Two decades ago, in a crime that stunned the country, college student Matthew Shepard was tortured and violently murdered — because he was gay.
One of the killers argued Shepard made a sexual advance toward him while the two murderers were robbing him. He was so upset by the alleged flirtation, the murderer claimed, that he killed Shepard in a fit of blind rage.
Mourners attend a vigil for Matthew Shepard in 1998. Photo by Andrew Cutraro/AFP/Getty Images.
That legal tactic became one of the more well-known examples of the "gay and transgender panic defense" — where defendants attempt to justify violent responses against LGBTQ people by using the victim's sexual orientation or gender identity as an excuse.
Yes, it's a deeply homophobic and transphobic strategy — but it's still legal in every U.S. state, except for California and Illinois. To this day, there's no federal law banning it.
But maybe not for long.
Rep. Joe Kennedy and Sen. Edward Markey, both of Massachusetts, introduced legislation that would ban gay and trans panic defenses from being used in federal court.
Sen. Ed Markey. Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images. Rep. Joe Kennedy. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
If passed, the Gay and Trans Panic Defense Prohibition Act of 2018 would prohibit a victim's status as an LGBTQ person from being used "to excuse or justify the conduct of an individual or mitigate the severity of an offense."
In other words, criminals would no longer be able to blame their crime on another person's queer identity.
"Gay and trans panic legal defenses reflect an irrational fear and bigotry toward the LGBTQ community and corrode the legitimacy of federal prosecutions,” Markey said in a statement provided to NBC News.
It may seem outrageous that such a blatantly discriminatory tactic is used to defend the indefensible. But two decades after the death of Shepard, it still happens.
More than you might think too.
In 2016, James Dixon beat up Islan Nettles, a trans woman, who later died from injuries she sustained on the street where the two crossed paths in Harlem. Dixon claimed learning Nettles was transgender "fooled" him, sparking him to react with "blind fury."
At first, he even pleaded not guilty.
Mourners gathered in New York City to honor the life of Islan Nettles and demand justice. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images.
Similar cases made national waves in 2002 and 2014, as well. And in those instances, the murderers successfully used panic defenses to lessen the severity of their sentences.
In fact, panic defenses have appeared in court opinions in about half the states in the country since the 1960s, a report by the Williams Institute at UCLA Law found in 2016.
We can help make sure these inexcusable panic defenses are never used in the courtroom again.
Right now, Markey and Kennedy's bill has 10 cosponsors in the House and five in the Senate, according to NBC News.
With a GOP-controlled Congress and White House, however, the future of a bill advocating for LGBTQ protections faces an uncertain path forward, which is all the more reason to vote this November. Bigotry shouldn't have a home in our justice system, after all.
"Murdering or assaulting anyone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is not a defense," Kennedy said. "It is a hate crime."