doug hardy / ctnewsjunkie file photo
The rainbow flag waves above the crowd in front of the Old State House in Hartford on June 26, 2015, during a rally celebrating a decision by the high court recognizing same-sex marriages in all 50 states. (doug hardy / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD — Two bills that support the state’s gay and transgender community could come up for a vote in the Senate as early as next week.

Senate Bill 58 would prohibit criminal defendants from using a “gay or transgender panic” defense, claiming that they assaulted or killed someone because they became panicked during an unwanted, non-forcible, romantic encounter. The prohibition would also apply to those in a dating relationship.

Proponents of the bill invoked the brutal killing 20 years ago of Matthew Shepard during testimony before the Judiciary Committee, which voted it out before its deadline.

Shepard was beaten and tortured in Laramie, Wyoming, by two men who claimed as their defense that Shephard made sexual advances which sent them into “a fit of uncontrollable homicidal rage,” said Nicholas Kapoor, a member of the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, in his testimony in support of the bill.

“This is the gay panic defense and it has no place in our society,” Kapoor said.

The Judiciary Committee also advanced SB 792, which would create an advisory committee to study discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression that occurs in workplaces and schools in the state.

Under the bill, the executive director of the CHRO would appoint five committee members with knowledge of employment law, education, drafting legislation, the impact of current laws pertaining to gender identity or expression and discrimination based on gender identity or expression. The Commissioner of Education or a designee would also be on the committee.  Members should be residents experienced in gender identity or expression issues, and include at least one person who has experienced discrimination on the basis of gender identity or expression.

The committee would look at current state laws and determine if any further legislative action is needed.

Both bills are important to the state’s transgender and gay community, according to Diana Lombardi, Executive Director of the Connecticut TransAdvocacy Coalition.

Lombardi’s group advocates on behalf of the transgender community and provides cultural competency training to hospitals, social workers, state agencies and other professionals.

“What we need is policy,” Lombardi said. “There are a lot of people who don’t know about laws. What this will do is look at what we need in the future,” Lombardi said of the bill creating an advisory committee.

According to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s 2017 school climate survey of Connecticut’s LGBTQ students, 81 percent have reported hearing terms like “gay” in a pejorative manner in schools. About 60 percent said they have been harassed in school over sexual orientation or gender expression and 20 percent reported being physically assaulted over the same issues.

The transgender and gay panic defense bill has the support of Sen. Martin Looney, D-New Haven, who said it is “stunning,” that only three other states — Rhode Island, California and Illinois — had passed similar legislation. Looney also said that gay and transgender panic defenses have been used in about 25 states, according to the Williams Institute at the University of California Los Angeles School of Law.

“The result of the use of this defense has led to lesser charges and shorter sentences for some perpetrators of violent crimes,” Looney said referencing an NBC report on the issue. “This is baffling since as (Massachusetts) U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy commented, ‘murdering or assaulting anyone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity is not a defense – it’s a hate crime.’ ’’

While the Office of the Chief Public Defender submitted testimony in favor of the bill creating the advisory committee, Chief Public Defender Christine Rapillo did not submit testimony on the gay or transgender panic defense bill.

“As far as I know, gay and transgender panic has not been used in a case in Connecticut,” Rapillo said in an email. “Any issues that are raised in the defense of a criminal case are resolved by the fact finder, a judge or a jury.  While I find the idea of this defense personally offensive, I was concerned that this proposal opened the door to limit testimony as to an accused’s state of mind at the time of the incident.”

Rapillo also said that while a decision was made not to take a position on the bill, “the public defender’s office is committed to respecting the diversity of everyone involved in the criminal justice process.”

Both bills were advanced out of the Judiciary Committee on April 10.