Sex + Dating

My Only Straight Crush Assaulted a Gay Couple

my only straight crush assaulted a gay couple
Daniel Fishel/Thrillist

Before "gay" had any meaning in my life beyond what one makes the Yuletide, I thought I had a crush on Kathryn, a girl in my first-grade Catholic-school class. She was tall for a 7-year-old, tan, blonde, full of confidence, and wildly popular -- perfect, according to every TV show, commercial, and movie that taught me I should like tall, tan blondes. And girls.

Kathryn and I were never exactly close in school. She was in the cool crowd, while I received "O"s for "outstanding" on all of my spelling tests, earning me the nickname "The Walking Dictionary" from our teacher, Sister Graham.

But I would venture to say we were friendly. We both played basketball, served on the student council, and practiced after school for public-speaking competitions -- where, in those small groups with fewer people to impress, Kathryn didn't show her usual superior attitude. In those moments, she and I sometimes chatted and laughed. I saw kindness there that was too often overshadowed by her need to be popular.

"You think you're supposed to have feelings for her, at least, because no one tells you it's OK to like boys."

I adored the wrong diva

It took me until high school to realize what I'd interpreted as a romantic crush was simply platonic infatuation. It's something I grew to understand as I got older -- that my attraction to beautiful, charismatic female leaders wasn't sexual in nature. It was idolization. In other words, like many other gay men, I adored divas.

That's not an easy concept to grasp when you're young. You think a girl is pretty or funny or nice to be around, so you think you have feelings for her. You think you're supposed to have feelings for her, at least, because no one tells you it's OK to like boys. That's especially true in Catholic school, where not only is the idea of being gay rarely mentioned, but it's also exclusively referred to as "homosexuality" -- as if it's an improper term you can only read about in the restricted section of the Hogwarts library.

I heard whispers and rumors from classmates over the years that they thought I was gay (helped along, I'm sure, by my AIM screen name that included the word "superstar"). And though their assumptions were ultimately correct, it was unsettling to hear their comments while I was still figuring it all out myself. That can often be the most twisted part of youthful self-discovery: your peers determine your identity before you have the chance.

As it turns out, coping with the fruits of the middle-school grapevine wasn't nearly as twisted as seeing the mugshot of that leggy, tanned, blonde girl appear on the news in 2014 -- after Kathryn assisted in a brutal assault on a gay couple in Downtown Philadelphia.

"One article said there was so much blood on the ground that when the police arrived, they thought someone had been shot."

Her ugliness stretched beyond painful homophobia

It was a Thursday night in September when Kathryn and 10 or so of her friends (many from our high school) passed a couple on the street after getting dinner and drinks. Upon seeing the two men holding hands, one of the boys with Kathryn (let's not bother calling them men) reportedly asked, "Is that your fucking boyfriend?" Homophobic douchebaggery 101.

"Yeah, that is my fucking boyfriend," the man responded.

"So you're a dirty fucking faggot?"

They pushed each other as they crossed paths. Things escalated quickly.

Two of the boys in Kathryn's group began punching the couple while calling them homophobic slurs, pounding on them even once they hit the pavement. Out of the crowd came "the girl in the white dress," as witnesses -- and, once they could speak, the couple -- described Kathryn, who threw her fist and some choice words into the mix, too.

One article said there was so much blood on the ground that when the police arrived, they thought someone had been shot. Makes you wonder what the other cowards in the group were thinking or saying as they watched it happen. What I don't wonder is whether anyone in the group called the police. They didn't. According to reports, this woman I'd once idolized and her friends wandered to another bar in Center City, hung out for 45 minutes, and headed home to the suburbs. They ignored the echoes of sirens, leaving the couple to bleed into the concrete. One of the assaulted men had to have his jaw wired shut for almost two months.

The tragedy validated my choice to stay closeted until college

The trio was ID'd by witnesses and captured on security footage, leading to arrests a few days later. Their photos -- along with some of Kathryn's homophobic, racist, and generally disgusting tweets -- were released on the news and the internet for the world to see.

I remember seeing Kathryn's mugshot for the first time, the image replacing the one that had been stored in my mind after all these years: a similarly composed photo from our school yearbook. Only now, she wasn't fresh-faced or smiling. She looked tired and smug. Wisps of hair flew out from her hairline and ponytail and hung down near her gray crew-neck sweatshirt.

The assault, the degenerates who committed it, the people who stood behind the assailants -- it all felt like a massive betrayal, and validated the parts of me that feared coming out in middle and high school. Those fears, I realized, weren't unfounded. Maybe I wouldn't have endured jaw-breaking violence in school, but I certainly wasn't wrong to sense that I was surrounded by people who didn't (and clearly still don't) understand the courage it takes to come out.

I cried for the victims. I gripped my boyfriend's hand a little tighter and prouder. But seeing Kathryn's face on that TV screen incited something else, something more sinister -- a thought that followed me for months.

What if it had been me?

That question plagued me as details of the assault flooded news websites, TV broadcasts, and social media -- where hordes of friends in my Facebook feed defended her. Statuses from former classmates urged us not to attack or judge Kathryn. Because, apparently, we didn't know the whole story.

I kept my fingers away from my keyboard, hoping to avoid the mess of calling out anyone who couldn't see this story for what it was: a dozen people watching or participating in the beating of two gay men. What could be added to that story that would justify what went down? Certainly not the group's pathetic claims of self-defense.

I even read that a former teacher of mine was one of Kathryn's character witnesses during her trial -- one of seven to take the stand and tell the jury they never knew her to be violent. Except, you don't have to have a violent past to use your fist. You can do well in an eighth-grade religion class and still harbor the anger it takes to commit assault: the kind of anger and judgment a Catholic school can instill in students when it teaches them that the LGBT community is sinful.

What if it had been me? What if I had been walking down that same street with my boyfriend? What if I was the man with his jaw wired shut? I wondered if those former classmates still would have defended her, taking sides like in our high school cafeteria. I wondered if, before any punches were thrown, Kathryn might have stepped forward in that white dress -- "Wait, I know him," she might have said. "Hey, Tommy," like she and everyone else had called me as a kid.

"You can do well in an eighth-grade religion class and still harbor the anger it takes to commit assault."

Maybe I'll bump into her now that she's out of jail

It took nearly a year and a half of red tape and court hearings for Kathryn to be found guilty of simple assault, among a handful of other charges. She was sentenced to five to 10 months in jail, plus anger management, a $2,000 fine, and two years probation, during which time she can't step foot in Philadelphia unless she's on her way to court.

She was released in July 2016 after serving the minimum sentence of five months. What did she do behind bars? She cleaned toilets, because sometimes karma knows how to hit back.

I'm not sure what I'll do if I ever run into her while visiting our hometown. Maybe we'll bump into each other at the grocery store, and I'll clench my fist and pretend to wind up a punch as she accidentally knocks into some boxes of rigatoni. Maybe I'll have the guts to tell her off.

Or, maybe it'll be more like senior year, when we passed each other in an empty stairwell while class was in session. I saw her coming toward me, and expected her to breeze right by like normal. Except she didn't. She said hello, smiled, and continued down the stairs. It was a brief glimpse into the kindness I always wanted to believe was there.

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Tom Vellner is an associate staff writer at Thrillist. He still prefers to go by "The Walking Dictionary." Follow him on Twitter @tomgvellner.