As of July 13, Colorado became the 11th state to ban the use of the gay/transgender “panic defense” in court. The defense previously allowed a perpetrator of violence to use an LGBTQ victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity as a reason for violence, essentially saying that finding out about the victim’s identity caused a panic or disturbance in the perpetrator that led to an attack or murder.
“This bill eliminates the use of a defendant’s reaction to a victim’s gender identity or sexual orientation as any kind of defense in a criminal trial,” said Gov. Jared Polis upon signing the bill. "Even saying these words out loud should make people realize how absurd and outdated this standard was in the first place. A person’s sexual orientation or gender identity are never a reason to excuse somebody from committing a crime against them.”
District 54 Rep. Matt Soper, representing Delta and Mesa Counties, was a prime sponsor of the bipartisan bill along with Sen. Jack Tate, Sen. Jeff Bridges and Rep. Leslie Herod. Soper said the bill is returning personal responsibility to the state’s legal system by preventing defendants from shifting the blame onto the victim’s identity as a cause for violence.
“We, as Colorado, are eliminating a defense that goes against equality under the law, it goes against justice, and it goes against what Coloradans know to be right,” Soper said.
“[The panic defense] would be signaling to Colorado’s youth that you can commit horrible acts of assault or murder and get away with it, as long as you can prove the victim was LGBT+, and that’s not right.”
He explained that the bill is very similar to rape shield laws, in which a defendant cannot use a victim’s sexual history as evidence.
“It’s not fair, it goes against equal justice, and it defies personal responsibility,” Soper said. “This bill really does bring back personal responsibility, that the criminal defendant has to be responsible for their own illegal conduct.”
Daniel Ramos, executive director for One Colorado (an LGBT+ advocacy organization out of Denver) said that the bill not only prevents use of the gay/trans panic defense, but lets members of the LGBT+ community in Colorado know that their identity is not a reason to be targeted.
“This bill sends a really strong message to all folks, especially young people, that your sexual orientation or gender identity should not be a reason for you to be targeted,” Ramos said. “We’re living in a time when we’re seeing increases in bullying, harassment and violence, especially against black and brown folks. And I hope this bill really sends a message that no one should be targeted.”
Ramos said that in the current racial climate in Colorado, it’s important to acknowledge the disproportionate violence against LGBT+ people of color. Herod elaborated on the bill's impact on intersectionality during the signing.
“The gay and trans panic defense is particularly important to me, and I know to the Center [on Colfax] and One Colorado as well, because of the disproportionate impact it has on black and brown transgender people in Colorado,” Herod said.
“The goal of One Colorado is to close this gap between legal and lived equality. ...We see a need to do more to protect people who are more at risk, to have stronger and more collaborative communities in our bigger fight toward justice,” Ramos agreed. “[We need to] ensure that we can break down those issues of systemic racism, acknowledge them and do something to make sure that we have a just and fair society for everyone.”
Soper emphasized that the bill is both practical in ensuring equal justice under the law, but also sends a message to the LGBT+ community that lawmakers are supporting them.
“The gay and trans panic defense was never widely used in Colorado, [but] having one or two of a few attempts is too many when this is clearly going against what we want as a society,” Soper said. “For the entire LGBT+ community to know: it’s practical, but it’s also symbolic. The symbolism comes with that fact that 99 out of 100 lawmakers voted yes on this bill. ...This is kind of the first step in moving Colorado forward, and also telling the LGBT+ community that there are conservatives that are willing to fight for you.”
Before the pandemic put restrictions on travel, One Colorado had visited Montrose during a statewide tour. Ramos said that he had seen changes in the environment here, including that “people can no longer say that they don't know any LGBT+ people” and that more members of the LGBT+ community are participating in their communities.
“Knowing that in every area of our state, including rural Western Colorado, that things are changing and people are finding more ways to support each other,” Ramos said. “It’s incredibly encouraging and it’s always heartening to go to the Western Slope and see how incredible the community is.”
Along with the ban on gay/trans panic defense, Polis also signed three bills that increase funding for Colorado HIV and AIDS drug assistance programs, simplify the process to obtain an updated birth certificate and expand access to HIV prevention medications.