You might not recognize her right away, but you’ve likely seen her face before. Remember the “London Bus Attack” and that picture of two women covered in blood, often under clickbaity headlines, that made its way across the world a little over a year ago?
In the early hours of May 29, 2019, my friend Melania Geymonat — a Uruguayan doctor who was living in the UK at the time — was making her way back home with another woman, Chris, after enjoying a night out together. They sat together on the top floor of a London double decker bus, displaying the excitement of two people who have met not long ago and are eager to get to know each other more.
But their night was interrupted by a group of teenage boys who took issue with two women showing affection for one another, and if this story rings a bell at all you might recall what happened next: homophobic taunts that escalated into a fight that left Melania with a broken nose. Not only that, they also took off with her bag and a phone too.
Melania ended up moving back to Barcelona not long after to physically distance herself. And yet, for a while, whenever we met up that night would come up time and again as she continued process what happened.
During one of our talks after three teens were eventually sentenced for theft, handling of stolen goods and the use of threatening words aggravated due to hostility based on sexual orientation, she let me record her. Below are some snippets of that conversation that have been translated from Spanish and edited for clarity.
CTW: You and Chris responded differently to the jeering. While she confronted the boys, you starting joking around with them. Why do you think this was the case?
MG: There were actually four boys who were charged initially, but they let one of them off because, apparently, he didn’t do anything in the end. And, in fact, he was the one I’d been talking to that night.
When it all started my reaction was to talk to them, to relate to them. I felt guilty about this later on and it was even brought it up in court. “Why were you being so friendly to them?”
I told them: “Forgive me if as a Latina woman, from a place where we’re used to being harassed, we try to get people to empathize with us so they don’t assault us.” I was able to come up with that after five months of self-reflection.
It took me days to understand that I’d actually been assaulted. And if there’d been no physical element to it, I don’t know if I would have. Chris realized it wasn’t okay, that’s why she reacted the way she did, but I’m more used to that kind of harassment and abuse than she is so I started chatting with them and joking around. They were so stupid that they kept going at it until Chris lost it and then they even had the nerve to say that we had verbally, sexually, psychologically and physically assaulted them.
But it turns out that the one I talked to the most was the only one who didn’t do anything, which tells me I’m not that mistaken because he was the only one of the four who wasn’t charged with anything.
CTW: Images of your battered faces made were seen all over the world, but the boys were never charged with assault.
MG: The police charged them with public disorder aggravated by hate crime and for handling stolen goods, stealing from us, and cannabis possession.
I was under the impression that they had hit me, but apparently Chris broke my nose accidentally – you can just barely make it out in the CCTV video. And the fact that they then hit her is justified because she hit them first because if she had wanted to leave, she should have gone down the stairs and not hit them.
CTW: Do you think they should have been charged with assault?
MG: I don’t know. More than having a yes or no answer to that, I just wonder. I went out on a date with another woman and came back with a broken nose after a violent incident. On top of it all, my relationship with her fell apart and I also got robbed, but there was no assault? I might not be the best person to answer this question on a legal level, but I just wonder.
CTW: One of the defense lawyers argued it wasn’t a hate crime, but immaturity.
MG: Yeah, they told us it was “boys being boys.” But Chris and I didn’t buy it. I mean, “boys being boys,” what does that even mean? Because people end up dead with “boys being boys.”
CTW: You moved back to Barcelona after the incident. Why was that?
MG: The boys sent me messages on Instagram stating who I was, with my full name, and mentioning details that only they could know – it was witness intimidation, basically. They’d written me four screenshots worth of text threatening me not in an “I’m going to hit you” kind of way, but more like “you need to tell the world the truth. We stood up for ourselves because you were psychologically, sexually and verbally harassing us.” As if we were doing that to them! “We’re going to go to the media and refute your claims. You’re not even a couple and you’re taking advantage of the LGBT community, they’re going to hate you for this…”
I sent it to the police and nothing happened, so that same day, hours later really, I decided to move back to Spain. They knew my name and who I was – it was already public information. I was already having nightmares about it all and just thought I really don’t need this, so I left.
CTW: What do you think motivated their behavior?
MG: I believe it’s a problem with education. Does this need to happen and for us to go to court for a judge to tell those boys they have to take sexual diversity classes? Wouldn’t it just be easier to have sexual diversity classes to begin with?
It also really struck me how everyone was all like “How awful! There are four monsters in our perfect society! They deserve life sentences!” I never saw it that way. In fact, soon after it all happened I posted something about how the focus shouldn’t be on the boys because, in my opinion, people were dragging them through the mud when they are actually the product of a system.
These four boys were unlucky, really. They were stupid and all – they harassed us and kept on going when they could have stopped and then they robbed us and then they stalked me online. They didn’t think someone like Chris would stand up for herself or that I would go to the media.
But there are hate crimes in London. It’s not a case of “We have a perfect society and they are just four monsters,” no! It’s a societal problem. It’s hard for people to see it as a far-reaching issue so they rather focus on these four kids.
I also understand that it was a homophobic attack, but I think above all it was a sexist one. I understand homophobia as falling within sexism because I think men feel displaced. Because they’re not invited, they’re not needed and it drives them crazy. The attack consisted in eroticizing the other, to not believe that we were a same-sex couple and to ask us to kiss.
CTW: What do you think empathy has to do with all of this?
MG: I think it has a lot to do with the fact that, for example, I can have some sort of awareness about what racism is, but I’m still white. How I am as a person, what I choose to learn about, or who my friends are, for example, can generate more empathy in me, but it’s not a reality that affects my day to day life because I am a white woman; I look European.
That’s why I think men, especially white men, think that others are crazy for standing up for their rights. Because they come from a place of privilege and are not aware of all the advantages they have for being white men. And when anyone questions this, they get defensive. If you get defensive, there are things we should be looking into there.
Chris’ first article was about this. She called the piece “You saw me covered in blood on a bus. But do you get outraged about all homophobia?,” like wanting to say, the image that made headlines was of two conventionally attractive, cisgender, white women with blood trickling down their faces.
What would have happened if it were of a trans woman or a black woman, for example? Or if it hadn’t happened in London? Or if we were undocumented? I wouldn’t have been able to file a report in the United Kingdom – I would have been deported. My family is Italian and that’s why I have European citizenship, but what if I were only Uruguayan and didn’t have residency?
CTW: How else has this event changed you?
MG: Before I just kind of thought, “Oh well, it’s just the way it is,” and now I say “No, it’s not.” It doesn’t have to be this way, I don’t have to tolerate these things. I did a lot of work on myself these past few months and at this point I’m angry, but it’s a kind of positive anger.
Cristina Tomàs White
Cristina Tomàs White is a US and Spanish journalist at the Catalan News Agency in Barcelona. Her interests include feminism, housing rights and other social inequities. Her Twitter and Instagram handle is @cristinatomasw.
Melania Geymonat is a Uruguayan doctor.