All Scott Amedure wanted to do was let his friend know that he had a crush. Granted it was on a grand scale, but who cares. At the time, few had heard of the “gay panic defense” but since this was the highest profile anti-gay murder since Harvey Milk, the world got lots of education. Jeffrey Montgomery, then president of the Triangle Foundation (and later my boss and best friend) attended every minute of the trial and most of the LGBT perspective emanating around the world came from his advocacy at trial.
In essence the gay panic defense was a tool of defense attorneys – a blame-the-victim defense strategy a la “she wore a short skirt so she was asking for it.” Montgomery blasted this line of reasoning as morally bankrupt and was incredibly successful in convincing many that being admired by a gay man was nothing to be embarrassed about. Countless murder trials in the future featured the gay panic defense and thanks to Montgomery, many judges refused to allow the defense in their courtroom! Montgomery passed away in the summer of 2016.
Over time, Montgomery would come to be seen as a leading expert in the gay panic defense. He was the eyes and ears for many anti-violence experts around the world at the Matthew Shepard murder trial, where he again educated the world that being the object of affection from a gay man deserved appreciation not humiliation. The Schmitz defense began a trajectory for our movement that has mostly ended that tactic.
But the gay panic defense reared its head right up until the penalty phase of the Schmitz trial. Only one juror didn’t want to give Schmitz life in jail. She admitted later that she thought the surprise gay crush would have been humiliating and held out for a lower conviction.
Because of that one juror, Schmitz got 2nd degree murder instead of 1st – punishable with 25-50 years in jail instead of life. Schmitz was released on parole yesterday, just 22 years after a blatantly homophobic murder.
I am a little sad today. Not because I am a “law and order” type who believes in the death penalty or maximum sentences. I am neither. I am sad because the worst crime in the land, a planned homicide out of pure animus, didn’t carry with it the consequences that it would have if Amedure had been heterosexual. Of course, this is common outcome for many minorities in our criminal justice system.
At the end of the Schmitz trial, I was transformed. I wanted to do this work full-time and Jeff Montgomery offered me a part-time position at Triangle Foundation where I began directly helping hate crime victims. Six months later, state representative Lynne Martinez introduced the first pro-gay hate crime bill in the Michigan state legislature. My role evolved into policy and then politics and I stayed with Triangle for 12 years. My life and career as a social justice advocate was born in the wake of the disappearing headlines of Amedure’s death.
Many tragic moments inspire people to activism. I am fortunate that Between the Lines gave me the chance to educate their readers about the trial. I am fortunate to Jeff Montgomery for setting my career in motion. But I remain sad that today I am reminded queer people are still battling public attitudes of shame and that huge segments of our community are not able to be out.
Since the inauguration of Donald Trump, homophobia has been climbing. Racist and xenophobic hate crimes have been on the rise since he launched his candidacy. He lied about protecting LGBT people and has already turned his back on our entire community.
The rhetoric coming from this administration and the far right have openly set a tone that hate and violence are now acceptable in public discourse. The marauding tiki torch-bearing racist mobs who take aim at Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Muslims and women have also set their sights on us.
But now the stakes seem so much higher because our own president is blessing this behavior. He is practically lighting the torches himself. Hate has always been with us, but the biggest red flag of all is being hoisted over the White House.
It’s a signal. It’s a dog whistle. It must end – for Scott Amedure, for James Byrd, Jr., and for every other victim of hate. It must end.
Sean Kosofsky was the Director of Policy for The Triangle Foundation (now Equality MI) from 1996-2008. He has remained active in the LGBT movement since then, as co-chair of the 2012 campaign to defeat the anti-gay marriage ballot measure in North Carolina. Until recently, he was Executive Director for the Tyler Clementi Foundation.