In a move that Michigan LGBTQ+ advocates say is long overdue, the Democrat-led Michigan legislature is moving forward on HB 4718, a bill that would eliminate the “gay panic” defense across the state. The bill made it out of committee on Tuesday.
The LGBTQ Panic Defense Elimination Bill, sponsored by openly bisexual Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), aims to prohibit homophobia or knowledge of a person's gender identity or sexual orientation as a legal defense for violent crimes. Under this bill, such defenses would no longer justify the use of force against LGBTQ+ individuals, and they would not be considered in voluntary manslaughter or insanity pleas.
"The LGBTQ panic defense is often deployed as a component of other defenses to play on the unfortunate prejudices of some judges and juries in an effort to mitigate penalties for these crimes," Pohutsky said. "At its very core, this defense asserts that the crimes against the community carry less weight because we are inherently less human and, therefore, less valuable. What I'm asking the committee to do today is to reject that notion."
At a hearing on Oct. 2, she emphasized that the gay panic defense perpetuates the idea that LGBTQ+ individuals are inherently less human and less valuable. Pohutsky cited the American Bar Association's 2013 resolution urging governments to ban the gay panic defense and noted that Delaware recently became the 18th state to do so. Michigan would become 19th.
Emme Zanotti, director of advocacy and civic engagement at Equality Michigan, supported the bill, emphasizing that using the panic defense is an abuse of the social contract among human beings. She argued that violence against the LGBTQ+ community remains high, fueled by unfounded, dehumanizing rhetoric.
"Using the panic defense, even as a sincere defense mechanism, is an egregious abuse of the social contract we should abide by as fellow human beings. Killing or assaulting someone simply because they aren't your type or is not your ideology is an incredibly dangerous precedent to set and one that wouldn't be entertained if it were the other way around when we're talking about sexuality and gender identity," Zanotti said.
"Additionally, violence against the LGBTQ community remains high alongside the heightened and unfounded rhetoric that seeks to spread malicious falsehoods and dehumanize LGBTQ people, often specifically transgender Americans," she said.
Zanotti acknowledged that discussions were contentious on previously moved bills to give LGBTQ+ Michiganders basic non-discrimination protections, but she hoped the panel would act differently on this bill. "I hope all the members of this committee and this esteemed chamber can see their way to agreeing that being ideologically opposed to a person's existence, or even ideologically opposed to your own physical attraction to that person and the justification of murdering them because of it, is plainly morally bankrupt," she said.
Zanotti expressed hope that the committee would recognize the moral bankruptcy of ideologically opposing someone's existence or physical attraction and justifying violence. The panel did not take questions during the hearing due to time constraints, but Chair Rep. Kara Hope (D-Holt) indicated that further discussions on the bill would take place in future meetings, with opportunities for questions.