The Washington State Legislature passed a bill Wednesday that will make the state's legal system less homophobic and transphobic, and that honors a recently murdered transgender teenager.
Titled the Nikki Kuhnhausen Act, the bill outlaws the use of the LGBTQ+ panic defense. Also known as the gay-panic or trans-panic defense, this is a legal strategy arguing that uses of force against an LGBTQ+ person are sometimes justified. The shock of learning about that identity, the panic defense argues, could temporarily diminish someone's capacity to act reasonably, or cause them to fear they are at risk of sexual assault from the LGBTQ+ person.
"A defendant does not suffer from diminished capacity based on the discovery of, knowledge about, or potential disclosure of the victim's actual or perceived gender, gender identity, gender expression, or sexual orientation," the bill reads in part.
The bill is named after a 17-year-old trans woman who was murdered in Vancouver, Washington last year in what police believe was an act of anti-trans violence. From the Mercury's recent reporting about Kunhausen's life and legacy:
First documented in the 1950s and used as recently as 2018, the LGBTQ+ panic defense is sometimes successful in acquitting alleged murderers and assaulters or reducing the severity of their charges.
“It works routinely,” says D’Arcy Kemnitz, executive director of the National LGBT Bar Association. “It works because it plays on the worst stereotypes that LGBTQ+ people are somehow predatory.” ....
It’s not yet known whether [Kuhnhasen's alleged killer David Bogdanov's] defense team will use the LGBTQ+ panic as a legal strategy—as of now, he maintains he did not kill Kuhnhausen—but there is nothing legally stopping them.
Mikki Gillette of Basic Rights Oregon, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBTQ+ rights, has been providing support and resources for [Kuhnhausen's mother Lisa] Woods since Kuhnhausen’s death. Gillette says the LGBTQ+ panic defense reflects the broader cultural belief that “a violent reaction is considered somehow a natural reaction” toward LGBTQ+ people, and trans women in particular. Kuhnhausen’s death, Gillette says, “shows that line of thinking is still alive in our region.”
The bill passed through the Washington House on February 12, and passed a Senate vote on Wednesday. Both chambers voted in favor of the bill by a wide margin, with just a few Republican lawmakers voting against it. Washington Governor Jay Inslee is expected to sign it into law.
Washington is now the 10th state to outlaw the LGBTQ+ panic defense. It is still permissible in Oregon.