Pennsylvania House committee advances bill banning ‘LGBTQ+ panic’ defense

Pennsylvania Capitol

Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives is poised to consider a bill that would ban a courtroom strategy that some defendants have used to justify anti-LGBTQ+ violence.

The House Judiciary Committee voted to approve House Bill 637, which would make it illegal for defendants accused of violent crimes against members of the LGBTQ+ community to use the so-called LGBTQ+ panic or gay-trans panic defense, which claims that a victim’s gender identification or sexual orientation provoked an emotional state in the defendant that led them to attack the victim.

“The ‘LGBTQ+ panic’ defense theory allows for perpetrators of criminal actions against Pennsylvanian’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,” Democratic Reps. Benjamin Sanchez and Michael Schlossberg said in a memo calling for co-sponsors of their bill in December 2022.

Hate crimes have increased in recent years against members of the LGBTQ+ community. FBI crime statistics for 2022 showed a 13.8% increase in hate crimes based on sexual orientation and a 32.9% increase in those based on gender identity over the previous year.

The bill passed the House Judiciary Committee 14-11, with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed. It has not yet been scheduled for a vote before the whole House, which is controlled by Democrats. To become law, the bill would also have to pass the state Senate, which currently has a Republican majority.

According to Philadelphia Gay News, Democratic committee member Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta said Republicans have not indicated outright opposition to the bill, but have said they do not believe it is necessary.

“I referred them to Google,” Kenyatta said.

In 2015, a defendant named Marcus Jones attempted to use the defense to justify beating Michelle Hill after he discovered she was transgender. Jones’ defense was ultimately unsuccessful; he was sentenced to 13 years in state prison for attempted murder.

If the bill makes it to Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk and receives his signature, Pennsylvania will join 17 other states that currently have bans against the LGBTQ+ panic defense on their books, according to data from the LGBTQ+ Bar Association. The defense is currently legal in 33 states.

“A victim of violence should not feel that their justice system will not protect them because of a loophole that targets their very existence,” Sanchez and Schlossberg said in their memo. “It is long past time for Pennsylvania to join the growing list of states that protect their LGBTQ+ citizens by allowing them the same right to justice as everyone else if they find themselves the victims of a violent crime.”

Pennsylvania is not the only state considering banning the defense. The Democratic-controlled Michigan House of Representatives voted to pass its own bill on the matter in October. That bill is now in the state Senate, also controlled by Democrats, where it was referred to the Committee on Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety. While Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has not yet said whether she will sign the bill, she has previously signed legislation banning conversion therapy and creating new anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people.