About 100 students took part or watched a Violence Awareness Rally at Towson State University yesterday, prompted by an incident in which an 18-year-old student said she was punched in the face for defending the sexual preference of her gay English teacher. The teacher, David Bergman, addressed the rally.
Sophomore Hollie Rice said she had been talking with a friend in the University Union last month when she mentioned that she was taking a course taught by Mr. Bergman. A young man not known to Ms. Rice began making derogatory remarks about homosexuals, she said.
"He was saying all this generic, let's-bash-someone type stuff," Ms. Rice recalled. "I had been backing away the whole time, and then I said, 'Excuse me, but this is the most ignorant conversation I've ever had.' And, boom! He hit me."
The young man quickly left the building, she said, and has not yet been identified. Ms. Rice reported the incident the following day to Mr. Bergman and other university officials, including the campus police and Dorothy Siegal, vice president of student services. Yesterday's rally was then planned by the Diverse Sexual Orientation Collective, the gay students group on campus.
"We want to raise awareness that there is prejudice against everyone," said Chris Bowling, 19, a Towson State sophomore and treasurer of the group. "It's for exposure. We just want to emphasize that the First Amendment was made to be voiced -- not expressed with a fist."
Several students and school officials noted that most harassment probably goes unreported.
Victims "are afraid that they've done something wrong -- that by reporting it even more violence will be done," Mr. Bergman said. "Many of the [gay] students aren't 'out' to their families and friends -- they're afraid of it mushrooming into a big event. We live with this idea that something will go away if we ignore it."
"Violence is not acceptable in any society, but it is particularly terrible in a university," he said.
Ms. Rice said the assault was followed by a threatening letter received in the mail about a week later. Her bruised eye took three weeks to heal, she said. "So far, that's been the end of it." She added that her parents and friends were concerned for her safety.
"But for me, my safety is not the issue -- this is the issue," she said, motioning toward the rally. "Some people think that when a gay person gets hit they deserve it -- but I got hit, and I'm not homosexual. Homophobia is a problem for everyone."
The school will hold an open forum on Homophobic Violence and Hate Crimes on Campus on Tuesday at 2 p.m., according to Ms. Siegal, vice president of student services.
"The society itself is homophobic," Ms. Siegal said. "We want to know what is happening on campus so we can address it."