Anya Sczerzenie, Staff Writer
Del. Danica Roem, the first openly transgender person in the Virginia General Assembly, was a freshman at Paul IV Catholic High School in Fairfax when she heard of the death of Matthew Shepard on the news.
Shepard, an openly gay University of Wyoming student, was severely beaten in 1998 and later died of his injuries. His death ignited nationwide conversation about hate crimes and was one of the most famous anti-LGBTQ attacks in U.S. history. Roem, who knew at the time that she was transgender, was deeply affected.
House Bill 2132, introduced this year by Roem, D-Manassas, would outlaw the defense used by a lawyer of one of Shepard’s attackers. Known as the “gay panic defense,” it is used to argue that a revelation about a victim’s gender or sexual identity caused a perpetrator to lose control and assault, injure or kill them. The bill was referred to the Committee for Courts of Justice.
In Matthew Shepard’s case, the lawyer of one of his attackers, Aaron McKinney, tried to use the “gay panic defense.” The lawyer argued that McKinney was driven to “temporary insanity” by alleged sexual advances made by Shepard. This defense was rejected by the judge, and Shepard’s attackers were convicted of murder.
“His killers tried to argue that his identity was the cause and reason for their violent outburst,” Roem said. “This defense has been used across the country; we’ve even had cases in Virginia.”
Sen. Ghazala Hashmi, D-Richmond, worked with Roem to introduce a complementary anti-hate crime bill. Senate Bill 1203 would expand the definition of a hate crime to include crimes against people who have “known or suspected affiliation” with a marginalized person or group, if that association is the motivation for the crime.
In 2009, former President Barack Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law. This act expanded existing hate-crime protections to include outlawing attacks based on gender or sexual orientation.
Hashmi’s proposed legislation would expand the hate crime protection in Virginia further, to cover people who are associated with marginalized groups though they may not be members of the groups themselves.
“The real goal of hate crimes is to strike fear and generate terror among targeted communities and our legal response must be to prevent that power to terrorize,” Hashmi said in a press release on Jan. 15.
VCU alumnus Ankur Bhaskar, who was a member of student club Queer Action during his time on campus, was happy to hear about the pair of bills.
“You can’t change the culture overnight,” said Del. Danica Roem. “Homophobia and transphobia still exist in Virginia, but things do change.”
“Both are definitely well needed,” Bhaskar said. “The queer and trans communities are absolutely marginalized, and deserve to be protected as such.”
Bhaskar said that he sees the “gay panic defense” as hypocrisy.
“You will never hear anyone claim that taking someone’s life because they panicked upon finding out that person was straight, is justified,” Bhaskar said. “That’s one of the worst actions a human can take.”
SB 1203 was heard on Jan. 20 and was passed by indefinitely in the Committee on the Judiciary, which means that the committee can reconsider the bill at a later date. This often, but not always, means a bill is dead.
Despite knowing that HB 2132 might share the same fate, Roem remains optimistic. The General Assembly session from spring 2020 and the fall special session brought a flurry of pro-LGBTQ bills, including the Virginia Values Act and some of Roem’s own bills, through the General Assembly. Many of these bills were passed.
The Virginia Values act, which went into effect on July 1, 2020, prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, credit, and public accomodations on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
“The 2020 session was an all-you-can-gay buffet,” Roem said.
Roem also expressed support for HB 837, Del. Jennifer Carrol Foy’s bill to make school dress codes gender neutral. Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law in April.
Roem said that even if HB 2132 passes both houses of the General Assembly, she doesn’t expect immediate change.
“You can’t change the culture overnight,” she said. “Homophobia and transphobia still exist in Virginia, but things do change.”