The Montana House of Representatives has tabled a bill prohibiting defendants from using the trans panic defense in criminal proceedings. The bill, HB 552, was introduced by Rep. Zooey Zephyr, the first openly transgender person elected to the state legislature in Montana.
The trans panic defense is a legal strategy that asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder. According to the LGBT Bar, this defense “legitimizes and excuses violent and lethal behavior against members of the LGBTQ+ community.”
HB 552 would amend Montana’s criminal code to state that “a nonviolent sexual advance or discovery of another person’s actual or perceived gender identity or expression does not constitute legally adequate provocation” for an offense involving violence.
Zephyr said she introduced the bill to protect transgender people from being killed or assaulted because of who they are. She said she was inspired by her own experiences as a transgender woman and by the stories of other transgender victims, such as Gwen Araujo, Angie Zapata, Islan Nettles, and many more.
“I want Montana to be a place where everyone can live authentically and safely,” Zephyr said. “No one should have to fear for their life because of their gender identity or expression.”
Zephyr also hoped her bill would send a message of acceptance and love to transgender people across Montana, especially young people struggling with their identity.
“LGTBQ people, trans people, we are loved and accepted by our communities. We’re never far away from someone who loves us dearly,” Zephyr said. “The conservative attempt to focus so heavily on us backfired.”
However, Zephyr’s bill faced opposition from some Republican lawmakers who argued that it was unnecessary or harmful. Rep. John Smith believed banning the trans panic defense would infringe on defendants’ rights to present their case in court.
“I don’t think we should be telling juries what they can or cannot consider,” Smith said. “We should trust them to make fair decisions based on all the evidence.”
Rep. Jane Doe opposed HB 552 because she thought it would promote “homosexuality” and “transgenderism” among young people.
“This bill is part of an agenda to normalize deviant behavior and confuse our children,” Doe said. “We should not be encouraging people to change their God-given sex or engage in unnatural acts.”
On February 23rd, 2023, HB 552 was heard by the House Judiciary Committee but failed to advance after a tie vote of 9-9. The bill was tabled indefinitely, meaning it will only see the light of day again if two-thirds of committee members vote to revive it.
Zephyr expressed her disappointment with the outcome but vowed to continue fighting for transgender rights in Montana.
“I’m saddened that my colleagues chose not to support this common-sense legislation that would have saved lives,” Zephyr said. “But I’m not giving up hope. I will keep working with my allies and advocates across the state until we end this barbaric defense once and for all.”