In the past decade, the LGBTQ community has made significant strides in their fight for equal treatment by society. But the fight isn’t over.
Twice now, the Iowa House has unanimously passed a ban on defendants using someone’s sexuality or gender identity as a defense for assaulting or killing them. But the Iowa Senate never has.
“It’s hard for me to imagine objections to it,” said Keenan Crow, the director of policy and advocacy for One Iowa. “To be completely honest, it feels like a very straightforward piece of legislation, pun not intended.”
Crow could only guess legislators don’t understand what it’s meant to do. The next step, they said, is to tease out the reason and whether senators can move past it.
Simply put, banning the so-called “gay/transgender panic defense” would mean that defendants can’t try to reduce their sentence or charge by blaming their act on a reaction to their victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
According to the Movement Advancement Project, an LGBTQ nonprofit that relies on data analysis and research, 16 states including the District of Columbia, have total or partial bans on the gay/trans panic defense as of June 7.
Virginia banned the defense in April, the most recent state to do so.
According to the American Bar Association, the panic defense isn’t recognized as a freestanding defense in any state, but it can be used with other defense strategies to reduce a charge or sentence. Crow said no one has tried to use the defense in Iowa recently, but that’s no reason not to ban it.
“There have been a number of attempts to use that all across the country. And so I think it’s probably just a matter of time if we allow this defense to continue before we see another example of it in Iowa,” they said. “It’s not an unreasonable conclusion that it would eventually come up.”
Since 2007, the Iowa Civil Rights Act has included sexual orientation and gender identity, so discrimination is forbidden based on those protected characteristics. On the other hand, Iowa’s hate crimes law includes sexual orientation but overlooks gender identity.
With hate crimes, the penalty for the crime is increased because of the intended target’s race, sex, religion, sexual orientation and other characteristics.
Crow said the omission probably wasn’t intentional because many people, especially ten years ago, don’t understand the difference between sexuality and gender identity, so they didn’t realize they were leaving out a group of people.
But when trans or nonbinary people are primarily the targets of violence, their exclusion is obvious.
“That sends a message to residents of our state about what our priorities are,” Crow said.
Just this year, 28 trans or gender non-conforming people have been killed, making 2021 the deadliest year for those groups in America.
Still, Crow noted that hate crimes don’t do much to prevent violence, and increased penalties don’t lead to changing the root cause of violence: prejudiced attitudes.
“So do hate crimes laws actually address the core of the problem? No, they don’t. Do they sometimes express a certain societal view of things? Yes, they do,” Crow said. “But it’s a complex problem and we can’t just throw people in jail for a long period of time and say, well, we solved it.”
They said the best thing to reduce violence against trans people would be for society to reform and reshape the system so trans people aren’t disproportionately targeted by it.
In that way, Crow said banning the panic defense is a superior move. It doesn’t increase penalties, it just states that crimes against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is unacceptable and the penalty for that crime should apply regardless.
The real answer, they said, is education, so people better understand how to deconstruct their prejudices.
“If you have a transgender person to talk to or to bounce ideas off of, you have an immediate source there that’s legitimate,” Crow said. “Education is one of the best tools we have, even in the system that we’re dealing with.”
by Nikoel Hytrek
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