TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Senate Minority Leader Lauren Book (D-Davie) and Rep. Rita Harris (D-Orlando) filed new legislation Wednesday to ban Florida defendants from claiming “gay panic” as an excuse for criminal acts.
Senate Bill 328, also called the “Gay and Transgender Panic Legal Defenses Prohibition Act” would prevent individuals from blaming their criminal offenses on panic caused by “nonviolent sexual advance or specified perceptions or beliefs about another individual.”
The bill text states that “The Legislature finds that gay and transgender panic legal defenses raised in criminal proceedings characterize sexual orientation and gender expression or gender identity as objectively reasonable excuses for a perpetrator’s loss of self-control, and that these defenses thereby illegitimately attempt to mitigate the responsibility of the perpetrator for harm done to lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender individuals.”
The Gay Panic Defense
The gay panic defense, according to the George Washington University Law School, is a courtroom defense strategy where, typically, a heterosexual man has been charged with murdering a gay man and claims “the gay man made an unwanted sexual advance upon him,” causing the defendant to panic and kill the victim.
According to Prof. Cynthia Lee, this method of legal defense is “troubling because they seek to capitalize on unconscious bias in favor of heterosexuality, which is prevalent in today’s heterocentric society.”
While not an officially recognized legal defense, Lee wrote that some legal strategies rely upon it for support of a variety of pleas, such as “claims of insanity, diminished capacity, provocation, and self-defense.”
The term in some way, shape, or form has existed since being coined in 1920 by Dr. Edward J. Kempf, a psychiatrist as “homosexual panic.”
The Conversation, a nonprofit, independent news organization, published an article on the Gay Panic Defense, citing a study of cases in the U.S. from 1970 to 2020. The study showed that in Florida, according to The Conversation’s analysis, the defense had been used five times.
A release from Sen. Book said this is her third year attempting to pass the legislation, as well as calling on the state legislature to apologize for its Florida Legislative Investigation Committee, also known as the Johns Committee, named for state senator Charley Johns, (D-Gainesville).
While in the state Senate, Johns served as Senate President in 1953, then temporarily assumed office as Acting Governor upon the death of Dan McCarty. He served in the Senate until 1966.
The Johns Committee operated between the 1956 to the 1965, using taxpayer funds to investigate Florida colleges and universities for professors and students who were members of the LGBTQ community, investigating the NAACP, and suspected communist organizations.
By its own writings, the FLIC said it was charged by state statute to investigate “all organizations whose principles or activities include a course of conduct on the part of any person or group which would constitute violence, or a violation of the laws of the state, or would be inimical to the well being and orderly pursuit of their personal and business activities by the majority of the citizens of this state, as well as the extent of infiltration into agencies supported by state funds by practicing homosexuals, and the effect thereof on said agencies and the public, and the policies of various state agencies in dealing therewith.”
The committee’s investigations resulted in the reported dismissal or resignation of more than 100 educators and leaders at three Florida institutions: The University of Florida, Florida State University, and the University of South Florida. For example, one professor, Dr. Sigismond deRudesheim Diettrich, tried to kill himself as a result, which is documented in his resignation letter to UF staff.
The committee lost funding for its operations in 1964 after releasing a report titled “Homosexuality and Citizenship in Florida,” a report which detailed the investigations by the Johns Committee. The legislative group’s work has been compared to the McCarthy Era of the United States, known for the Red Scare where Americans were investigated for potential ties to the Communist Party during the Cold War Era.
USF’s Oracle publication wrote in 2003 that Sen. Johns had “made it his mission to rid the state of Communists, homosexuals, and the NAACP.”
Saying Florida was a state with “a tradition of political persecution, religious invective, and racial segregation,” opposition to the Johns Committee’s activities was “sparse and sporadic.”
In 2019, Book introduced a resolution to have Florida apologize for the Johns Committee’s work. It has yet to gain enough support in the legislature to pass.