Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old University of Wyoming student, was tortured and murdered near a Laramie, Wyoming farm in October of 1998.
Shepard, a gay male, was attacked on the night of October 8-9 and died a few days later on October 12, 1998.
His case became one of the most discussed – and controversial – cases of the 1990’s; an era in which the dialogue regarding the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community began to open up as more LGBT individuals were cast into the spotlight for both positive and negative reasons.
Shortly after the attack, local police arrested Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. A bloody gun, in addition to Shepard’s wallet and shoes, were found in their truck.
As a result of his murder, a media storm developed over the next few years as Matthew’s mother, Judy Shepard, became an advocate and spokesperson for her slain son.
While on trial, McKinney originally pleaded with the “gay panic defense,” saying that he and Henderson were inspired to kill Shepard due to his sexual advances and that they were driven to temporary insanity.
Nearly ten years after Shepard’s murder, Congress passed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, and on October 28, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the it into law. The act extends existing hate crime legislation, on the books since 1969, to include crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
But what is the gay panic defense?
Basically, an individual accused of a murder or assault can use the gay panic defense, claiming that they were so freaked out by a gay person’s advances, they were rendered temporarily insane. Though not often successful, this defense has been a common component of crimes involving LGBT individuals over the past few decades.
It’s a sad occurrence that further makes it appear that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals are blamed for their assaults or murders.
The gay panic defense has been instrumental in acquitting some individuals of murder charges. In 2009, a Chicago jury acquitted Joseph Biedermann, 30, of first degree murder in the stabbing death of his neighbor Terrance Michael Hauser. Biedermann, who claimed in court that he was defending himself from Hauser’s advances, reportedly stabbed Hauser 61 times.
In a recent case, a gay couple from Oregon was physically attacked with a wrench-like object while walking their poodle, Beauty, who was dyed pink.
George Mason, Jr., 22, was upset with the couple and the appearance of their dog, allegedly shouting things such as “Your poodle is a weird color and that’s just un-American” and “f*ck you, you fags,” according to one of the victims, Jeremy Mark.
But, why was Mason so upset? Did the couple remind him, in some way, of himself?
In April 2012, a study conducted by the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology surveyed 160 students in the United States and Germany.
Netta Weinstein, a professor at the University of Essex stated that “individuals who identify as straight but in psychological tests show a strong attraction to the same sex may be threatened by gays and lesbians because homosexuals remind them of similar tendencies within themselves.”
In 1996, a study was conducted at the University of Georgia found that a number of males who were homophobic actually exhibit latent homosexual attraction.
Sixty four heterosexual males were questioned and then were split into two groups; one group identified as “homophobic” and the other as “not homophobic.” Each group were shown videos of heterosexuals, lesbians and gay men engaging in sexual activity, and what the study found, at the time, was somewhat surprising.
“Latent homosexuality can be defined as homosexual arousal which the individual is either unaware of or dent. Psychoanalysts use the concept of repressed or latent homosexuality to explain the emotional malaise and irrational attitudes displayed by some individuals who feel guilty about their erotic interests and struggle to deny and repress homosexual impulses,” reads an excerpt of the study.
It goes on to say that when a male who exhibits latent homosexuality is ”placed in a situation that threatens to excite their own unwanted homosexual thoughts, they overreact with panic or anger.”
Shame, guilt, embarrassment and jealousy of another male who exhibits openly what you deny in yourself? It appears that the “gay panic defense” is less about macho heterosexual males and more about confused individuals who, more often than not, experience same-sex attraction that they are unable to face.
No innocent person deserves to be murdered. And further, no person deserves to be made a victim twice simply because they identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
Any murder or death is terrible, but the situation is even more depressing when one’s life is ended by another due to another who is driven by outdated societal norms and molded to act a particular way.
However, as 81% of those under 30-years-old support same-sex marriage, and an overwhelming number of Millennials are comfortable with the LGBT community, the crimes against LGBT individuals will, hopefully, continue to decrease in the United States. Thus, the “gay panic defense” will be a thing of the past and the occurrence of hate crimes will dwindle as more Americans are exposed to diversity, education and the presence of LGBT people in everyday life.
Jeffrey Hartinger is a writer who lives in New York City. You can visit his website at www.thewhygenerationusa.blogspot.com.