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The Gay Panic Defense and Trayvon Martin

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The shooting of Trayvon Martin is a national tragedy that has left many Americans surprised and dismayed. For students of gay rights in the United States, the emerging facts of the case, and particularly how police appear to have handled it, are eerily familiar.

For the better part of the last hundred years, killing people because they are gay has been an acceptable practice in many parts of the country and the world. All too often, perpetrators get away with anti-gay violence because the police have failed to investigate, lawyers have failed to prosecute, or juries have pardoned the perpetrators. From high-profile cases like Harvey Milk's to hundreds of lesser-known incidents, a pattern of violence against sexual minorities met with official disinterest and inertia is all too common.

The most common tactic to avoid guilt in anti-gay violence is called the "gay panic" defense. In this strategy, killers assert that they were hit on by a gay person, felt threatened, and retaliated with violence. Often, the legal system's response to such incidents is to simply assert that the dead "had it coming" or shouldn't have incited the violence in the first place, by keeping their interest to themselves.

The gay panic defense is often invoked by the police, reducing the veracity of their investigation. This was a prominent feature in the murder case of Brandon Teena (dramatized in the movie Boys Don't Cry). The police force in that case eventually lost a civil suit for failing to protect Brandon and act appropriately in response to her attackers. Sometimes, it's the prosecutors who support gay panic, as in the case of Matthew Shepard, where prosecutors asserted for some time that Matthew's drug use was the reason he was brutally beaten, tied to a fence, and left for dead, despite evidence to the contrary. In that case, the killers directly used a gay panic defense in court, subtly aided by the prosecution's ennui.

In this regard, Florida's self-defense act merely codifies for racial minorities something that sexual minorities have long believed: that if you get assaulted, gay-bashed, or even murdered, the authorities are unlikely to make an effort to seek justice on your behalf. Few gay people I know are more than one degree away from a gay-bashing, and in almost every case, police fail to make a significant effort to find, and prosecutors to imprison, the criminals. This leads to a cycle of cynicism and fear that not only injures the victim again but undermines our civil society.

The Trayvon case is a tragic story. This young man appears to have been killed just for being who he was, like so many before him. His blackness was no more viscerally threatening than Matthew Shepard's simple request for a ride home, or Brandon Teena's desire to be loved. And we must expect our justice system to respond with the same righteous indignation that the laws they are sworn to uphold insist upon. No one -- black, gay, transgender, short, fat, old, stupid, or loud -- should live in fear for simply being who he or she is. And we all have a right to expect that our police and prosecutors will pursue criminals without being blinded by their own ignorance.

Crazy people are an unfortunate fact of life that we must accept. But police departments, courts, and communities that don't stand against senseless murder of innocents are not similarly considered. Today, gay people, black people and everyone who believes in equality should be united in the desire to seek justice for the countless victims who were, and continue to be, "less than" under the protection of the law.