Leanne McRae’s exemplary article on Naomi Wolf and sexual harassment highlights the problems women face when it comes to fending off unwanted sexual advances. Do they quietly retreat and hope the perpetrator goes away? Or do they confront their tormentor and, as a consequence, get labelled a “bitch” or even get driven out of their job or place of study?
Men, or more accurately, straight men, do not have this problem. No doubt they would probably be laughed at if they reported a woman to the authorities because she made an unwanted pass. But when a gay man makes the mistake of flirting with a straight man, society is much more understanding if the offended heterosexual files a complaint or even resorts to violence.
History is strewn with the bodies of homosexuals who didn’t understand that when a man “comes onto” a woman it is nature taking its course but when a man “chats up” another man it is considered a filthy perversion. In the latter situation the “victim” is quite entitled to use any means necessary to fend off the “attacker”. As David Buchanan, SC, once put it: “if women reacted in similar ways to unwanted sexual advances the streets would be littered with corpses.”
Buchanan has been trying to put a stop to the excuse of “gay panic defence”, as it’s often termed, frequently used by homophobic male defendants in anti-gay assault or murder cases. It is not a legally recognised defence in the way self-defence is. In cases of self-defence one would assume there is a situation of “kill or be killed”. When a defendant invokes “gay panic defence” essentially he is saying that his mind was so disturbed by a gay man’s sexual overtures that he panicked and killed him (but was not in physical danger). Therefore, he is not responsible for his actions because, for at least a short period, he was not in his right mind. The defendant will also make the point that any normal man would react the same way.
Unfortunately, this defence has been successfully used in either getting murder sentences reduced to manslaughter or escaping punishment altogether. For example, the case of R v Turner, cited in a report conducted by the Criminal Law Review Division of the NSW Attorney General’s Department in 1998, on this issue:
In Turner, D (aged 17) walked past V's (aged 64) home and was invited in by V for a drink. In an unsworn statement, D alleged that he stayed for about 20 minutes and as he got up to leave, V grabbed D on the bottom with both hands and "said something". D pushed V away and V swung a punch at him. A struggle followed during which D picked up a door-stopper (a garden gnome) and bashed V's head causing death. D also stabbed V with a knife a number of times. He said he did this because the door was locked and he had to get the keys from V. D stole V's video and tried to sell it. The jury was directed in relation to both self-defence and provocation. Upon being convicted of manslaughter, D was sentenced to a minimum term of 3 years and an additional term of 3 years imprisonment.
I imagine if Naomi Wolf did the same thing to Harold Bloom as D did to V it would have resulted in a “trial of the century”. Sadly, the above case is just one of 13 heard before the NSW Supreme Court in the 1993-98 period alone. The fact that one man could so brutally snuff out the life of another for something Ms Wolf has been told to “get over” illustrates how sexism and homophobia plagues our justice system and our social fabric.
Not all juries accept “gay panic defence” and homosexuals have greater legal redress than at any time in our nation’s history. However, the continuing violence against gays, and the fact that many people are capable of condoning such violence, is disturbing. Despite apparent progress we still have a long way to go.
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