In honor of Pride Month and commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising, the Death Penalty Information Center is pleased to present a new resource about how use of the death penalty affects LGBTQ+ people. We take a comprehensive look at topics ranging from America’s history of punishing queer sex with execution, to discriminatory comments made against queer defendants in capital trials, to the challenges of gender transition on death row.  

As early as 1636, the American colonies passed laws punishing queer sex with the death penalty. It was not until 1873 that the last state, South Carolina, removed the death penalty as a punishment for sodomy. Today, twelve countries around the world have laws on the books authorizing the death penalty for queer sexual activity. Studies show that LGBTQ+ American prisoners remain at a heightened risk for sexual assault and violent victimization. 

There is evidence of explicit bias. “Tush hog,” “fairy,” and “hardcore lesbian” are only some of the derogatory terms that attorneys have used to refer to defendants in open court during capital trials. One juror said that if he thought someone was gay, he would “personally believe that person is morally depraved enough that he might lie, might steal, might kill”; he was nevertheless seated to decide the fate of a gay defendant, who was sentenced to death by a vote of 7-5. A judge who sentenced a gay defendant to death had previously written a letter telling his own gay son that he hoped he would “die in prison like all the rest of [his] f*ggot friends.”

The discrimination LGBTQ+ people face in American society continues into the courtroom, despite the Constitution’s promise of equal protection of the laws. Every participant in the legal system brings their own personal beliefs and biases into a proceeding—and queer defendants suffer the consequences. 

Learn more at our LGBTQ+ People page.

Note on Terminology

We use the words “LGBTQ+” and “queer” as umbrella terms to refer to people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or another non-heterosexual sexual orientation or non-cisgender identity. We are mindful of the history of the word “queer” as a slur and recognize that not everyone feels comfortable with its use. We have decided to use “queer” based on its growing positive use among people with these identities and its frequent use in the scholarly sources we relied on in our research. We intend it as a neutral, respectful descriptor only.