Don Belton and the Gay Panic Defense

By Deputy Editor Thea Lim

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Writer Don Belton was discovered stabbed to death in his kitchen on December 28th 2009.  Belton was African American and gay. According to the website Justice for Don Belton:

The residents of Bloomington, Indiana are deeply saddened by the loss of Don Belton, a gifted writer and a warm, generous man who was loved by everyone who met him…

Police have arrested 25-year-old Michael James Griffin in Belton’s death. This Web site hopes to honor Don Belton’s memory, but it’s also a place to monitor the progress of the criminal case and the media coverage of this horrific act of violence against a member of our community.

In these early days after Belton’s death, we are concerned by the way the story is taking shape*.  Hateful, racist, and homophobic remarks have been circulating on messaging boards under articles about Don’s murder. Don was African American and openly gay, and much of his creative work dealt with the intersections of those identities.

Griffin, who is to be arraigned on Wednesday, December 30, has alleged that Don Belton sexually assaulted him—twice—on Christmas day in Griffin’s home. Two days later, Griffin reportedly went to Don’s house—with his knife–to demand an apology. The Herald Times is reporting that When Belton would not accept Griffin’s accusations, Griffin stabbed him several times, “until he quit moving.”

While we do not wish to polarize the community, we do want law enforcement to understand that there is a long, established history of suspects invoking a claim of sexual assault and/or a “gay panic” defense to get charges reduced or to win over a jury when the victim was a gay person. This is a tactic that has had some success over the years but is increasingly being recognized for what it is: a defense that plays to societal bias and prejudice and is not a justifiable excuse for murder.

CBS is already reporting that the gay panic defense may be used by Griffin, who is incidentally an ex-Marine:

Despite his alleged confession, Griffin has pleaded not guilty to the killing. And though his defense strategy is not yet clear, others with similar cases have pursued a “gay panic” defense, hoping to persuade juries that they were rendered temporarily insane by the perceived romantic or sexual advances of the victim.

In 2008 we published “Justice Delayed, Denied and Disgraceful” by Monica Roberts, which discussed the use of the trans panic defense in the context of multiple murders of trans women of colour.  Monica explains what the trans panic defense is:

What the defendant will do is claim for example, that when they discovered that the woman they’re with is discovered to be transgender, it causes them to become so enraged that they committed the crime they ordinarily wouldn’t have done and were not of sound mind and body when they did it.

In a nutshell, they’re trying to blame the victim and use the sensationalist nature of transgender issues against them in order to get away with murder.

The gay panic defense works in exactly the same way.  When you layer onto that defense the way that black men and women are sexualised, perceptions of gay black men like Belton are a mess.

It is appalling to me that in 2010, something as hateful, homophobic and dehumanising as the gay panic defense is still being used.  To reiterate Justice for Don Belton,

This is a tactic that has had some success over the years but is increasingly being recognized for what it is: a defense that plays to societal bias and prejudice and is not a justifiable excuse for murder.

It is already being called into question whether or not Belton did in fact assault Griffin.  If Belton did assault Griffin, of course Griffin has the right to be devastated.  But that would seem like basis for a self defense plea, if Griffin was afraid for his future safety.  Why not treat this as a standard “repercussions of sexual assualt” case? Why turn to gay panic?

Using the gay panic defense in the Belton/Griffin case suggests, on a most basic level, that it is worse to be assaulted by a gay person than a straight person.  It also suggests that on a primal level, there is something so wrong and unnatural with homosexuality, that its spectre could cause temporary insanity in a “normal” – ie heterosexual – person.

A gay panic defense only works if juries believe that gay (or trans) people are so gruesome and terrifying that their “advances” might render a person temporarily insane.

Apart from the fact that Belton was black, why should anti-racists be concerned about the gay panic defense? It’s worth considering that – while the struggles of queer folks and people of colour take vastly different forms – people of colour have also been victim of laws that excused their murders on the belief that people of colour were somehow dangerous or degenerate.  For example black men, before and after slavery, were legally slaughtered for so much as looking at a white woman.  Or Native people were construed as so bloodthirsty, that to execute them was a national service.

An even more distant cousin of the gay panic defense: what about other contemporary judicial attitudes that single people out on the basis of race? Young men of colour are immediately assumed to be so much more capable of crime than any other group in our culture.  Muslims and Arabs are harassed everywhere, but especially at the borders just on the basis of their names.

Again, the gay and trans panic defense, lynchings, the Native genocide and racial profiling are very different manifestations of different prejudices.  Yet they all have in common the notion that gay people, trans people, black men, Native people, young men of colour and Muslims and Arabs are more degenerate and capable of crime or violence than others.  And when these groups experience violence either at the hands of individuals or the state, the view is that such violence is probably justifiable.

The gay panic defense is dehumanising and profoundly disrespects the life Don Belton led.