2 min

An excuse for murder

But change in law pits women against gay men

COMMITMENT? Hedy Fry says she's working on it. Credit: Tom Bowen

Good news for gay men might come at the expense of women.

After years of lobbying, gay activists in Vancouver are optimistic that the federal government will outlaw the homosexual panic defence – which allows a gay man’s killer to avoid a murder conviction by claiming the victim made an unwanted sexual advance.

“What concerns me is [to ensure] that the provocation defence can’t be used to justify violence against gays,” says Lyle Jones, a member of the BC gay rights group the December 9 Coalition.

Jones and other members of the activist organization met on Jan 16 with Hedy Fry, the Liberal Vancouver Centre MP and secretary of state for multiculturalism and status of women.

Fry confirms that the issue is under discussion, but says there’s no timetable. And she wants to keep provocation itself in the law. “There are some groups that have suggested [the government] remove it altogether,” she says.

“But there are other groups, notably women’s groups, who’ve said you can’t do that, because this has always protected women who have feared for their lives from abusive husbands, who in many ways saw it as a means of protection. So you can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.”

The meeting came after the release of Gary Matthew Gilroy – who successfully used the loophole to get a reduced, five-year sentence for killing a gay Vancouver man in 1994. Gilroy admitted to stabbing his victim 65 times with six different knives.

Homosexual panic is an offshoot of the defence of provocation. The 108-year-old principle allows a lesser sentence if the killer is angered by the victim.

And there’s more pressure now on the federal government. The national lobby group Egale Canada is on board.

Executive director John Fisher says: “I think we want to be sure that in seeking to get rid of the homosexual panic defence, we don’t remove the general defence of provocation for people who might legitimately rely on it…. We don’t want to strip the defence for people that are pushed beyond the real boundaries of human endurance.”

Not all women’s groups want the provocation defence kept, however.

According to research by the National Association Of Women And The Law, provocation has historically been shaped as a defence for men who kill out of rage, especially those killing their wives or girlfriends.

Andrée Coté, NAWL’s director of law reform, says the defence for women against their abusers – known as battered wife syndrome – is a variation on self-defence, not provocation. Using battered wife syndrome to justify provocation is a “red herring,” she says.

“We rarely see women kill out of anger,” says Coté. “It’s extremely rare.”