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Gay Panic Defense

When I discovered—at the age of thirteen!—that Santa Claus wasn’t real, I felt betrayed by my parents who’d lied to me for years. Yes, I was embarrassed for being so stupid, but more than that, I was angry.

When I’d first begun suspecting the truth, I’d asked my mother to be straight with me, and she’d lied yet again, which made the inevitable discovery all the more painful.

Why, then, should we expect not to experience a profound anger at discovering almost everything we’ve ever been taught about race and slavery isn’t accurate?

Of course we’re mad at anyone telling us the truth because it forces us to know the truth. It’s a classic case of “shooting the messenger.”

As a Mormon growing up in New Orleans, I was oblivious to the treatment of Native Americans. When I watched the movie Billy Jack, I asked my mom why people were being mean to the Indians. “Aren’t they Lamanites? Don’t we like them?” They were the people of the Book of Mormon, after all.

When I learned later of the LDS Church’s “Indian Placement Program,” in which Native children were placed with white Mormon families, to give them a better chance to assimilate and be “successful” in life, I thought it a great idea. As Mormons, we’d make up for the bad things other white people did to the Indians.

I had no knowledge how this fit into a larger history of robbing people of their culture, of Native children forcibly taken and placed with white families, of Native children forced into boarding schools, where they were severely punished if they spoke their native language. I had no idea these children were given new names and forbidden from using their real names. I knew nothing about the long history of whites breaking treaties they’d made with indigenous peoples.

On one of our family vacations, we rode a train around Stone Mountain in Georgia. I took a picture of the “Indian” who rode up alongside us on horseback and pointed a gun at me, my photo looking straight down the barrel of the rifle. A fun game of Cowboys and Indians. On our trip to Wyoming and Montana, we stopped at the site of Custer’s Last Stand and learned of the valor of the white men slaughtered by the Indians.

I’ve learned a bit more since then, no thanks to the schools and universities I attended, no thanks to the film industry, no thanks to my church.

During the prolonged protests and rallies for racial justice in 2020, I learned even more disturbing facts, including the huge number of indigenous women who are murdered or go missing every year. I learned that Black women in the mid-1800s were subjected to brutal medical experiments and surgeries, without anesthesia even when it was available. I learned of the vast number of Black, Latina, and indigenous women who were sterilized, as recently as the 1970s, without their consent.

I learned about Curtis Austin being labeled a felon just for writing a book about the Black Panthers. He was not arrested, not tried, not convicted, but still labeled a felon. He didn’t even know this until his employer called him into the office to discuss his “record.”

I learned that some people did receive reparations after the Civil War—former slaveowners who were compensated by the government at taxpayer expense for the loss of their human “property.”

When I worked in a group home for mentally disabled adults, I saw firsthand the suspicions and prejudices of the neighbors. When a longtime friend went two decades without diagnosis or treatment for her schizophrenia, I saw mass ignorance and fear, even among medical professionals. She went undiagnosed, after all, while working in a hospital.

While I was researching the Upstairs Lounge fire, an arson at a French Quarter gay bar in 1973, I learned that it marked the first time in Louisiana that prison inmates were brought in to collect the bodies because the scene was deemed too gruesome for firefighters or other trained professionals. There was apparently no concern for the emotional trauma inflicted on prisoners.

Gay Panic Defense

Clayton Delery, another Upstairs researcher, also wrote about the murder of Fernando Rios, perhaps the first time the “gay panic” defense was used in court, resulting in an acquittal for the three murderers.

When Denny LeBoeuf saw a man crash to the sidewalk from the burning Upstairs Lounge, her boyfriend led her across the street and told her not to watch the horror, that she’d never be able to unsee those images.

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Denny went on to work for the ACLU fighting capital punishment.

But her boyfriend was right. None of us can pretend we haven’t seen the atrocities committed against people of color and other groups.

When I was excommunicated from the Mormon Church, I was called a “son of perdition.” And we’ve all heard about “gender traitors” and “race traitors.”

One of my missionary colleagues recounted a story about his first semester at Brigham Young University. He and a friend were out walking on campus one night and saw campus security in the distance. Just for the hell of it, they started running and, sure enough, the security officers chased them, automatically assuming the young men must have done something wrong. It was a funny anecdote.

The outcome wasn’t as humorous for Byron Lee Williams. When Las Vegas police officers saw him riding his bicycle without a safety light, they began chasing him. He was killed for the three crimes he committed that night: not having a light, fleeing for his life, and being black.

I’m baffled that so many of my Mormon friends and family still refuse to see what’s right in front of them.

The thing is…they do see it. An LDS friend of mine, married to a woman in the temple, confided one day that he was gay. He finally told his bishop some of the things he’d done and was promptly excommunicated, which left him ineligible to attend his daughter’s temple wedding.

The daughter emailed me, “Don’t tell me why he was ex’ed. I don’t want to know.” But the fact that she said this to me meant that she already knew the answer. If the words weren’t spoken aloud, though, weren’t in writing, she could pretend she didn’t know, pretend she was respecting his privacy rather than hiding from the truth.

In the wake of the recent protests against police killings, a prominent Mormon author scoffed at the idea of reparations for the descendants of slaves. Mormons, he pointed out, weren’t asking for reparations after being driven from their homes and businesses in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. Mormons pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, he explained.

He seemed to have missed that the path to this Mormon success story involved invading and confiscating Native American lands, pushing for the enslavement of indigenous people, even killing many of them. And, since he’s conveniently forgotten these details, he concludes that we should all just let bygones be bygones.

I used to feel proud I’d served as a missionary. Then I began to feel embarrassed by the cultural imperialism I’d participated in, the audacity to tell Christians in Rome they had to join the “true” church. Now I tell people I worked as a door-to-door salesman for two years.

I’d sung or heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” for several decades before I read the third verse, with the lyrics, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” Patriotic Americans feel robbed of their anthem when these words are pointed out. But the words have been there all along. We just weren’t told about them. Once heard, though, they can’t be unheard. That’s not the messenger’s fault.

Oppressors use the gay panic defense whenever they can. They use the black panic defense and the protester panic defense. There seems to be a homeless panic defense and poverty panic defense as well. Even a freedom panic defense.

It’s odd that many who call the order to wear masks during a pandemic an infringement on their rights have little problem with a secret, unidentified police/military force kidnapping non-violent protesters off the streets, throwing them into unmarked vans, and whisking them away to unknown destinations.

Johnny Townsend

I suppose there’s a hierarchy among panic defenses, and the one regarding other citizens losing their freedom isn’t very close to the top.

More and more of us have finally seen the truth. It’s painful and it’s embarrassing. But isn’t it better to stop believing in a fairy tale?

Johnny Townsend