In the annals of this fast-pace city hospital, the verbal exchanges on this particular Monday morning ranked among the top talked-about happenings. The gossip mill received plenty of fodder from this unusual jawing between a nurse and her supervisor. Make that loud screaming, in a collision between sexual preference, sexual harassment, cultural norms, effete disposition and gender-bending masculine mindset, rebellion versus established authority, lewd language versus appropriate professional vernacular. The uninitiated had a peek at a phenomenon not commonly witnessed, the elevation of cussing-like-a-sailor to an art form if not a sport, the display of cursing in its bimodal denotations and semantics: swearing and jinxing or damnation. This notorious event pitted staid decorum against spontaneous, raw, profanity-laden street brawl mannerism. It stunned employees, patients, visitors, leaving an embarrassed supervisor in its trails.

It all started with the Haitian colloquial Amwe proffered by nurse Nancie who received a formal warning from her supervisor, Jessica, with the remark of “napping while at work.” Such a rare enforcement of this rule for the night shift was just about unheard of, especially when one’s work was up to date and someone else was covering. “Let me lay some shit on this wild English horse, untamed heifer, sneaky viper with fangs with enough venom to kill an elephant, man-looking degenerate who had the nerve to diss me by touching me and calling me cute.” She had one hand on her hip and gesturing with the other, while she delivered that opening salvo. She was standing in the middle of the nurse’s station at the time of change of shift when nurses were giving reports to each other about events of past few hours and pending test results. A time when the floor manager overseeing the nighttime supervisor was within earshot. Nancie wanted to create maximum impact.

“She has no idea whom she is messing with. I ain’t one of them chicks afraid of her who lets her play with their tits. Oh no, I ain’t into this Sodom and Gomorrah, heaven and god-forbidden behavior. She has to do better than that.”

“Can you keep it down? We are trying to do some work here?” the oncoming nurse in charge mentioned, annoyed at the ruckus.

“Say what? Keep it down? Ain’t no way! That bitch in there had the nerve to threaten me if I didn’t let her have her way with me. How would you like that if someone did that to you?” “Hell no, we gonna settle this matter right here, right now or this place is not gonna work properly,” and after catching her breath, “Oh no you got my blood going. You ain’t seen nothing yet. I am a Hausa and we don’t take shit from anybody!” She stomped her foot on the floor as she said that.

Heather the floor manager came out of her office, “Can we talk about this calmly? Come to my office and let’s settle this.”

The presumed offender, Jessica, was sitting in the manager’s office, stone-faced but beefy red, unaccustomed to being gainsaid by an underling. As Nancie entered the room, she pointed at Jessica, “ This alpha-male she-wolf has always been looking at me, making suggestive winks that I don’t care for because I am not into any of this crap with another woman and last night she tried to touch my ass and I push her hand and she had the gall to tell me she will get me for this,” her voice was loud. Jessica was indeed a butch and dressed the part. She had a pixie haircut, always wearing masculine outfit and known to stick to rules like a drill sergeant. She did write a report stating that she caught Nancie napping while on duty. Nancie would not acknowledge it and most definitely wouldn’t sign it. Jessica’s position was like a cudgel she used to install fear. Her desire for sexual gratification, long a rumored palaver was breaking out in the open and in the most explosive manner. Sexual orientation is protected by law; sexual harassment is illegal, freedom of choice being the common thread in both instances, and consent   as the underpinning of acceptable behavior among adults. A fine line always is carved between deft pass taken as flattery and any declaration however subtle perceived as offensive, encroaching into one’s privacy or dignity. Such delicate territory we all live through, mindful to just be respectful of each other’s sensibilities so we can live in comity and harmony. A situation woven as a crossroads of sexual preference and sexual harassment impugns the delicate balance of individual rights. This can devolve into a tempestuous conflagration, all the more so when intolerance is part of the fray.

Nancie’s word versus Jessica’s. A black nurse versus a white one. An immigrant versus an American-born. Another pair of eyes could see it as nothing more than a bully versus a feisty, doughty person not willing to bend and very capable of standing her ground. The beholder certainly had the leeway of picking and choosing the visual connotation.

Of course Jessica denied harassing Nancie. That set her off, “Why the hell would I make up a lie like that? When one of the male workers makes a pass at me that I feel is inappropriate, I let him know it and that’s the end of it but you, aggressive like a raging bull always in rut seems not to understand the meaning of no. You think you can intimidate me, but it’s not gonna happen. I am a hot-blooded woman with roots from Guinea, a Hausa and we don’t take shit from any mother fucker!” She slapped her hand on the table to make her point.

Nancie behaving like this was a revelation to all. She was usually low-key, assiduous at work, always well coifed, smartly dressed, sporting elegant manicure, short of stature, a stunning buxom, all elements of female elegance. Jessica was the opposite. Heather knew she had a hot potato on her hands. Nancie had a reputation of a good nurse, never late, rarely calling sick. Nobody had filed a formal complaint against Jessica before, but it was an open secret she had an Amazon side.

“Besides, why is she always coming to the meds room to make small talk with me one-on-one? She is no friend of mine and never will be. I am not into women. I am not gonna let another woman suck my clit. This is deviant behavior.” Jaws dropped and everybody fell silent. A pin drop would sound loud.

Her seat feeling like a charcoal pit, the cauldron-like atmosphere becoming suffocating,  Heather knew Nancie would not let up and would become more aggravated if anything. “The chickens are coming home to roost,” another nurse barked, finally breaking the silence. She was an elder white woman with graying hair, “this is not the first time I am hearing this but the first time someone has the guts to say it out loud.” That made Heather’s decision far easier. She rescinded Nancie’s warning and stated she would investigate the charges. Along the way two other nurses added their voices to the mix. Forced to face the accusations, Jessica chose instead to resign without admitting any guilt.

The dénouement or unraveling of the confrontation veered in a surprising direction and ended up being a teaching lesson for all. It was as much a robust demonstration of conviction as it was a reminder of its alter ego, intolerance.  Heather held a special session with the staff one early morning. She assessed the meaning of the resignation of Jessica but she stunned the audience by announcing she was hurt by the reference of the biblical quote condemning alternate lifestyle. In her own words, “Whether we like it or not, from time immemorial, a certain segment of the population has same-sex attraction. We see them among our patients, friends, coworkers. Bullying an employee is not tolerable under my watch. I believe in fairness and have always practiced what I preach. I am a lesbian and I have suffered from people or society  not accepting my willful choice of such a lifestyle.” In a calm manner, she let it be known she was not spineless or feckless; in a resolute but skillful way, she exposed the prejudice that even people who can be the subject of racial bias can harbor. Nothing about her demeanor, her administrative style would ever lead one to suspect anything different about her sexual preference or that she allowed her personal lifestyle choice to interfere with her work ethos. Nancie had to come to terms with her own misgivings about other people’s life choices.

“It goes both ways. We need to respect each other’s preference,” Nancie said, her creed now tinged with a pinch of contrition for her previous stance of hidebound, inflexible intolerance. “Indeed. So long as we do then there’s no issue. I am sorry about the whole matter. Next time let me know at once about any type of personal discomfort,” Heather opined, cupping Nancie’s shoulder, sealing a covenant. The participants understood the gesture’s symbolism.

Another nurse turned to Nancie and said, “I had no idea you were so feisty. I guess there’s some truth to the saying that one needs to be wary of calm water.” The old nurse replied, “At the same time, we are all flawed. We must be careful about throwing stones when we live in a glass house.”

Reynald Altéma, MD

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