Let’s Talk About ‘Gay Panic’

Photographed by Beth Sacca
What do you think of first when you hear the term 'gay panic'?
On TikTok, 'gay panic' has almost 740 million views. The tag is filled with queer people being flustered at encountering their crushes, trying (and sometimes failing) to flirt, dealing with the embarrassment of how attracted you are to someone. This is the definition that comes to mind first for Daisy, who is a 21-year-old lesbian: "It’s when you see someone you’re into in a gay way and you don’t know what to do with yourself or you say something embarrassing so you panic."
This is also how sex and culture critic Ella Dawson would most commonly use the term. "I think of gay panic as an intense, overwhelming wave of queer desire [...] It’s a fun feeling, like being showered in flower petals or drinking champagne." Dawson experiences gay panic herself when Anne Hathaway shows up in Ocean’s Eight and The Dark Knight Rises. 
It’s not the only interpretation of the term, however. Nor is it the original usage. Kelvin, who is 25 and a queer trans man, would first associate the words with the gay panic defence. This is a legal strategy whereby a defendant can claim to have acted in a state of violent, temporary insanity, committing assault or murder because of unwanted same-gender sexual advances. It’s still legal in more than half of US states and while it won’t get a case thrown out, it can lessen a sentence from murder to manslaughter. 
We like to think we are living in the most progressive period of history. But comparatively, this idea of gay panic as a legal defence is fairly new. Dr Eleanor Janega, a medieval historian and author of The Once and Future Sex, says that in the medieval period, there was "very little acceptable violence that someone [could] mete out on someone if they were gay or trans".
Language is constantly evolving. Dr Janega points to how we’ve redefined 'sodomy' as one example. Going back to ancient periods, she explains, sodomy meant any kind of sex that could not lead to pregnancy. If you were engaging in sex, it should be for the 'right' reason: to procreate. Hand jobs, oral sex, even penis-in-vagina sex using a condom or contraceptive method used to count as sodomy. Today, however, the term mostly refers to anal sex between men
Sodomy was for everyone and it’s part of why there wasn’t the same concept of a gay panic defence in medieval times. Dr Janega explains that because sex acts were not tied to labels of sexuality in the same way they are today, an advance for queer sex wasn’t the same perceived affront to one’s masculinity.
The horrific violence later 'justified' by the gay and trans panic defence comes from that need to prove that one is not queer. A recent example of this is the killing of Daniel Spencer by his neighbour James Miller in 2015. During the trial, Miller claimed that he rejected a sexual advance from Spencer and had stabbed him in self-defence. Even though physical evidence showed he was never in danger, Miller was only convicted of criminally negligent homicide, which carries a lighter punishment than murder or manslaughter. Harry-Anne, who is queer and transfemme, explains from her perspective: "Trans panic is the fear that someone will be sexually interested in me, realise I'm not cis, then feel an embarrassed and aggressive need to assert their heterosexuality by abusing me verbally or physically."
Can you imagine your masculinity being so fragile that you feel the need to murder a trans woman who you found attractive, just to reaffirm that you are straight?
We still live in a deeply queerphobic society. This is why people like Kelvin are uncomfortable with the way 'queer panic' has been redefined. He thinks it’s part of a pattern of queerness being discussed in ahistorical terms, removed from the history of the queer community. Perhaps more worryingly, it shows the "lack of ways that queer people are able to share intergenerational knowledge in a still-repressive society".
We simply aren’t taught about queer history. Dr Janega thinks this is part of the struggle that queer and trans people face today. The gay panic defence has been used since the 1960s, which Dr Janega explains is when a lot of people would like to imagine queer people first appeared. "One of the big pushbacks against acceptance of queer people in society is this pretending that, oh, well, no one's ever been trans before. No one's ever been queer before. This is something that was all made up in the past 10 years and it's simply not the case. It is a historical fact that queer people have been around."
Heteronormative power structures rely on the erasure of queer history. The idea that young people are being radicalised by the internet to 'think' they’re trans doesn’t make sense when you realise that queer and trans people have always existed. 
So much queer history has been lost but the idea that queer people are inherently predatory also stops our history from being shared within our community. Dr Janega points out that when looking back to the medieval period, you have to be careful because 'sodomite' referred to those who engaged in paedophilia as well as those who had sex that wasn’t for procreation. Even today, queer people have to walk on tiptoe to avoid being branded as perverts, cutting off possibilities for building community with younger generations. 
A case can be made that the new definition of 'gay panic' makes it harder to find information about the legal defence. However, Dawson thinks we should stop using 'gay panic defence' as a legal strategy altogether. "It reinforces the idea that attacking queer people is acceptable. We should call it what it is: a violent assault and potentially a hate crime." The LGBTQ+ Bar Association is leading the push to stop the gay panic defence being used in the US, introducing a resolution in 2013 that was unanimously approved by the American Bar Association. There is currently pending legislation in a number of states, including Massachusetts and Nebraska, to ban the defence, with Florida becoming the latest state to eliminate its use in January 2023.
There is huge power not only in being visibly out but in showing how much joy can be found in queerness or transness. 'Gay panic', in its sweetest, contemporary sense, celebrates the normalisation of queer romance and relationships. With laws still being passed, in 2023, that attack queer and trans rights, we need that reminder of how powerful queer and trans joy is – just as we need to remember queer history and how hard we’ve fought to get this far.

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