It was bitterly cold the night of Feb. 25, the bars in Chapel Hill had just let out, and Thomas Stockwell was on his way to meet his friend, Rachael King, at La Residence because he didn't want her walking home alone. His jacket was wrapped tight around him as he walked down Franklin Street talking to King on his cellphone. Stockwell heard a group of guys shouting, but didn't realize they were shouting at him until one of the guys pushed him from behind. Stockwell says he turned to see six or seven men who "looked like they wanted to start something," and then he ran away. He made it to the corner of Colombia and Franklin, the town's main intersection, where one of the attackers punched him. Stockwell punched him back and then was knocked to the ground. His attackers yelled homophobic epithets as they kicked and hit him until he was unconscious. A woman walking by Stockwell stopped, picked up the phone he had dropped, and advised King (who was still on the line) that she should come attend to her friend. The stranger then put down the phone and walked away, leaving Stockwell unconscious and alone. Nobody else stopped to see if he was OK, and nobody called the police. Thomas lay there for several minutes until police officers who happened to be driving by spotted him. King arrived several minutes later. Stockwell was taken to the hospital, where he was treated for a concussion, a sprained ankle, and a broken nose.
The incident is being investigated by local police as a hate crime. The investigators were hoping that after the recent media coverage of the attack someone would come forward with more information, but no one has, according to Chapel Hill Police Department spokesperson Jane Cousins. Although there are no plans to close the investigation, Cousins doubts that the case will be solved unless they uncover any new information.
Stockwell's case draws attention to a much larger issue. In 1992 the U.S. Congress defined a hate crime as a crime in which "the defendant's conduct was motivated by hatred, bias, or prejudice, based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity of another individual or group of individuals." Stockwell's case could be considered a hate crime by local police and under the federal statute, but not under North Carolina law. Twenty states, including North Carolina, define a hate crime as a crime committed against a person "because of that person's race, color, religion or national origin" but do not include sexual orientation as a protected category.
After the recent attack against Stockwell, in which it seems that the perpetrators acted out of their prejudice against homosexuality, many are urging for the law to be updated to include sexual orientation as a protected class.
Some people, such as Rep. Paul Stam (R-Wake) are opposed to changing the current hate crime law. One argument is that the punishment a criminal receives should be based on the severity of the crime and not the motive behind it. Other opponents argue that hate crime laws violate First Amendment rights by criminalizing thought, namely hate. Another argument is that protected groups are granted special status, thus denying the equal protection of all persons under the law.
Others, such as state Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Carrboro), believe that the wording of the N.C. hate crime law should be changed to include sexual orientation. Stockwell argues that the current laws "give theses kids carte blanche to discriminate." Proponents believe that it is important for gays to be listed as a protected group because that would send a message to the public that prejudice and discrimination are socially unacceptable. Others agree that certain groups, including gays, need special protection from criminal acts because they are frequently targeted as victims. Still other proponents believe that hate crimes deserve harsher penalties and that they may deter crimes that are motivated by hate.
Ed Farthing, executive director of Equality North Carolina, is a proponent of the change and intends to lobby the General Assembly in a few weeks to include sexual orientation in the hate crime law.
Law or no law, hate crimes against gays are a growing problem. Reported hate crimes against homosexuals have increased from 1,033 cases in 1995 to 1,530 cases in 2000, according to an FBI crime report. Such cases have also increased as a percentage of all hate crimes.
Stockwell is angry. He is angry that no one stopped to see if he was OK, that no one called the police. He is angry with his attackers because of their blind prejudice toward him. He is shocked that this could happen in Chapel Hill, one of the most liberal cities in North Carolina, and realizes that his was not an isolated incident, but was indicative of a larger national social problem.
"We've got a long way to go [toward equality]. This is not just a Chapel Hill thing," he says.
Stockwell is not alone. During our 45-minute conversation Stockwell received 15 phone calls, some from the media, most from strangers calling to give encouragement and support. Because of the national media attention his case has received, he has begun to get e-mails from people across the United States sharing their frustrations and sending messages of hope.
He didn't just get support from strangers across the nation; he also got it from his fellow students at UNC. Several hundred students attended a rally held in his honor on the UNC campus last Tuesday. Stockwell, who was not among the speakers that evening, was "shocked and awe-inspired" by the event and "realized that it was so much bigger than me."
Stockwell is not directly involved in gay activist groups such as Lambda or GLBTSA, but in the way he lives he is hoping to break the stereotypes surrounding homosexuality. He's 6-foot-3 and weighs 160 pounds. With a sense of pride he says that he "was not a victim. That's not part of me. It never has been."
A week after the attack, his physical wounds are beginning to heal and he has gained a sense of optimism. Despite his experience, Stockwell has hope for the future. On the subject of gay rights and equality he says: "This isn't the 1950s. I refuse to allow our religious and conservative right-wing government to throw us back in time. We will only move forward."