In a recent case before the New York Appellate Division for the 2nd Department, the court ruled that a false accusation of being gay isn’t inherently harmful, going against decades of law.
Given that courts had previously held that it was "shameful and disgraceful to be described as lesbian, gay or bisexual," courts have long ruled that a false accusation of homosexuality is innately damaging—defamatory per se.
While “defamation” refers to a false statement (slander if spoken, libel if written) that harms a person or entity’s reputation in a manner that results in financial damages, “defamation per se” refers to claims that are so egregious that the harm is self-evident, and specific damages do not have to be demonstrated.
In a lawsuit originally filed in June 2018 in the Supreme Court of Kings County, plaintiff Pierre Delor Laguerre, a former elder of a Brooklyn Seventh Day Adventist Church, accused Pastor Jean Renald Maurice of defamation per se, claiming that the pastor falsely stated to church members that he “was a homosexual,” resulting in Laguerre’s expulsion from the church.
Reversing the lower court's decision and departing from its prior rulings, the Appeals Court held that, while the pastor’s allegation was made with malice and wasn’t protected by a constitutional freedom of religion, as he argued, it also wasn’t defamatory per se on the grounds that gay civil rights, legal protections, and social acceptance have changed enough so that the mere accusation of being gay can no longer be automatically considered damaging.
In effect, the Court stated that to bring a claim of defamation based on a false accusation that a person is gay requires proof of damages.