Based on past experiences, we expect, to some extent, the service at the Verizon store to be on par with customer service from Comcast, Aetna, and other large corporations that are difficult to deal with, when it comes to efficiency and efficacy. So when we trudged into the Verizon store this weekend, we knew we were in for a long wait, followed by an excruciating sales pitch, some wretched negotiation about contracts. This Saturday afternoon, all of Delaware County was in the Verizon store, but we were greeted more or less immediately and assured we’d be helped as soon as possible. From a previous visit we knew the greeter would put us on the internal waiting list with some kind of brief description to help sales associates identify waiting customers (“two women, one in pink scarf and purple down vest,” perhaps). We wandered around the store together, then settled on a bench, concocted a game of Twenty Questions to pass the time. Tired, hot, dreading the imminent conversation, I leaned my head against my partner’s shoulder for an instant—a statement about our relationship, an expression of affection. A clerk came over, I lifted my head, we got talking. The process began a little differently from our last trip, and some confusion ensued about who was on our account. We both are, we said. We both always have been. But that wasn’t answering the question he was asking; we didn’t understand the question he was asking. Yes or no, he said. And I don’t need your attitude.
That’s it, we said. We left.
This week we saw a production of John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt, a Parable” at the Lantern Theater Company in Philadelphia. The play is set at a Catholic school in the Bronx, where the nun who is principal suspects the priest of an improper relationship with the school’s first black student. The student’s teacher, Sister James, is only just beginning to examine the world, and the student’s mother wants her child to survive this school long enough to get into a good high school. The principal, Sister Aloysius, pursues justice for this student even though she faces a church patriarchy she knows she cannot topple, even though she knows the intersections of gender and race and class make the conflict more complicated, even though she understands the evidence of wrongdoing is more spectral than substantial. She knows that she can only fight so many battles, that she will have to compromise some elements of her own faith as she does so, that she has her own doubts about what is right, about what is true.
On one level, “Doubt” is about what we know and can know, about challenging injustice sometimes without knowing for sure that we can do anything, or the right thing, and emerge from that battle intact.
Sister Aloysius says, “If I could, Sister James, I would certainly choose to live in innocence. But innocence can only be wisdom in a world without evil.”
Oh, I thought as we started home. This is because we’re a couple. This is because we’re gay.
I wondered how we’d been described in the waiting list: “lesbians, one in black coat,” “two girls together, yes, together.” No, the rest of the staff was pleasant, friendly. Apologetic, after I mustered the courage, the conviction, to go back, to explain what had happened, to stand up for myself, to stand up for us.
Do I have any evidence that we were treated poorly because we were two women, because we were two-women-as-a-couple? I have only evidence gathered from past experiences: The way a server at a restaurant once addressed my brother-in-law instead of the two of us with a selection of special beers. The constant risk of sexual harassment (or worse) whenever I walk out of the house in my running clothes (or anything more revealing than my knee-length winter coat). The shiver of fear that runs up my spine whenever I steal my partner’s hand in a dark theatre, the shiver of relief that rushes through my veins whenever we are not turned away or insulted or hurt (or worse). The pregnant pause, the deep breath I take while I consciously consider whether I will refer in conversation to my partner as “my partner” or “my friend” or (worst) “my husband.”
We might have gotten more attention from Verizon’s corporate office if we’d gone home and posted on their social media pages. We might have gotten some monetary compensation if we’d called the central customer service office to complain. Instead, we went back. I walked back into the Verizon store and asked to see the manager. One person cannot dismantle the scaffolding of sexism and homophobia (and racism and classism) that frames our society, cannot change that injustice has happened and will happen, undoubtedly, again. Still, I stood on the solid ground of—what? The example of Sister Aloysius, a fictitious nun who did what she could, where she was, with the little power she possessed, to combat the evil she witnessed and experienced but could not prove? My voice shook and my breath betrayed me as I recounted what had happened, but I summoned the wisdom of past experiences and had no doubt that this was a battle worth confronting.