Opinion: Gay Panic Defenses must be banned in Louisiana


Photo credit: Andrew Lang

By Brendan Heffernan


“I got enraged … I didn’t want to be fooled … my pride was at stake”

These were the words that filled a New York City interrogation room as James Dixon confessed to the brutal killing of Islan Nettles, a 21-year-old transgender woman from Harlem. Dixon pleaded guilty to manslaughter, missing out on a hate crime conviction and the significantly-longer prison terms that come with them. He got off easy thanks in large part to something called the “Trans/Gay Panic Defense,” an insidious practice deeply rooted in our country’s history of homophobia, transphobia and the dehumanization of marginalized groups.

Encountering Nettles on the street in the early hours of Aug. 17, 2013, Dixon admitted to briefly flirting with her before learning she was transgender, upon which Dixon claimed he lost control, beating Nettles severely before fleeing the scene. He argued that his actions were not from a place of malice, but from a place of fear. The crux of Dixon’s successful defense was that he felt threatened by something intrinsic to his victim’s personhood—and thus in the eyes of the law, his victim was not a person at all.

The Trans/Gay Panic Defense is a vile offense against justice and the human rights of gay and trans people. By allowing defendants to use the sexual orientation and gender identity of their victims to justify the unjustifiable, this practice deliberately tells gay and trans people that their lives don’t matter. While it never excuses defendants from all criminal liability, it’s allowed countless individuals to escape the full burden of their actions.

The same hateful narrative that makes this practice possible is being pushed by many in Louisiana today. Last month, gubernatorial candidate Ralph Abraham concluded a thirty-second advertisement with a casually-ignorant swipe at trans and non-binary people.

“As a doctor, I can assure you, there are only two genders,” said Abraham chuckling. By saying this, Abraham is ignoring the fact that the vast majority of medical institutions, including the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization and the National Health Institute, support the validity of transgender and non-binary identities. This type of rhetoric paints trans people as freakish and creates the climate where practices like the Trans/Gay Panic Defense are acceptable.

Although the New York justice system failed Islan Nettles, they have, at least, learned from their sins. In June of 2019, New York voted to abolish the Trans/Gay Panic Defense, becoming one of just eight states to do so. Louisiana is not one of these states, a fact that should embarrass every one of its residents. As Loyola stands to fight for virtue and justice here on campus, its students and staff cannot sit idly by as the law subjects people to second class status.