Who is Nicole? Indeed.

IMG_3218Here’s the thing about me: I am an extremely open person. Almost to a fault. I will entertain and answer any question about my life because I assume that people are usually asking for a good reason. There are many mornings when I wake up with a truth hangover, wondering if maybe I should have activated my dusty censoring function. But most of the time don’t second-guess my personal policy of open honesty. You ask me a question and I will give you an answer.

This applies to my oh-so-controversial sexuality. I have to come out of the closet on an almost daily basis. If you are straight, you might be surprised by that. But there is a steady undercurrent of heterosexuality and heterosexual assumptions. Sometimes I let it slide, but more often than not, I don’t, especially in front of my six-year-old daughters. And, of course, homophobia is alive and well. There are situations when Nicole and I unconsciously increase the distance between us, or let go of clasped hands. I am not proud of those moments. But I justify them because I feel like we are trying to make our lives easier in a certain moment or because we feel unsafe; we are not, in fact, ashamed or trying to make homophobic people comfortable.

One place I especially don’t want to be judged is at places where I spend my money. Why would I support people or businesses that don’t support me? Chick-Fil-a, I’m looking at you! The corporate entity has stated its views, and they don’t align with mine. We just go our separate ways. Which is a shame, because I really do love their chicken sandwich, and we all know how picky I am.

So this is why my experience yesterday at B&H was particularly distressing. For those of you who don’t know, B&H is a camera and electronic superstore/institution in NYC. The store itself is enormous, and they transport purchased products with an overhead trolley system, much to the delight of Madeline and Avery. I have been a customer here for over 15 years, spanning my years of living on a boat in the Hudson River to the years when I was pushing a giant double stroller through the tight aisles to get to the elevator.  I have bought every camera I own from this store, plus every lens, battery, flash, tripod, binoculars and accessories. In other words: A lot of money. My favorite thing about this place: the amazing customer service and knowledgeable staff. I have on more than one occasion gone there to buy, say, a certain lens, and they insist I would be happier with another one, which happens to cost a lot less. So few stores operate under that philosophy (i.e., what’s best for the customer and not the bottom line) and so I rewarded them with my business.

It was supposed to be a quick trip. I stopped in to buy a new camera battery and charger (for the camera, incidentally, that I purchased at B&H). My amazing, perfect, beautiful and did I mention amazing daughters (yes, I tend to overcompensate with adjectives for my children’s little egos when they are exposed to situations that might make them feel less than) were by my side as I handed over the credit card to the cashier. What followed was a hideous exchange, a homophobic encounter that was particularly distressing, as my children were witness to it. My children, who think nothing of having two moms; who know only love in their lives; who are explicitly taught to not judge people, and who have never, ever once found our family dynamic “strange.”

The cashier demanded to know who Nicole was, asking several times in a row “Who is Nicole?” After hedging twice I said, “Nicole is my wife.”  If this were a movie moment, you would hear car tires screeching to a halt or a record needle being dragged across vinyl. He stared me, unable to hide the look of disgust on his face. Maybe “look of disgust” is his resting face, and I realize that opinions about appearances can be subjective, but I can say with absolute authority that he was disgusted. He kept repeating “your wife?!” again and again, as if I had some sort of disease that made me accidentally alter gendered words. It was as if he was waiting for me to correct myself.

I guess I could have lied or come up with some sort of more neutral answer, but the thing is, I don’t feel like I should have to hide that fact that I am a woman married to a woman. And I will not doing that in front of my daughters, unless we are in a situation that I deem dangerous.  We are not going to slink around in the shadows and margins because some people can’t accept the fact that love exists in many permutations.

Back to my not-so-nice cashier. After establishing that I was married to a (gasp!) woman, he asked “But who is the husband?” Again, several times in a row. Now lesbians around the world, unite: This question is particularly loathsome and offensive, am I right? Marriage is not some game, and we don’t play roles. I was stunned by this question, and just stood there, mouth agape, held hostage because he was holding my credit card and not giving it back. Quick, I needed to answer, which was difficult because I was so flustered. OK, so I am not proud with my answer, but, again, in the interest of honesty to those of you reading this, I will be honest with what I said: “Well, my wife goes off and works every day and I stay home and cook and take care of the kids. I guess that makes her the husband and me the wife?” Again, cue needle-on-the-record scratch. This is when things got way too personal, and once you start talking about my children, watch out.

With the mask of disgust, still on his face, he pointed at Madeline and Avery and asked if those were my children. OK, this is when I need to take a few deep breaths, because I get enraged when I think of my children being subjected to this. I won’t go line-by-line with what he said next, because, frankly, I can’t handle it right now. I will summarize: He asked several ways how I could have children without a man (and not just logistically), and how our children can be raised without a father (also not just logistically). I was stunned at how out-of-line his questions were and how I was unable to control this situation and just how this conversation had spiraled out of control. I found myself starting to try to answer in vague terms, but when the focus started getting sperm-focused, I snapped. Finally. My children were NOT going to learn about their genesis in a camera store under fluorescent lights with this homophobic cashier. My children were not going to hear about the details of their conception as discussed with this man. Their family dynamic was not going to continue to be dissected and they were not going to be subjected to invasive questions for one nanosecond longer. I took my credit card and receipt and left. Honestly, if Nicole weren’t leaving for Haiti the next morning and in need of that charger, I would have walked out and skipped the purchase.

I should have said “none of your business” from the get-go, but, see, that is not who I am.  Clearly I need to rethink how to handle interactions like this.

I thank God our girls live in two very liberal areas and don’t encounter situations like this very often. No one deserves to be treated that way. It is easy for me to forget the struggles that other gay people go through, those who aren’t lucky enough to live in an area with more acceptance than not; there is still so much progress that needs to be made. And believe me, it is not lost on me that there is a big difference between fighting for acceptance and respect in a store where I spend money on hobbies and for people in who are fighting for acceptance and respect in quotidian situations of much more importance.  It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the changes that need to happen. What can I possibly do? Tell people they should care about this because equality affects everyone? Or guilt people into because who knows… Maybe their child is gay. Or ask someone to put themselves in my shoes, and imagine what it is like to have to reveal their sexuality like this every day, in the audience of your children, to people who are judging you and your family as less than. I can’t force anyone to fight for my cause. But I can at least demand respect. And change where I shop.

And that is why, after 15 years, I am parting ways with this store, quite publicly. What do I want from B&H? An apology, to my daughters. And soon.

OK, I am glad I got all that off of my chest! Pictured above: You know I can’t publish a post without a picture!

Here is the letter I wrote. I am waiting with bated breath for that apology:

Dear B&H;

To say I am disappointed would be an understatement. I have been a loyal B&H customer for at least 15 years, and if you check my records, I think you will see that I have spent quite a lot of money there through the years. The stellar customer service, knowledgeable staff and amazing inventory won me over from the beginning. I have sung the praises of B&H to countless friends and family, many of who have also turned into customers as well.

Unfortunately, I had a homophobic experience at your store on July 30th that has changed my entire view of the store and my loyal-shopper status. The fact that my children were there to witness this made it even worse. I was with my six-year-old twin daughters, who do not deserve to hear the questions that were posed to me, let alone view the look of disgust on the cashier’s face as he processed the fact that I was a lesbian.

I simply wanted to pay for my purchase (the last $80 I will spend there). But I handed over my credit and was asked, quite bluntly, “Who is Nicole?” And here is where what should be a quick, easy and pleasant transaction turned ugly. I said twice that she is on my account and that we both purchase frequently at B&H. When that didn’t satisfy him I said, “She is my wife.” I was met with a look of disgust; he was literally taken aback. He repeated several times “Your wife?! Your wife!?” I explained that we are a same-sex couple, and that we are legally married. At this point I should have taken my children and walked away, but I didn’t. Instead, I stayed and was subjected to more questions, including “Who is the husband?” (he asked this several times; and, for the record, there are no husbands in a lesbian marriage) and questions about how we had children without a father. I finally came to my senses and shut down the conversation when he started to get more specific about how we could have a baby without a man.

This experience was horrible. I fully understand that, sadly, there are people who are homophobic, but I don’t expect to encounter reactions like this from people who work at the stores I shop at. There should not be an interrogation about partners, (stereotypical) gender roles, and the genesis of children. It simply isn’t appropriate, not to mention belittling and, any way you slice it, judgmental. I feel certain that the cashier doesn’t ask straight people about the spouses, how they have children, etc.

I know B&H is a behemoth. I know you have customers that matter a lot more — from a financial standpoint — than I do. But you should know that you have lost a loyal customer. And I will no longer be singing the praises of B&H.

Sincerely, jlc


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