Anti-gay incident forges unlikely alliance Rights debate renewed at Towson State


She's an 18-year-old sophomore and a member of a conservative Christian sorority. He's a 42-year-old gay professor.

But a strange turn of events has made allies of Hollie Rice and David Bergman in a debate over homosexual rights at Towson State University.

They were thrown together this spring when a man who was denouncing homosexuals punched Ms. Rice in the face.

Her offense was defending Mr. Bergman's right to teach.

The incident grew uglier when Ms. Rice and Mr. Bergman received death threats, apparently from the man who threw the punch.

The assault led to a renewed campus debate over gay rights and a strengthened commitment against discrimination from the university administration.

But Ms. Rice's baptism in the gay-rights issue, something she says she never even considered before, has fractured her life.

She had to quit her campus job and move home with her parents because of the threat.

And she has found herself squaring off with some of her religious sorority sisters in Chi Alpha Omega, who say she has lost her way by defending homosexuals.

"I figured out pretty quickly what I thought, but then I had to defend what I thought to my friends," Ms. Rice says now. "That was the hardest part. People said, 'He's gay.' I said, so what?

"People asked, 'Why did you stick up for him?'

"Who wouldn't?"

Mr. Bergman, a professor of British literature and a nationally known scholar of gay writing, says Ms. Rice's response gratified him.

"She's been remarkable in taking it just the right way," Mr. Bergman says. "I think it's a really remarkable change in perspective."

It all began just before spring break when Ms. Rice was talking about her classes with a friend in the student union.

A man, apparently a student, was lingering nearby. Each woman thought he was the other's friend.

When Ms. Rice mentioned that she was enjoying Mr. Bergman's British literature course that semester, the man butted in.

"That fag," he said. "Don't you know he's gay? He probably has AIDS."

The man continued with the anti-homosexual slurs and threw in a few anti-Semitic ones, too. "He doesn't have a right to teach," he said finally.

"I said, 'Excuse me, but I don't think his sexual orientation has anything to do with his right to teach,' " Ms. Rice said.

The man then accused Ms. Rice of being a lesbian, prompting her to call the conversation "ignorant."

"He turned like he was going to leave," Ms. Rice said. "Then, he went WAP! Right in my face."

The man's punch left Ms. Rice's eye swollen and bruised. It took more than two weeks to heal, she said.

After talking to Mr. Bergman, Ms. Rice reported the assault to campus authorities.

Later, the gay and lesbian student group -- the Diverse Sexual Orientation Collective -- called a rally to decry the assault.

Ms. Rice had to decide whether to attend.

"The girls in the sorority were so concerned that it would be a gay rights rally," Ms. Rice said. "And if I was involved, the sorority would be condoning homosexuality. I said, 'You all have to get grips.' "

"She started embracing their group," says Anne M. Seaton, a Towson junior and a member of the Christian sorority. "In that way I think she got really off-track."

Ms. Rice ended up attending the rally, although she didn't speak. Mr. Bergman did, as did Dorothy G. Siegel, Towson's vice president for student services.

Campus police circulated a sketch of the attacker but have made no arrests.

The fallout was significant, says Mr. Bergman. The university found several hundred dollars to pay for speakers for the gay and lesbian student group.

The administration also agreed to add sexual orientation to its public declaration of characteristics the university can't consider while hiring staff and faculty.

In the wake of the assault, several homosexual students reported episodes of harassment, including one man who said he had been avoiding an entire section of his dormitory because students there taunted him.

"I think some very good things have happened," says Mr. Bergman, who has taught at Towson for 16 years.

Meanwhile, Ms. Rice and Mr. Bergman have each been coping with a death threat.

One of Ms. Rice's roommates, concerned about the threat, said she was scared to live in their off-campus apartment.

Ms. Rice's parents pulled Ms. Rice out of the apartment to live at home with them in a Baltimore suburb.

She had to quit her campus job, but managed to finish her academic work for the semester.

The biggest casualties were several friendships that were "strained" over the incident, she says.

One sorority sister even said Ms. Rice should see Mr. Bergman and "convince him that what he is doing is wrong."

Even so, Ms. Rice says, what happened was "absolutely" worth the hassle. "I think the good that has come out of it has been incredible.

"I've learned a lot," she says. "You can't learn what things appear to be on face value. You have to find out for yourself."

Mr. Bergman thinks the reaction would have been quieter had it been a homosexual who was attacked.

"I don't think this issue would have cut as deep if it were a straight fag-bashing," he said.

Towson President Hoke L. Smith said the problem of dealing with homosexuality at Towson, with more than 16,000 students and staff, only reflects society's problems.

The school's job is to allow the issues to be discussed tolerantly, he said.

One person who has learned to do that is Hollie Rice, Mr. Smith said.

"I wrote her a letter, in essence saying she had learned the right things about standing up for people's rights," he said.

"I didn't like getting hit," Ms. Rice says. "But if that's what it took to get things moving, it's a good thing it happened -- in a twisted sort of way."

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