Marsha P. Johnson and the Panic Defense

Marsha P. Johnson, an activist and singing drag queen, sex worker, trans-woman and Andy Warhol model, devoted her life and ultimately her safety to the progression of the LGBTQ+ community. She was the flashy poster child for the 1969 Stonewall uprising and was at the front of all protests for LGBTQ+ rights at the time. With the help from her dear friend, Sylvia Rivera, she started S.T.A.R., Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a home base for gay and trans people and home for many young gay people who since lived on the streets.

On the morning of June 30th, 1992, shortly after the 1992 Pride March, Marsha was reported missing. Six days later, on July 6th, Marsha’s body was found floating in the Hudson River at the young age of 46. With Marsha’s flamboyiant lifestyle and heart for advocacy, many people were confident that her death was the result of a murder. The police, however, still ruled the death a suicide.

The chilling part of Marsha’s story was that, her death did not exist in isolation. She was an icon, a beauty glistening in broad day light, and still was found dead. Many transgender women were found dead in the city at that time, with little to no investigation, as alleged by the LGBTQ+ community. Many people engaged in the pride movement , were optimistic that the death of such a prominent figure would at least bring light to the unjust deaths and her case, at the bare minimum, would be one case that was investigated thouroughly. Today, in 2017, her case remains a chilling reminder of a cold, cold case still ruled as a false suicide.

Black transgender woman are the group of people most likely assaulted in the act of a hate crime.  In fact, in 2016, advocates tracked at least 23 deaths of transgender people in the United States due to fatal violence, the most ever recorded in history. The pattern still continues. As 2017 comes to a slow end, 25 deaths of trangender people were already recorded. In 2017, the LGBTQ+ community knows first hand what it feels like to live in 1992, as it relates to the police. With hundreds of transgender people murdered, we have legislation that says, “it is okay.”

“At a time when one-fifth of hate crimes reported to the FBI are because of the victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity, we were determined to ensure that stigma does not carry over into the courtroom.”

The Panic Defense (also known as the Gay Panic Defense or Trans Panic Defense) was first introduced in 1965. “During the trial, the defendant testified he was urinating in an alley when he was grabbed from behind; fearing the old man was trying to engage him in a homosexual act, the defendant commenced beating him with the club. An expert witness for the defense testified that the defendant “was acting as a result of an acute homosexual panic,” but the defendant was convicted of second-degree murder despite the defense strategy. Though the panic defense was not ultimately too successful for the defendant in 1965, it has been revoluntinary for many in the court room. With this defense, those accused of murder can claim that another person’s orientation or identity is so shocking to them, they go into a temporary psychotic state, which leads them to kill. And as ludachis as it sounds, it works.

It is diffiult to believe that such a biased defense would be permissable in the 21st century. Well, at least two states agree. Illinois and California are the only two states who have banned the defense as they note that “a person’s identity is not a valid reason to inflict harm.” In 2013, the American Bar Association (ABA) released a resolution calling for federal, state and local governments to pass legislation curtailing the use of the defense. However, as most things political, no action in the other 48 states has been made to abolish this defense. In the mean time, many families across all 50 states mourn the deaths and/or life changing-assaults of their loved ones.


#SayTheirName. The following names are the 25 transgender people fatally shot or killed by other violent means. We mourn those we have lost:

* list compiled by the Human Rights Campaign and can be found on their website.

feautured photo courtesy of:

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