Thirty-nine states have no protections against LGBTQ+ panic defenses in court, and Michigan is one of them.
An LGBTQ+ panic defense, known also as gay/trans panic, is defined by the LGBTQ+ Bar Association as “a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.”
While “not a free-standing defense to criminal liability,” it is used as a “legal tactic used to bolster other defenses,” such as insanity, provocation, self-defense, and has been utilized to justify hate crimes by excusing the defendant’s “loss of control and subsequent assault.”
A 2020 study by criminal scholar W. Carsten Andresen revealed that almost one-third of defendants nationwide who used LGBTQ+ panic defenses had their charges reduced.
One of the most notable examples of this ploy was when the killers of Matthew Shepard, a 21 year-old gay man, had their day in court after torturing and murdering Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. One of the two men attempted an LGBTQ+ panic defense but was rejected by the judge.
While 15 states have made measures to ban LGBTQ+ panic defenses after the American Bar Association issued a resolution in 2013, Michigan has no law in place to prevent this discriminatory legal strategy from being used in court.
In a 2020 USAToday ranking of US states and their LGBTQ protections, Michigan (with LGBTQ+ people making up 4 percent of the population, the 25th lowest in the states) was ranked 43rd out of 50.
USAToday says “Michigan has one of the highest levels of [LGBTQ] hate crimes reported per 100,000 residents,” due in part to “a state law requiring the reporting of hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation.” While Michigan has no laws banning LGBTQ people from becoming foster parents, “Michigan does have a law,” according to USAToday, “permitting discrimination in adoption procedures and foster placement.”
According to the Movement Advancement Project, a national organization that tracks LGBTQ-specific policies and laws, “only a third of Michigan’s residents live in a municipality where discrimination on the basis of LGBTQ identity is explicitly prohibited by local ordinance.”
Progress towards equity has been made in the state. As of June 2022, Michigan has “implemented workplace and health insurance protections for those who are LGBTQ,” and the Movement Advancement Project states that “eight Michigan municipalities, including East Lansing, explicitly ban conversion therapy for minors,” which is known to use torturous and traumatic methods in attempts to “change” a person’s sexual or gender identity.
Earlier this year, a Michigan Court of Appeals judge ruled that trans people are covered by the hate crime law under the definition of sex, and Wayne County prosecutors are currently pursuing additional prison time for a suspect who attacked a brutalized trans woman.
In late 2021, Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) introduced House Bill 5590, which would ban the LGBTQ+ panic defense across the state. “Targeting a person solely because of their gender identity or sexual orientation is never defensible,” said Pohutsky, “and it’s long past time for Michigan to follow the lead of other states and ban this defense from being used in a court of law.”