Policy Issues

LGBTQ+ People

Though the Constitution requires equal treatment in the criminal legal system, LGBTQ+ people experience deadly discrimination and face unique issues in capital cases.


The death penalty has been a tool for discrimination against LGBTQ+ people in America since before the country’s founding, when the British colonies punished queer sex with execution. The states removed these laws from the books by the late 1800s, but continued to punish queer sex with fines and prison time until 2003, when the Supreme Court ruled the practice unconstitutional.  

In capital murder cases, bias and discrimination by jurors, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges has led to death sentences for queer defendants. Many have been executed and some remain on death row. Other defendants have used the “Gay or Trans Panic” defense to avoid the death penalty in cases with queer victims, a defense that is grounded in validating hatred or fear of gay people, though states have begun to ban its use.  

Queer people also face heightened risks of victimization and sexual assault in prison, including on death row. Many states forbid trans prisoners from being housed based on their gender identity. However, the tide is turning as more states support prisoners’ gender identities and provide for medical transitions in prison. Some defense counsel have also begun to include gender dysphoria as an essential aspect of their client’s life story that is told in the mitigation process.

At Issue

Public acceptance of LGBTQ+ people and support for LGBTQ+ rights has increased exponentially in the past two decades. However, use of the death penalty in the United States continues to affect queer people in unique ways. In some countries, queer people face the death penalty based solely because of their identity. 

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.

News & Developments


Jun 28, 2024

New Resource: LGBTQ+ People and the Death Penalty

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…

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Jun 27, 2024

Discussions with DPIC Podcast: Attorney Jessica Sutton on the Unique Challenges of LGBTQ+ Capital Defendants

In this month’s episode of Discussions with DPIC, Managing Director Anne Holsinger speaks with Jessica Sutton, prin­ci­pal attor­ney with Phillips Black, a non­prof­it pub­lic inter­est law firm focused cap­i­tal defense. Ms. Sutton has rep­re­sent­ed clients fac­ing the death penal­ty in more than a dozen juris­dic­tions across the U.S. and at all stages of pro­ceed­ings. In recog­ni­tion of Pride month, Ms. Sutton dis­cuss­es the unique chal­lenges LGBTQ+ peo­ple face in the cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment sys­tem and…

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Jun 01, 2023

Uganda’s Controversial Anti-Homosexuality Act” Includes Possibility of Death Sentence

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s (pic­tured) deci­sion to sign the Anti-Homosexuality Act 2023 on May 29 has drawn wide­spread inter­na­tion­al crit­i­cism. The new law pre­scribes that peo­ple con­vict­ed of aggra­vat­ed homo­sex­u­al­i­ty” may now be pun­ished with a death sen­tence. Although same-sex rela­tion­ships were already ille­gal in the coun­try, the new law, which passed with the sup­port of 341 out of 389 mem­bers of par­lia­ment, includes harsh­er pun­ish­ments for pro­mot­ing” homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and engaging…

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Jun 28, 2019

During National Pride Month, South Dakota Schedules Execution in Case Tainted by Anti-Gay Bias

In the midst of National Pride Month com­mem­o­rat­ing the 50th anniver­sary of the Stonewall Riots and the birth of the mod­ern LGBTQ rights move­ment, South Dakota has issued a death war­rant seek­ing to exe­cute a gay man whose death sen­tence was taint­ed by anti-gay bias. Charles Rhines (pic­tured) was sen­tenced to death by a jury that, accord­ing to juror affi­davits, was influ­enced by big­ot­ed stereo­types in reach­ing its deci­sion. On June 25, 2019, in response to a…

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