‘Gay panic’ defense ban advances in Harrisburg

The Pennsylvania state flag
The Pennsylvania state flag. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

On Oct. 18, a bill of potentially significant impact to the LGBTQ+ community was voted out of the House Judicial Committee in Harrisburg. This bill, HB637, if enacted, would prohibit the use of so-called “gay panic” defenses in cases involving violent crimes against LGBTQ+ people.

The bill was voted out of committee by a margin of 15-12, split strictly along party lines. It would amend Title 18 of the Crimes and Offenses Code to ban the use of gay panic defense. The bill’s primary sponsor is Rep. Benjamin Sanchez (D-House Dist. 153; Montgomery County), and was also supported in committee by Mike Schlossberg (D; Dist. 132-Lehigh County) and Malcolm Kenyatta (D-House Dist. 181; Philadelphia).

In a legislative memorandum attached to the bill, Sanchez wrote, “The ‘LGBTQ+ panic’ defense theory allows for perpetrators of criminal actions against Pennsylvania’s LGBTQ+ community to receive a lesser sentence and, in some cases, even avoid being convicted or punished by placing the blame for their actions on a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression. Members of the LGBTQ+ community continue to face an unprecedented rise in hate crimes each year. According to FBI Hate Crime statistics, incidents targeting the LGBTQ+ community increased steadily each year between their reports from 2016 to 2019. The Human Rights Campaign tracked a record number of violent fatal incidents against transgender and gender non-conforming people in 2020, since their reporting began in 2013.

“To address this horrific violence, we will be introducing legislation that would prohibit the use of any LGBTQ+ panic defense in this Commonwealth. Our legislation would extend beyond the language of previously introduced bills on this topic to be more inclusive of all members of this marginalized group of people by prohibiting the courts from allowing a defense of this nature in consideration of serious provocation or insanity.”

According to Rep. Kenyatta, “It’s not clear yet when the bill will be put up to the full House for a vote. That’ll be up for the House leader, Matt Bradford, to decide.”

While the probability is high that HB637 will face a similar party line vote in the Democrat-held House, Kenyatta has hopes that some of his colleagues across the aisle can be convinced of the need to support the bull. “I hope that people will step up and do the right thing.”

According to Kenyatta, during the committee discussions, Republicans didn’t admit to outright opposition to the bill, only that it wasn’t necessary. They asserted that they weren’t aware that the gay panic defense had ever been used in Pennsylvania. “I referred them to Google,” Kenyatta commented drily. Given their party line vote, Republicans were clearly not moved.

When (and if) HB637 clears the House, it’s next stop will be the Senate Judiciary Committee. Kenyatta didn’t want to speculate on the bill’s chances there at this point, but given that the State Senate is controlled by Republicans, it will be an uphill battle.

However, Kenyatta is optimistic about what will happen should HB637 ever make it to Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk. “Given the governor’s support of our community,” said Kenyatta, “I have no doubt that he’ll sign it.”

Representatives for Shapiro did not respond to a request for comment.

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