A trailblazing Vermont lawmaker spent part of the start of June's LGBTQ+ Pride Month reflecting on a significant achievement in her first legislative session — which recently wrapped up in Montpelier.
"Representation is so powerful," said Rep. Taylor Small, P/D-Winooski, who then quoted Vermont's lone female governor — so far. "As Madeleine Kunin said, 'If you don't have a seat at the table, it means you're on the menu.'"
Small, who works as the health and wellness director for the Pride Center of Vermont, made history last year by becoming the first-ever out transgender person elected to the Vermont Legislature.
"What I was most nervous about was not being taken seriously or not being recognized in my leadership role," Small recalled, adding that she was glad to say her fears did not come to pass. "And I have to say, it really was a warm welcome."
Small already notched a big win, championing a new state law blocking what's known as the "LGBTQ+ panic defense."
The LGBTQ+ panic defense is a courtroom strategy where defendants claim they were driven to violence by a victim's sexual orientation or gender identity, maybe through an unwanted romantic advance, and that an explosion of rage should somehow be excused.
It was infamously attempted at the murder trial of one of the men who in 1998 beat to death a gay Wyoming college student, Matthew Shepard, whose murder sparked calls for tougher approaches to handling hate crimes.
According to a 1999 Associated Press report, a judge ultimately did not allow defense attorneys to use that panic defense in the case of Shepard's killer, who attempted it.
Today, a growing list of states are now saying the LGBTQ+ panic defense is simply unacceptable, Small said.
"By being able to pass this legislation in Vermont, what we're seeing is Vermont is a place of refuge for LGBTQ folks, in particular trans people who have reached out after this bill passed to say, 'I finally see a state that's going to support me,'" Small told NECN in an interview Wednesday.
Small acknowledged that such a defense would rarely — if ever — be used in Vermont, but said she sees it as sending a strong message about how law enforcement should approach crimes against members of the LGBTQ+ community.
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The Vermont Department of Public Safety supported the measure. Now-retired Vermont State Police Major Ingrid Jonas testified in favor of the bill during a key legislative hearing.
"It's important to have a state where survivors and witnesses feel comfortable coming forward and talking to an officer," said Capt. Julie Scribner, the director of VSP's fair and impartial policing initiatives. "And when you've been a victim of a violent crime, a hate crime, a bias-motivated crime, I feel that this law gives people a little bit of power back to be able to come forward and make that report."
In a written statement released after he signed the bill into law, Gov. Phil Scott, R-Vermont, thanked Rep. Small for her leadership on the issue.
Scott then pledged in a Pride Month address to keep working to make Vermont a place where everyone feels safe and protected.
"I want you to know you're welcome here," Scott said in a video recorded by his staff and posted online for Pride Month. "And we'll continue our work to make Vermont more inclusive for you, your friends, and your families."
Rep. Small praised the LGBTQIA Alliance of Vermont, as well as her colleague, Rep. Mari Cordes, D-Lincoln, for their advocacy and hard work advancing the legislation.
Small added that it felt vital to take a stand against the LGBTQ+ panic defense, after a rise nationally in killings of transgender or gender nonconforming people — especially trans women of color.
The Human Rights Commission, which tracks violence against transgender and gender non-confirming people, said so far in 2021, at least 27 people have died from fatal acts of violence. The HRC tracked a total of 44 killings in 2020, but noted that number might actually have been higher because violence against the trans community can go underreported or misreported.
"These will not be tolerated in the state of Vermont," Small said of the kinds of violent acts against transgender people the HRC documents.
The trailblazing lawmaker said she's proud to serve alongside colleagues in the Vermont House and Senate who support equality. She said she was deeply disappointed to see lawmakers in 33 other states introduce more than 100 bills this year proposing limits on trans people — including bathroom bans, proposals to prohibit trans kids from participating in youth sports, and proposals to deny gender-affirming medical care to young transgender people.
Small noted there was a handful of instances where she was unintentionally misgendered in discussions with fellow elected leaders, but said in each of the cases, she was met with a sincere apology and a promise to improve.