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It’s been a tragic year for trans people in Philadelphia, with at least two Black trans women murdered and another suffering a near-fatal attack. None of these assailants will ever be charged with a hate crime — even though officials suspect the violence was motivated by the victims’ LGBTQ status.
Pennsylvania is one of the few remaining states where LGBTQ is not a protected class.
That means no hate crime laws are violated even if people are attacked because of their sexuality or gender identity, and no discrimination laws violated if they’re treated differently when it comes to housing, education or employment.
And shockingly, people can still kill a queer or trans person in Pa. and claim the “gay panic” defense — which says the victim’s sexuality or gender identity was so provocative that it motivated the attack.
“It seems ludicrous,” said Tori Cooper, director of community engagement at the national Transgender Justice Initiative, a project of the nonprofit Human Rights Campaign, commenting on Pa.’s laws.
In recent days, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and other local officials have called violence against Black trans women an “epidemic.”
Over the past seven years, at least eight trans women of color have been murdered in the city. Three months ago, 27-year-old Dominique Rem’mie Fells was killed and left along the banks of the Schuylkill River. Two months later, Point Breeze resident Kendall Stephens survived a brutal attack inside her own home. And on Monday morning, Mia Green was shot to death at just 29 years old.
District Attorney Larry Krasner, who called a press conference Thursday to draw attention to the issue, is prosecuting suspects in connection to both Stephens’ and Green’s cases — but will not be able to level a felony hate crime charge.
“It’s really dangerous that in 2020 there are still states that don’t have trans folks in particular as a protected class, because so many of the systems we have to navigate haven’t changed,” said HRC’s Cooper.
Pa. Senator Larry Farnese, a Democrat, has been trying to effect change at the state level. Three sessions in a row, the South Philly lawmaker has introduced bills to help protect queer and trans Pennsylvanians. Each time, the Republican-controlled legislature has stubbornly refused to move them forward, and they stall out in committee.
There’s no specific plan to try to push this legislation through right now, according to Farnese. “The best way to get these bills passed is to flip that chamber,” he said Thursday.
Here’s a look at the bills currently languishing in Harrisburg.
The hate crime bill
There’s Senate Bill 947, which would make LGBTQ a protected class. If passed, anyone who hurt or killed a queer or trans person based on their sexuality or gender identity could be prosecuted with a misdemeanor or a felony.
This bill was most recently introduced in October 2019, then forwarded to the Judiciary Committee in November 2019. It’s sat there ever since, without action from the chair, Sen. Lisa Baker of Luzerne County.
Farnese first introduced the bill back in 2017. That’s three years without legit action from the state Senate.
“It’s very unfortunate that in a lot of these cases, it’s folks who don’t have direct connections to the trans community, and they’re allowing hate crime bills to die without ever getting to the floor,” Cooper said.
Bill to eliminate the ‘gay panic’ defense
People accused of murdering an LGBTQ person in Pennsylvania can still employ the “gay panic” or “trans panic” defense. That means their lawyer can argue that the suspect was so shocked, so revolted, to find out the victim’s sexuality that it moved them to violence.
This defense is usually deployed in three ways, according to UCLA’s Williams Institute:
- to say the discovery of a victim’s orientation was such a provocative act that it led to murder
- to claim such a discovery caused a defendant’s temporary mental breakdown
- to justify self-defense
Farnese introduced legislation in December 2018 to officially illegalize this defense. Senate Bill 212 was forwarded to the Judiciary Committee in February 2019, where it remains to this day.
“I think it’s a disgrace that that’s still on our books here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Farnese said. “This is hell on earth.”
The anti-discrimination bill
This one would ban discrimination in housing, education and employment in the state of Pennsylvania based on someone’s status as an LGBTQ person. Senate Bill 614, like its friends 212 and 947, has been around quite a while.
It was introduced recently in February 2019, then forward to the Labor and Industry Committee three months later. That’s after it was introduced three consecutive times dating back to 2017 — each time falling flat.
Same offense as a traffic ticket
Meanwhile, Philly’s doing the best it can under the statewide circumstances.
A municipal ordinance allows an ethnic intimidation charge — that’s the local term for hate crime — to be levied against someone who committed a crime against an LGBTQ person. But it’s only prosecutable as a summary offense. That’s the strategy DA Krasner is employing in the Stephens case.
To be clear, a summary offense is the most minor type of criminal offense in Pennsylvania. It’s often called a “non-traffic” citation.
“This is why we need policy change in Pennsylvania,” Stephens told Billy Penn last week. “Because as long as the Commonwealth does not have hate crime legislation on the books that protects against people who are trans-identified, then these sort of targeted attacks will continue to happen with impunity.”
What would HRC’s Cooper recommend? She suggests Farnese stop attempting the same re-introduction of the same bills over and over again — and instead start trying to educate his fellow legislators.
“I think that real work comes from a bunch of different ways and a bunch of different people in progress,” Cooper said. “Along with pushing legislation, there should be ongoing education and efforts from him to make sure folks are understanding, and to address any concerns they might have.”