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When I had been in London for the first time, for less than two hours, I encountered a British man on the Piccadilly line coming from Heathrow with my mother. We were standing at the end of a car leaning against the wall to stretch our legs beside a woman in her early twenties with an ice cream cone. The man was standing in the middle of the car with a few mates, all of them drunk. He spotted her and staggered over, arms gripping the two overhead rails and stepping over commuters’ legs. He maintained the same pose as he hovered, his outstretched arms forming a circle with the sides of the car, cornering her and making faces alluding to oral sex.
I asked the woman if she knew the guy, and she didn’t. I asked her if he was bothering her, and she said he was. I told him to fuck off. With a sloppy drunk lumber, he first turned his head, and then his body, similarly entrapping me. He put his face very close to mine and glowered. I stared back. I told him to get the fuck out of my face and that I wasn’t scared of him, even though I was. My mother told him to go back to his friends.
Other passengers unmoved and unbothered during this exchange only resumed any signs of sentience after the group of men hustled off the underground, launching an open 2-litre bottle of rum-and-coke into the car as the doors closed. One man got up to feebly express disapproval after they were already gone.
In a different country, one of my friends suffered serious injuries when a man strangled her in a cab because she didn’t want to have sex with him. The cabbie did not intervene. “There are,” she said afterwards, “consequences to saying no.” The following are a non-chronological sampling of misogynist interruptions to my life in London, an unbroken extension of what men on the other side of the Atlantic started when I was a teenager. They inspire both tedium and terror, so alike in their words and gestures yet the consequences for saying no always uncertain.
I am walking down a dark and empty street on my way home from my friend’s house. A man on a bicycle passes me in the opposite direction. He banks a u-turn and pedals alongside me.
I am making out with an extraordinarily hot woman on the dancefloor at Heaven. An inexplicable succession of straight men stand beside us, waiting for a pause in the action to voice their approval. Afterwards, she points out her husband, who has been watching.
I am walking down a dark and empty street on my way to catch an early train. A man on a bicycle passes me in the opposite direction. He banks a u-turn and pedals alongside me.
I am waiting on a tube platform, alone, in the early hours of the morning. The next train does not arrive for 7 minutes. A lone man joins me, ogling my thighs and asking what sports I play. I politely field his questions as I edge away, clinging to the wall.
I am on a third date with a cute woman in overalls. We lightly kiss on the street corner waiting to cross. A car full of men starts jeering.
I am walking through Regent’s Park on an early summer evening, briefly resting on a bench. A man sits next to me, then follows me around the park. I routinely see him after this. Twice I have hidden, once by leaping behind a sign, another time crouching behind a bush.
I am walking down Camden High Street. On the other side, two young women dressed for a night out are being followed down the street by a man propositioning them. He is so drunk he falls down. I shout across the street to them, asking if they’re being bothered. They shout back, and this scene-making spurs the group of young men who have been several steps behind this encounter to intervene with an air of noble benevolence. “Hey, man, leave them alone.”
I am on a bus. A drunk man sitting across from me in the aisle leans over, shoving his phone in my face to take a photograph. His companion forces him off at the next stop, whereupon he is immediately replaced with a drunk man.
I am on a bus. A drunk man sits in front of a tired-looking woman and starts badgering her. He pokes her in the chest, and she gets off at the next stop. He follows her. I follow him. He trails a few steps behind her as she crosses an intersection to catch her next bus. I wait next to her. All three of us get onto the next bus. I tell the driver, and the woman says she feels safe getting to her destination, so I get off the bus two stops later to go home. The man also gets off, and slinks away into the night. I cry the empty half-mile walk back to my bus stop, terrified he is going to reappear.
I am eating a slice of pizza on the pavement. A man approaches me and pushes his body against mine, slipping my phone from my pocket as he walks away.
One week later, I am on a bus, headed home with a woman I just shared a fun third date and first kiss with. We climb to the top, and kiss more in the seats in the front. Teenaged boys get up from their seats, cornering us and asking how lesbians have sex. I pretend to feel unwell while my date, Melania, tries to keep them at bay with the friendly conversation women employ when they know the consequences of saying no. The homophobia and misogyny are unimaginative in their delivery, the menacing familiar in its physicality. I feign nausea and face away from them with my head in my hand, losing patience each time they say “scissor.” Something metallic lands by my feet. Something metallic hits my back. My patience is lost. The first words I say upon standing up are “Throw another coin and see what happens.” The boy throws another coin, and I walk back to him. We brawl. A few minutes later, the boys jostle off the bus with Melania’s backpack and my phone, tossing her backpack in the grass edging the canal I walk along most days of the week. Melania’s and my face are covered in blood, and we wait in the bus as the driver calls the police, who call an ambulance to take us to hospital.
In the week following, the swelling and bruising subsided, revealing my face mostly as it was before with the exception of a bump on the bridge of my nose and a dent in my temple. Acute concussion symptoms ebbed, and after a few days I resumed my usual life, showing up to my first day at a new job with a black eye.
Melania spoke to a news outlet in Uruguay, her home country, and the story seeped into the Spanish-language news cycle. Headlines in English were inevitable, and one week later, I spent an entire Friday frantically, obsessively, refreshing Google. British news shrieked about lesbians pelted on a bus with coins, lesbians punched for not scissoring on demand, defiant lesbians who got what they were asking for, lesbians beaten and robbed by thugs, foreign lesbians who got hit late at night because they liked the novelty of a double decker bus. An accompanying picture in which we are freshly hit and dripping red onto our clothes and hands circulated every continent, captioned in dozens of languages. Infinite Melanias and Chrises, printed and pixelated, were left behind on London buses and trains in the free evening rags, or scrolled past in that day’s outrage roundup.
For several weeks, my face didn’t belong to me. I have screenshots of our bloody faces on pop stars’ Instagram pages, “liked” millions of times. I have a screenshot of Prince William invoking us in an affirmation of support for his children regardless of their sexual orientation. I have a screenshot of our faces baiting the reader on a website’s panel of suggested stories, a headline about Vladimir Putin below ours. I have a screenshot of our bloody faces as Halsey’s accessory, screen-printed onto a t-shirt for a performance in Camden three minutes from where I lived. We were not invited to the show, but after Halsey got her headlines she messaged Melania on Instagram to ask if it was alright.
The deluge of requests demanding our attention were relentless to the point of comic surrealism. The Mayor of London wanted to meet us (we did). We were invited to a Pride reception at 10 Downing Street in one of the last days of Teresa May’s tenure (we went). I made a “Black Trans Lives matter” t-shirt for the occasion. It was one of the most boring parties I’ve ever attended. We were given a private audience with then-Defense Minister Peggy Mordant, who recited with a straight face all the hard work the Tory government did to combat and document homophobia. At the party, she read a statement from the outgoing PM, who was stuck in Brussels for Brexit negotiations, that ended with “I may not be your Prime Minister much longer, but I will always be your ally.” “Aww,” the audience of mostly white, wealthy femme lesbians and twinks clapped without a trace of irony, forgetting May’s “no” or absent votes for LGBT+ civil rights. Invites came to walk in fashion shows, star in home security system commercials, lead Pride parades, pick up gift baskets, spend weekends at private castles, curate exhibits, and give interviews, interviews, interviews.
“Hello Melania, I’m so and so, from such and such. We here at the network were so moved by your story and were wondering if you’d like to talk to us about your experience? As a gay man/As a gay woman/As a bisexual woman I’d love to hear your story. Our viewers want to know what happened on the bus.”
Reporters asked for more pictures of our bruised faces. A years-old photo of Melania with another blonde who looked nothing like me accompanied embellished accounts of our “relationship.” A high school classmate with whom I was never close and had last seen in 2006 found my parents’ address and appeared on their front steps asking about me. People who are not my friends surfaced in my inbox to alert me they had seen my punched face, and posted pictures of it on their social media, claiming proximity to me to rack up their own “likes.” My sister, managing my crisis from 5,300 miles away, was sought for gossip from people from our hometown, where she hasn’t lived in over a decade. Well-meaning but misguided people directed me to the various forums, think pieces, blogs, radio shows, podcasts, celebrity declaration, politician statement, and news websites who all had remarks, opinions, outrage, feelings, or something to sell.
The picture fuelled the news cycle for a week in June. Melania spoke to some outlets on her own, and we did two television interviews together. I wanted to starve the warped narrative of oxygen, but got a Guardian op-ed criticising the coverage published in exchange for an interview. I decided against marching in London Pride, as I felt no further desire to be gawked at, but gave a speech to a few hundred people from the Women’s Stage about why I thought the media coverage and the whitewashed commercialisation of Pride were bullshit.
In August, fourteen journalists showed up at court to hear how the boys pled (not guilty), heard my full name read aloud in court, and promptly published it, ending my run as the mononymous “Chris,” my nickname that afforded me some privacy those first two months. “Chris” was Melania’s American lesbian girlfriend, a simulacrum of myself for which only one of those descriptors is true. Sometimes I was thankful for the fiction as insulation – Chris was the cheap meme going viral, not me. Other times it was jarringly dissociative and heightened the feeling that my face was no longer mine.
Perhaps I sound ungrateful. Perhaps I should have been a more gracious victim, should have revelled in the sympathy lavished upon me and the invitations to events simply for the merit of having been punched in the face. Strangers who knew my business approached me tentatively, like I was a wounded bird, to apologise for what happened, and I awkwardly thanked them for the public pity, wanting to scream.
The picture made the story go viral because the picture depicts two individuals in possession of the characteristics favourably looked upon by white hegemony. Conventionally attractive cis white women, who had been kissing, yes, but were not too queer, had long-enough hair and ordinary clothing, not too queer to offend the sensibilities of white moderates suddenly tweeting en masse about homophobia, the outraged! white liberals heretofore unmoved from silence by the brutal murders of queers whose queerness is too much, too obvious, and not white enough, who must have been asking for it, who are unrelatable and thus unworthy of compassion. Most mainstream news reports of homophobic crime referred to our story as the quintessential gaybashing tale when they felt it was relevant, which has seemingly been with most subsequent attacks in the past year.
Do we need to see 17-year old Nikki Kuhnhausen’s skull where it was found on the ground, or Jorge Stevens Lopez’s dismembered and burned body, or Jennifer Laude’s broken neck draped over the toilet she was drowned in by a US Marine? Do we need to see Serena Angelique Velázquez and Layla Pelaez’s burned bodies? Someone did film Muhlaysia Booker’s assault, but that didn’t protect her from getting murdered a few weeks later. Alexa Negrón Luciano’s heinous assassination was filmed, streamed on social media, then re-broadcast by news outlets in Puerto Rico. A few international publications ran some sentences on her shooting, one time. Two weeks later, one website wrote an account which included the heart-wrenching detail that the often-attacked Alexa carried a broken rear-view mirror with her so she could see who was behind her. It had no updates from the police investigation, because there weren’t any.
This image of two white ladies with broken noses, however, was such valuable currency in the attention economy that it replicated itself and took on new forms. A search of certain hashtags reveals the picture illustrated or re-imagined as an abstract painting. Film students sent us a script for a short project intended to “raise awareness of hate crimes of more marginalised groups,” but was really just a fictionalised version of what happened on the bus. A punk band wrote a protest song about the fetishisation of lesbians, and used our names in their publicity without asking. I was told, ludicrously, to stay off the internet, as if keeping myself ignorant of the global trajectory of our bloodied faces would make it disappear.
The victim-blaming and homophobic comments took no emotional toll-they were almost funny in their predictability and rote ignorance. Well-populated corners of the internet were desperate for the boys to be Muslim, to be black, to be immigrants, or at least children of immigrants. The attack was described as a natural coincidence of diversity, and why gay people shouldn’t flaunt their sexuality in other people’s faces.
Conversely, people who knew nothing about me except that I had been punched in the face informed me solemnly that I was a good person. A virtuous identity was crafted for us: crying, pretty, white victims. Muslim boys, brown boys, and black boys were demonised as predators, despite the actual boys’ identities never being made public. Small, pathetic men said that since I wore an anti-Nazi t-shirt and criticised Boris Johnson in an interview, it all must have been a hoax. Even if it had been fake, their racial animosity was real, and white supremacy has a violent, murderous, track record of disregard for the due process of non-white people, guilty or innocent, particularly when white women victims, real or lying, are concerned.
Prioritising the suffering of white faces is white power. White power unleashed the maelstrom of sympathy withheld from other hate crime victims, which hastened the previously non-responsive police force to make arrests within a few days, which dispatched two officers to crowd into my living room to see “if we needed anything” the day after the story that made middle-class white people feel bad about homophobia took off.
Lots of gay white people disagree with me, content to exist in an alternate reality where the rainbow world is immune to the white supremacist trappings of society. Since they are unimpacted by the hateful trans-exclusionary radical “feminists” who poison the LGBT+ “community,” they can ignore them, as well as the activists who still fight to make Pride and queer spaces accessible, inclusive, and of service to anyone who isn’t white, housed, able-bodied, educated, and middle class.
For most of the summer I barely had the capacity to deal with the anger, terror, and humiliation of what actually happened on the bus. My media-related anger waned as I found my voice and got therapy, clearing mental space in the months leading up to November to dread and stress about the trial in a foreign legal system.
The court is within sight of the Highbury and Islington Overground station, yet the friend who accompanied me and I took a circuitous 10-minute walk to get to the staff door we were offered to avoid the photographers congregated outside all the public entrances, telescopic camera lenses hanging from their necks. We were escorted upstairs to a small room for witnesses with frosted windows, briefed first by a witness service volunteer, and then by a nervous prosecutor who strangely worked the word “threesome” into her shpiel but otherwise proved more competent than the defense lawyer in a three-piece suit.
We were expected to give testimony that morning, but neither of us were summoned. We spent the entire first day in that waiting room as each boy changed his plea to guilty and checking the news on our phones, which was updated with details of the trial faster than we were. Only one point of contention over the motivation behind coins-throwing remained, to be settled the following day.
I returned home that night to find the Metropolitan PD released, without warning Melania or me, less than a minute of the CCTV from the nine-minute ordeal on the bus. Neither of us had seen it yet, and my hands shook as my friend and I leaned into my laptop screen. The media swept it up again, and a casual browse through Youtube indicates it’s been viewed at least a million times on that site alone.
I finally saw what I had suspected in the days following the attack, then had confirmed to me a few weeks later by a detective who could not tell me details of the open investigation outright, but would indulge me in a game of pointed yes-or-no questions.
“Did I throw the first punch?”
“That’s what I figured, I don’t know why else I would have gotten up from my seat.”
“When I watched the tape, I said ‘you go, girl.’ The Crown Prosecutor considered charging you with assault.”
In court the next day, the boy maintained he chucked coins at me to take the piss out of me because I was sick, not because I was kissing a woman, a defense so unflattering to his character I pitied him. His lawyer played the CCTV and asked if I was drunk and if maybe the boys were just flirting? and about the inconsistencies in my statements to police, the first profanity-laced one given while still bleeding, agitated, and concussed.
Even having seen the footage, my mind has reduced the fight to three disjointed, seconds-long scraps. Bizarrely, when the hand that had been throwing coins clenched into a fist and hit my face, my brain first responded with a non-sequitur memory from six years prior when I was still in the Marine Corps, when another lieutenant expressed a desire to get punched in the face because she never had been. The second freeze-frame I’ve retained was the thought to get my hands up in front of my face, the constellation of blotchy bruises on my forearms proof I blocked some hits.
The sucker punch to my temple, however, came from a boy standing behind me and was delivered with such force it knocked me senseless. In court, seated behind a screen that blocked my view of the defendant and squad of journalists, and their view of me, I watched myself struggle to keep my footing on the swaying bus. Melania and I tumble into seats. The outfit descriptions I gave police were wrong. I can’t make out the blurry faces that I don’t remember anyway and wouldn’t recognise on the street. The third snapshot is of a grin whose enthralled mischief made apparent I was being beaten by a group of children.
Melania and I suffered disparate reactions at different times. Melania was initially energised by the public reception when it panicked and terrified me. Later, it made her anxious and gave her nightmares as I was starting to feel that I could be useful. In late June, Melania was threatened via Instagram by one of the boys. We knew it was one of them and not another standard troll making fake social media accounts in our names because he mentioned one of his friends opening a window in response to my feigned nausea, a detail never reported in the media. The police claimed they were unable to verify the sender’s identity, allowing him to evade any consequence for violating his bail conditions.
The toll on our mental health extended beyond the viral two weeks, at which point nosy acquaintances unhelpfully offered, “It’s out of the news, right? It must all be over.” In early July, as I nervously re-read my notes backstage before I gave my speech at Pride, Melania rested her head against my shoulder, exhausted. Later that night, stressed and attention-fatigued, I drank too much and found the streets of Soho too frenetic. I wanted to leave, but encountered the public streets barricaded, hired security guards and junior cops standing dumbly behind them. Rather than find a different escape route, I insisted they let me use the public right of way, which segued into a lecture on the inappropriateness of police presence at Pride, which segued into a night in jail.
I felt guilty that Melania tried to keep the boys at bay with banter but ended up with a broken nose. I’d get extremely anxious travelling with her on public transport, not wanting to be recognised, and would sit in near-paralysis, barely able to speak. I sobbed through the entirety of my first and second therapy appointments. Calls from blocked or unknown phone numbers dropped my heart into my stomach, and after a few weeks even messages from Melania, who stayed patient and good-humoured as I withdrew into myself, stressed me out, as they often bore more details of people seeking access to us. Anybody who looked at me for a beat too long made me paranoid. While walking home one afternoon, I turned a corner and nearly collided with a group of teenage boys walking in the opposite direction, flooding my brain with enough adrenaline to make me jittery the rest of the night. I said in one interview that I wasn’t scared to be visibly queer, even though I am.
I took many selfies that summer to document the subtle changes in my nose and jaw as they healed. My bone structure was largely unchanged, but I looked unlike myself. My eyes were red-rimmed either from tears or smoke, my face defeated and drawn from ten lost pounds. Cooking a simple meal felt like an insurmountable challenge, and I was too tense to eat anyway. Solace was sought in long walks, where I’d take breaks on benches, staring at nothing and listening to birds, or, one time, the lecherous voice of the man who followed me through the park, saying he liked my hair and body.
In December, relieved at the end of the trial, I asked myself why, exactly, I had been so scared of my full name being made public; perhaps panic had been an overreaction. That month, a man in Poland messaged me via my professional website about an unrelated article I had written. I replied with four sentences, and for the next six months he sent me several paragraphs weekly, none of which I answered. In March, he booked an AirBnB near where he thought I lived and my walking tour (I cancelled), calling me multiple times the day of the tour. In April, he confessed in an email a bit shorter than this essay that although he first contacted me in December, he became obsessed with me six months prior, when he first saw me in the news. “I may assume that You were aware through those months that someone from the depths of the web is apparently trying to stick around You, with intentions that seemed rather friendly and supportive than hostile as many other.”
In May, as the first “anniversary” of his “discovering” me approached, he mulled a weeks-long return to London, during which he fantasised we’d spend lots of time together. Unnerved that a stranger from the depths of the web felt entitled to travel 1,000 miles to stick himself into the forefront of my real life, I took my walking tour off the internet, deleted the email address he had, and removed every post off the walking tour’s Instagram that had my face and voice, both of which he had expressed a fixation with.
Other men message me to let me know that not all men are woman-beating homophobes, or to ask for threesomes.
Melania and I were invited to many engagements which I declined. One of the few I accepted was to participate in a ceremony at the annual lunch of the Anne Frank Trust, which trains students and prisoners to educate each other on prejudice. I exchanged contact information with the woman I stood next to in the ceremony, and she invited me to lunch. On the walk to her flat, I passed her image in a street art installation honouring community leaders. When I arrived we chatted about how we each came to be invited to the annual lunch. After learning about her years of non-paid work helping refugee women from Sudan get their footing and acclimate to the UK, I felt foolish telling her why I had been invited to stand next to her.
She listened intently, brow furrowed as I described what boys not much older than her sons did. She moved across her living room and sat next to me on the couch. “Oh, you poor thing,” she said, looking over my shoulder at the picture on my phone. “My husband did that to me when I told him I was leaving him.”