Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Homophobia: Excuse or Cause?

Keith Pavlischek


November 8, 1999

Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson lured Matthew Shepard, a University of Wyoming student, from a popular campus bar. After robbing him and driving him to a remote spot outside town, McKinney savagely beat him on the head with a .357 magnum pistol, tied him to a fence, and left him to die. In April, Henderson pleaded guilty to murder and kidnapping charges and received two life sentences. Last week, a jury found McKinney guilty of "felony murder"—rather than "premeditated murder." Both charges carry a possible death sentence, but the jury determined that McKinney intended to commit robbery and kidnapping—and not murder. He, also, was sentenced to life without parole.

McKinney's lawyer had sought to get the charge reduced to manslaughter by employing the "homophobia-made-me-do-it" defense. The legal jargon is the "gay panic" defense, built on the notion that a person with latent gay tendencies will have an uncontrollable, violent reaction when propositioned by a homosexual. The lawyer argued that, as a child, McKinney was scarred by a homosexual predator, so he responded with "five minutes of rage and chaos" when Shepard made sexual advances toward him, fondling McKinney's crotch and licking his ear. The judge wisely barred the use of this defense, arguing that it is akin to a plea of temporary insanity or of diminished capacity—both of which Wyoming prohibits.

"Gay advocacy" groups applauded the judge's ruling, denouncing the "gay panic" defense as preposterous and pathetic. About that, they are right. If, however, this defense is preposterous and pathetic, what about the rhetoric from prominent gay rights politicians, activists, and journalists immediately following Shepard's murder last year?

For months we heard the refrain (without any appeal to evidence) that the murder was caused by groups like the Family Research Council for suggesting that homosexuals can change; Jerry Falwell and Trent Lott for suggesting that homosexuality is a "sin" (always in quotation marks); public officials or activists who oppose "gay marriage"; and other private organizations that refuse to compromise traditional moral objections to homosexual practice. To the gay rights crowd all such moral concerns were reduced to a psychological disorder or irrational fear of homosexuals: it's all just homo-PHOBIA. We all seem to suffer from "gay panic."

Last winter I participated in a televised debate in which a Christian philosopher colleague was accused of contributing to the "climate of hate and violence" which led to the murder simply because he had published an article opposing the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the priesthood of the Episcopal church. This accusation came, without any embarrassment, from an educated gay clergyman. Now, that's preposterous and pathetic. At least the legal appeal to the "gay panic" defense attempted to locate a proximate cause and excuse for the crime in the childhood of the actual killer, instead of blaming an obscure philosophy professor!

If the "gay panic" defense is bad law, this is worse sociology. In fact, those who argue like this lend support to the legal "gay panic" defense they otherwise oppose. After all, if moral objections to the "gay lifestyle" reflect nothing more than a psychological disorder, then one can plausibly claim that McKinney should be exonerated or excused. He couldn't help it; he was "homophobic"!

If the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender rights lobby is truly concerned with reducing the incidents of such barbarities, they might begin by stopping their ranting against those who hold principled moral objections to homosexuality. The displacement of guilt from the true perpetrators of real crimes, and the repeated charges of "homophobia," merely gives thugs like Henderson and McKinney an excuse for an inexcusable and wicked act.

—Keith J. Pavlischek, Fellow
   Center for Public Justice


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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”