Friday, January 8, 2010

A Case of "Gay Panic"?

Sadly, a man named Michael Griffin has confessed to murdering writer and Indiana University professor Don Belton. Why?

"The former military man told police that Belton, who is openly gay, sexually assaulted him in front of his girlfriend, while they were both intoxicated on Christmas Day. And because the assistant professor of English refused to 'show remorse,' Griffin stabbed him to death, according to court docs."

It will be interesting to watch where this case goes, as it has the added element of an alleged sexual assault against the man who confessed to the murder. Generally, feminist ladies such as myself are quite sympathetic to those who claim to have been sexually assaulted. Yet, while acknowledging that it is certainly horrible when any person, male or female, is assaulted, it would be disingenuous to pretend that this alleged assault does not play into a larger narrative about the inherent sexually predatory nature of gay men. I also realize that the sexual assault of men is something that is generally not regarded as serious and, oftentimes, it is joked about with snickering allusions to prison, so I want to be really clear here.

I don't know what happened that night. We may perhaps never know what happened.

Yet, we do know that the Gay Man As Sexual Predator storyline is bought hook, line, and sinker by much of the general public and it permeates most discussions of homosexuality outside of LGBT-friendly forums. Given this narrative, and the fact that investigators found Belton's journal in which he expressed feeling "very happy" about a Michael that had recently entered his life, Griffin's claim on the surface looks like an after-the-fact attempt to invoke the gay panic defense in order to minimize the crime he confessed to. Since Griffin claimed that the alleged sexual assault happened in front of his girlfriend, it will be interesting to hear her version of the story.

Many are speculating that Griffin will indeed attempt the "gay panic defense" in order to be charged with a lesser crime. While admitting to the crime, men (typically, only men assert this defense) who use this defense essentially argue that being hit on by another man is so incredibly terrifying that it renders them psychotic and, therefore, less culpable for their violent actions. A similar phenomenon is the "trans panic defense," whereby a man will murder or attack someone and then attempt to be convicted of a lesser crime, claiming that he shouldn't be held responsible for his actions after learning the so very horrifying truth about a transgender person's biological sex.

In other words, these defenses are ways that we, as a society, let violent men know that certain types of violence against certain types of people are, while wrong, certainly understandable. The legal fiction of "gay panic" allows men to go far beyond self-defense and to seek vengeance on those who inflict real or imagined harm upon them. Whereas women endure being hit on by men on a daily basis without resorting to murder, apparently being a man means never having to endure that same incredibly horrible travesty. In fact, our legal system downplays the culpability of men who murder the men who hit on them.

Of, if it did the same for women.

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