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Gay Chapel Hill student attacked
Thomas Stockwell, 21, brutally beaten

by David Moore
Q-Notes staff

Despite the liberal reputation of North Carolina’s Triangle region, Thomas Stockwell, a student at The University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC-CH), was the victim of a violent anti-gay attack in the early morning hours of Saturday, Feb. 26.

It was just before 2 a.m. when Stockwell, a former Charlotte resident, said he was talking on his cell phone and became separated from his friends outside of a restaurant on Franklin St.

According to Stockwell’s mother, Linda Silver, her son was initially unaware that the anti-gay taunts that a group of about six men were shouting were aimed at him.

“He only realized it when he was walking back to the restaurant and they started chasing him,” she recalled.

“I took off running to this corner, Columbia and Franklin, where they caught up to me,” Stockwell confirmed. “I turned around and they punched me in the face.

“After the first punch hit my face, I punched the guy back and he kind of fell backwards. That’s when his friends jumped on me. I have a three-inch wide gash down the side of my face, a boot print on my forehead, a concussion from where I hit the ground on the back of my head and a broken nose.”

The group of attackers left Stockwell on the street in a bloodied heap, only relenting when passersby interrupted the beating. Friends eventually arrived on the scene and took Stockwell to the hospital, where he was later released.

Stockwell says that the events transpired so quickly, he didn’t get a good look at most of the attackers. “But I did get a pretty good look at the one who punched me in the face,” he recalls. “I remember what he looks like. Long, fluffy blonde hair, blue flannel shirt, chubby, about five-ten or six feet tall.” Other media reports indicate that all of the men were in their early twenties.

Stockwell was speculative about why he was attacked, indicating that perhaps one or more of the men recognized him from school. “Or, I was in the wrong place in the wrong time. And just the fact I happened to be me. I’m sure they had their own agenda. How quick these guys were to jump on somebody they thought was a ‘fag’ — they obviously had thought about it before.”

At press time, Chapel Hill police spokesperson Jane Cousins said that there were no witnesses or leads to the attack, but a report from a Triangle area television station indicated that there was at least one witness.

“It wasn’t a fight, it was a beating,” said Tyron Edwards. “They caught him and beat him. They came across the street laughing about it.”

Edwards says at least one other person saw what happened — a woman who tried to break up the fight. He hopes she will come forward and tell police what she saw.

Numerous reports in the media described Stockwell’s attack as a hate crime, although North Carolina has no provision in its hate crime law that covers sexual orientation.

“We believe it’s important for the state to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its hate crime statute to send a very clear message that bias crimes based on those categories will not be tolerated in our state,” said Ian Palmquist of Equality North Carolina.

“It’s terrible that it takes something terrible happening to drive elected officials to action, but I think this may serve as the call we need to expand the hate crimes law.”

Following the attack on March 2, UNC’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Straight Alliance organized a rally near the student center to raise awareness about violence and discrimination toward gays and lesbians. The rally featured several speeches, including one by Chapel Hill town councilmember Mark Kleinschmidt.

“We are often targets in bias crimes, and it’s important that we include it in statutes that purport to protect people from bias crimes,” Kleinschmidt explained.

The rally ended with a march from UNC to Franklin St.

Stockwell was on hand for the rally, but didn’t speak.

That doesn’t mean that Stockwell has any intention of sitting by quietly while his wounds heal.

He’s quick to point out that the current political climate in the country and the president’s anti-gay stance are probably key factors behind the bashing.

“I think it gives them carte blanche to discriminate,” says Stockwell. “Why can’t they if their government does it? If they know there are discriminatory laws that say it’s ok — who’s slapping them on the wrist? Who’s telling them no?

“This isn’t 50 years ago. We’re organized now. We have an open community now, and I refuse to step back in time. I refuse to be fearful. For that reason alone. If not for me, for my mom and people in the gay community I have monumental respect for.”

Despite Stockwell’s determination to put the attack behind him and get on with his life, it’s clear there are some scars that may take longer to heal.

“I’m okay,” he says. “I am in certain regards, but then at other times it kinda’ pops up. It’s hard to get over when everybody’s coming up to you. I didn’t go to campus yesterday and I do appreciate everything everyone’s done, but at a certain point, I just wanna go to class.

“I guess I’m trying not to lose faith in the people around me. At first I felt that way, but with the support that came out I’ve felt a lot better. To have 500 people show up at a rally in 20 degree weather, for two and a half hours was pretty amazing.”

Stockwell says he’ll continue to attend classes at UNC-CH, where he majors in International Studies and Economics.

In another development in the Chapel Hill area, a judge ruled March 4 that UNC-CH must recognize a Christian fraternity that refuses to admit gays. Alpha Iota Omega’s status as an official campus group was revoked after it refused to sign the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

The policy specifies that groups cannot deny membership to students based on personal characteristics such as age, race, color, national origin, religion, disability, veteran status, sexual orientation and gender.

The State Attorney Generals Office, however, which represents UNC-CH, said it continues to support the university’s policy.

“We continue to believe in the merits of the university’s position and the value of the nondiscrimination policy,” the statement said. “The university’s goal remains the proper and careful balancing of students First Amendment rights with the rights guaranteed by the U.S. and North Carolina Constitutions to equal protection of the laws and freedom from discrimination.”

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