What Is The "Gay Panic" Defense Really About?
The author of American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men discusses the tragic murder of out gay mayoral candidate Marco McMillian and why "gay panic" is an increasingly irrelevant term.
On Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2013, the body of Marco McMillian, an out gay mayoral candidate in Clarksdale, Mississippi, was discovered in a levee. In a statement released today, McMillian's family said that he was "beaten, dragged, and set afire." Some have speculated that this murder was an example of "gay panic," a type of legal defense that argues a murder was committed during a state of violent temporary insanity brought on by the gay victim's advances. Critics of the term, however, say it places the blame on the victim.
David McConnell is the author of the new book American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men, which examines several cases of straight men murdering gay victims, presumably because of so-called "gay panic." He spoke with BuzzFeed about his book, the McMillian case, and what we might learn from the intersection of desire and violence.
BuzzFeed: Many people argue that "gay panic" as a defense is a total cop-out. Based on your research, do you think the term is useful at all?
David McConnell: I don't think "gay panic" is especially useful. There's really no difference between "gay panic" and the surprise anyone might feel by learning, unexpectedly, that someone desires them. "Gay panic" is not and shouldn't be a special category. It can be upsetting for men to be the object of unexpected, unwanted desire, but it can be upsetting for women too, and they have to deal with it much more frequently. As a legal defense, it's certainly a cop-out. It's complete bull.
Maybe one case I looked at seemed to be a genuine instance of "gay panic," but even then, the perpetrator was deranged. He was depressive and had tried to commit suicide already. His sense of panic wasn't about being gay. It was a generalized sort of embarrassed.
Furthermore, as a legal defense, "gay panic" doesn't work. People think it used to be more successful. Historically, in the case of serious crimes like murder and assault, "gay panic" has never worked. Roman Navarro was murdered in 1965, and his two killers were young hustlers who tried, explicitly, a "gay panic" defense. No one believed them. So the real issue is that when we say "gay panic," we put the focus on the group that's been victimized and not on the source of the violence, which is really the nature of masculinity itself. And that's what we really need to talk about.
BF: You visited convicted murderers all over the country and interviewed them in prison. How did that inform your perspective on "gay panic"?
DM: Well, now the idea of classifying these murders as hate crimes or instances of "gay panic" seems off to me. I'm not proposing that we start calling them "honor killings." I just want the focus to move away from the victims and onto the perpetrators because I think these crimes are something that comes out of them, out of their behavior, their obsessions, their fears, their sense of the world. It's not the fault of anybody who's hurt or attacked, whether it's a class or an individual. And I think if we start calling them hate crimes or "gay panic," it absolves these guys, to some degree. Very often, panic or extreme emotion from any kind is absent from these murders. In many of the crimes I researched, the guy had a very intense reaction to homosexuality, but often it was crossed with anti-Semitism or a really vile kind of racism. In other words, it's this generalized kind of hatred that's [made them] lash out at anyone perceived to be weaker or a second-class citizen.
BF: You worked on this book for three years. How did the process of writing the book begin?
DM: There wasn't a specific catalyst. For me, it was about this sense of myself as a guy, this sense of my own manhood. And, if anything, it was about a slight worry — not fear about being bullied myself — but about hurting others. It was about looking at those masculinity issues in myself.
When anybody — men and women — goes on a first date or picks up somebody, you immediately have that flicker of fear, and it's especially true for gay people who go out and hook up. It used to happen to me. I'd meet somebody and then go home with them and it would pass through my mind: "I hope this is safe. I don't want to get in trouble or anything like that." This sense of danger is so present with anyone when it comes to sex. So, it's important to look at that reality.
BF: In the McMillian case, the police department has already made it clear that they don't believe this was a hate crime, which raises the issue of how we officially designate crimes. What is this back and forth over naming crimes really about?
DM: Naming is political. And I didn't see my job as an entirely political one. What I was doing in the book was presenting an event in as clear and honest and truthful a way as I could. I didn't want to rely on any accepted names at all, which is why I titled the book a name that's slightly different from what we might have expected.
When the police in the McMillian case say, "Look, this is not a hate crime. It's only a personal issue between two guys," they're actually making this a political decision for us. And I tried not to do that.
BF: Your boyfriend, Daryl, is actually from Mississippi, right?
DM: Yes. We've been to Clarksdale several times, and I love it. It's one of the few Delta cities that has this incredibly vibrant culture and personality all of its own. So, for this to happen in Clarksdale is especially heartbreaking. And I didn't know about McMillian before this, but he sounded like a truly wonderful guy.
I think a lot of people are going to look at this, without paying any sort of real attention to the story itself, and go, "Oh, African-American mayoral candidate, gay, Mississippi, racism, homophobia. Forget about it." And dismiss the story. And that's not right. We have to pay attention. We have to watch these stories develop.
BF: In addition to McMillian's tragedy, there's the story out of Mesquite, Texas, of the lesbian woman who was beaten unconscious after trying to defend her son from playground bullying. There seems to be a disconnect between all of the progress we're seeing nationally regarding LGBT rights and instances of violence that continue to impact people in our community. With such a strong emphasis on marriage equality, are we becoming complacent regarding other issues?
DM: It's an incredibly dangerous time both for civil rights and for gay rights. We're having these overwhelming public successes, and yet, I get the sense that there's also a simmering kind of resentment in response to that progress. Gay people have a tendency to fall into a political feedback loop. Everybody's talking, but it doesn't seem like there are very many new ideas.