‘We are the victims’: Pa. House, Senate bills would ban gay, trans-panic defense

April 12, 2021 7:17 am

It is estimated that up to 1.8% of youth identify as transgender, and a further 1.6% are questioning or gender diverse. (Photo by Ted Eytan, used through a Creative Commons license by the Daily Montanan).

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

In January 2020, a man named Marcus Jones asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to grant him a new trial for his 2017 conviction in the brutal beating of a transgender woman named Michele Hill two years earlier.

Surveillance video from the 2015 incident in North Philadelphia showed Jones punching Hill 30 times and stomping on her head eight times, before taking her purse and leaving her for dead. As our partners at the Philadelphia Gay News reportJones told police that Hill was performing oral sex on him in an alley, when he realized she had a penis, and he flew into a rage.

At trial, a Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judge rejected Jones’ employment of what’s familiarly known as a “trans-panic defense.” He was convicted on charges of attempted murder and related crimes, and sentenced to a minimum of 13 years in state prison, the Philadelphia Gay News reported.

Some four years after Jones’ conviction, Democratic lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House and Senate say they want to make sure that someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity can never again be used a defense tactic in criminal cases.

For LGBTQ activists across the state, it’s a move that’s long overdue.

“We’re the victims,” Ciora Thomas, a Black transgender woman, and the founder of SisTers PGH, a Black and transgender-led nonprofit organization that provides services to the region’s queer, transgender, and nonbinary Black residents, people of color, and those of indigenous descent.  “We’re seeing people trying to victimize the murderers, like they were tricked. That’s not the case.”

“I need [Pennsylvanians] to know that the transgender community, especially the community of color, [is] being harmed, especially by cisgender men,” she added later. “It’s even more predominant among Black cisgender men. It’s a huge thing to highlight this.”

(Patrick Feller/Flickr)

Under existing state law, criminal defendants are currently “allowed to receive a lesser sentence or, in some cases, even altogether avoid conviction or punishment, by placing the blame for their actions on a victim’s actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression,” the sponsors of the Pennsylvania House bill, Reps. Mike Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, and Ben Sanchez, D-Montgomery said in a statement.

Thirteen other states, most recently Virginia and Vermont, have moved to ban the dehumanizing defense tactic, the two lawmakers said, citing published reports.

Schlossberg and Sanchez currently are seeking co-sponsors for their legislation, which has been introduced in past sessions, but has never won approval. On the other side of the Capitol, Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, also is seeking co-sponsors for a companion ban bill.

“Let’s be honest: There are people who look for an excuse to hate and hurt others,” Schlossberg said in a statement. “It’s awful that we need to provide protections like this, but it’s our reality. There is no place in our society for fear-based attacks on another person.”

The House lawmakers wrote in an April 7 ‘Dear Colleague’ memo that  their bill  “would extend beyond the ‘gay’ and ‘trans’ terminology to include all members of this marginalized community by prohibiting the court system from allowing a defense of this nature in consideration of serious provocation or insanity.”

In a memo to her Senate colleagues, Collett said the existence of the defense tactic “is a human rights violation,” and a loophole in existing law that “needs to be closed immediately.”

(Philadelphia Tribune photo)

Violence directed at transgender people exacted a deadly toll in 2020, with 350 transgender people nationwide losing their lives, Forbes reported. The violence came amid an overall increase in hate crimes directed against LGBTQ people across the country, according to the Human Rights Campaign, which cited FBI data.

“It’s important for the community to know that it should not be a legal defense to hurt or kill someone because they are LGBTQ,” Adrian Shanker, the founder and executive director of the Bradbury-Sullivan LGBTQ Community Center in Allentown, told the Capital-Star in a recent interview. “This should not be controversial for our Legislature to see that this should not be a line of defense … Pennsylvania should follow the lead of other states.”

Sanchez offered a similar sentiment in a statement, saying that “as a group of people who already see discrimination and violence directed toward them on a sadly regular basis, the LGBTQ+ community should not worry that our justice system hosts a version of that discrimination. A victim of violence should not feel that their justice system will not protect them because of a loophole that targets their very existence.”

Thomas, a co-vice chairperson of the Pennsylvania Commission on LGBTQ Affairs, told the Capital-Star last week that the advisory panel has consulted with lawmakers on their legislation.

“We’re making sure our voices are being heard,” Thomas said.

The Pennsylvania Capitol building. (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Our Stuff.
In this week’s edition of The Numbers RacketCassie Miller dives into the data to see what kind of bang for the buck you’re getting with your Pennsylvania tax dollar — and how the Keystone State stacks up nationwide.

Miller also has this must-read explainer on Gov. Tom Wolf’s latest attempt to raid a slush fund for the state’s horse racing industry, and use the money to underwrite scholarships for students at Pennsylvania’s 14 state-owned universities.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment system will get a long-overdue upgrade in June, though concerns linger, Stephen Caruso reports.

National Correspondent Jacob Fischler explains how President Joe Biden’s recent budget proposal aims to fight climate change, promote conservation, and aid Native Americans.

New research highlights how the pandemic is hurting LGBTQ Pennsylvanians, our partners at the Philadelphia Gay News report.

And socked by the pandemic, Philadelphia will put off property reassessments for a second year, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, opinion regular Dick Polman has some thoughts about the national GOP’s attempts to cancel Major League Baseball and Coca-Cola after the corporate behemoths took a stand against Georgia’s new voting law. And an education advocate makes the case for legislation now before the state Senate that would update how the state calculates charter school tuition, potentially handing a break to the school districts (and local taxpayers) that pay it.

En la Estrella-Capital, los Republicanos de Harrisburg se reúnen con Kobach de Kansas para hablar sobre elecciones y política de inmigración. Y los funcionarios estatales le advierten a los residentes ahora que Pa. entra en la temporada máxima de incendios forestales.

Philadelphia City Hall (Image via

The Inquirer
 zooms in on the race for Philadelphia district attorney, pitting incumbent Larry Krasner against challenger Carlos Vega.
The Post-Gazette goes deep on President Joe Biden’s $100 billion plan to expand rural broadband.
PennLive has the latest on who’s eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine. That includes state workers and federal employees.
LancasterOnline takes a look at whether a local official is benefitting from no-bid contracts.
In the wake of two fatal police shootings, officials in the Lehigh Valley are weighing programs to avert tragedy, the Morning Call reports.
The Citizens’ Voice answers readers’ questions about COVID-19 vaccination cards.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:

In Montgomery County, attendees at a vigil looked for a way to push back against anti-Asian hate, WHYY-FM reports.
The Allegheny Valley Railroad has agreed to sell a 3.6 mile long stretch of railroad to Aspinwall Riverfront Park for bike and pedestrian trails, WESA-FM reports.
explains how President Joe Biden’s COVID stimulus plan will help poor children in Erie. 
A new survey shows Washington County residents are concerned about the region’s economy, the Observer-Reporter reports.
PoliticsPA runs down last week’s winners and losers in state politics.
Many rural hospital closures have been in communities of reports.
Talking Points Memo 
has the details on former President Donald Trump’s grievance-filled rant during this weekend’s GOP retreat.

What Goes On.
The House and Senate are both out this week. Here’s a look at the day’s committee action.
10 a.m., Senate Chamber: Senate Education Committee
11 a.m, 418 MC: House Democratic Policy Committee

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept.
Belated best wishes go out this morning to PennLive’s Joe McClure, who celebrated on Sunday. Congratulations, sir. Hope it was a good one.

Dept. of Pizza.
Our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper run down the five places where you can find vegan pizza (and more) in the Steel City. Which already has me thinking about lunch.

Heavy Rotation.
Shoegaze legends My Bloody Valentine recently announced they finally were making their material available for streaming, and plan to release new music. And across the world, the hearts of music geeks grew two sizes too big. From their last recorded outing, the 2013 EP, ‘MBV,’ here’s the very hypnotic, hence very MBV‘New You.’ 

Monday’s Gratuitous Baseball Link.
Boston pounded the Orioles 14-9 
on Sunday. Oof. Baltimore slipped to second place in the AL East behind the surging Red Sox.

And now you’re up to date.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.