basic human rights of the victim.

The argument provides

Reading Material

Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America's Debate on Homosexuality
Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America's Debate on Homosexuality

Gay Rights and Moral Panic: The Origins of America's Debate on Homosexuality Paperback -- by Fred Fejes

Gay Panic in the Ozarks
Gay Panic in the Ozarks

Thus, Gay Panic in the Ozarks is a disturbing story of the culture war that society is waging on itself. Brusque but humane, the novel examines love, hate, morality, honor, and duty—the things that inform and shape our destiny.


Steps in the Right Direction

There are some notable victories in the struggle to get rid of the gay and trans panic defenses. For example, just this past year (2014), California became the first state in the U.S. to officially ban the use of both the Gay and Trans Panic defenses. Meanwhile, organizations such as the LGBT Bar have passed resolutions vowing to work towards the total elimination of these legal defenses.

There is still much work to be done, but much like gay-marriage, we can only hope progress will slowly make its way from "sea to shining sea."

Do you agree with the use of the Trans-Panic Defense?

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