Around 7 AM on a Friday morning, two strong-willed women confronted each other at the nurses’ lounge of a hospital ward. As Nurse Nancy was giving report to the oncoming nurse about the health status of the patients she took care of during the previous shift, Jessica, her supervisor abruptly entered the room. Sporting a mean mien, a hostile attitude on her sleeve, she hurled in a bossy tone that wouldn’t take no for an answer, “This is a warning letter and I want you to sign it and to acknowledge receiving it.” Surprised and momentarily disconcerted, Nancy answered in a calm but firm tone, “Warning about what? I always do my work and take good care of my patients. You must have the wrong nurse,” her tone was just as confrontational. “Very well then,” retorted Jessica, “on top of napping, I am going to add insubordination and I will go straight to Heather, our nurse manager.” “As you wish,” replied Nancy, “let’s go to her office and settle the matter. You have chosen the wrong person to mess with and I will prove it to you in no time.” As she defiantly said this in a rising and irritated voice, she stood up with her hands akimbo, her lips curled, and her eyes bulging outward.
Both marched into the manager’s office that was adjoining the lounge. Before Jessica had a chance to say a word, Nancy came out swinging “No, no, this is not about me napping or any other nonsense. This is about retaliation. I am not going to have any of it. So? far as I am concerned, you can place this paper where the light doesn’t shine. This is about you touching my butt last night, and as I pushed your hand and I told you in no uncertain terms that I am not into this Sodom-and-Gomorrah stuff. You had the nerve to tell me, you will make me pay for being feisty,” Nancy stomped the ground with her foot while wagging her index as she said this with vehemence. Jessica tried to reply, “I did see you nap and-” but Nancy interrupting her, pursued, “No kidding? Who doesn’t when it’s break time? So long as someone is covering for you, you can do whatever during your break,” and “I am really getting upset. Let me tell you this once and for all, I am getting sick and tired of you always trying to make small talk with me in the meds room, making comments about me looking cute. I am not into women, I want you to get it into your skull, she-wolf.”
In what could be considered a role reversal, Nancy the usually quiet and efficient nurse with petite, elegant and very feminine appearance and effete mannerisms versus Jessica a butch who looked and dressed the part. She had a pixie haircut set in Mohawk style, that complemented her typical masculine outfits. Jessica was taken aback by Nancy’s unexpected aggressive outburst. For one thing, she wasn’t used to being gainsaid by a subordinate. Nancy was the one with the alpha male outburst, causing Jessica to turn beefy red, as she took in insult after insult. The exchange taking place was loud enough for the other nurses to hear but not so boisterous that patients could be aware of it.
Nancy’s unusual aggressive behavior was also a revelation to all. She was usually low-key, assiduous at work, and the last person to be the object of a warning letter. Ironically, no two people who were so much alike in work ethic could be more different in lifestyle. Both were punctual and detail oriented. Nancy was always well coifed, smartly dressed, sporting elegant manicure, short of stature, a stunning buxom, displaying all the elements of female elegance. She was deeply religious and known for her literal interpretation of the bible. Her mores and belief systems were rather on the rigidly conservative side. She was against premarital sex, frowned upon drinking even socially, and found smoking highly repugnant. She didn’t care about partying much either. Every now and then she would read the bible on her break. The joke around the nurse’s lounge was that Nancy needed a good man who will teach her how to enjoy the sinful pleasures of life.
Jessica was the opposite, a study of contrasts. Nicknamed “Sarge”, as she was often compared to a drilling sergeant because of her exacting standards, and lateness as a pet peeve. In spite of the fact that she didn’t pay too much attention to her physical appearance, as evidenced by her almost daily wrinkled clothes, lately she had developed an irrepressible attraction for good-looking females, especially the type that takes time to preen in front of the mirror. The joke around the nurse’s lounge was Sarge makes her own clothes, gets her haircuts from a shoemaker and buys her shoes from a barber. She committed the mortal sin of mixing business with pleasure. She just couldn’t keep her hands to herself. Nancy exemplified the kind of chick she liked. It was inevitable that a collision course would evolve from that sulfurous brew.
Jessica had been on the job for just a few months when the rumor mill started churning, spewing back a narrative about her voracious sexual appetite. Nancy who was not part of this gossip ecosystem, wasn’t aware of the rumors and other hearsays. However, up till now, there never has been any complaint about Jessica.
The intensity of Nancy’s riposte was indeed a surprise. Certainly, in the annals of this fast-paced hospital, that verbal exchange on this particular morning became part of the lore. The gossip mill received plenty of fodder from this unusual jawing between no less than a nurse and her supervisor. “A wild English horse, an untamed heifer, a sneaky viper with fangs holding enough venom to kill an elephant, a man-looking degenerate who had the nerve to diss me by touching me and calling me cute,” was a line that people remember from that exchange. That line in itself was telling of Nancy’s intolerance. How this explosive situation sprung to life was a learning curve for all, including the warring participants and observers.
Jessica used her position like a two-way turnstile. In one direction it’s a cudgel to instill fear and mete out punishment; in another, it’s a wand purveying favors with the attractiveness of a catnip. The drama unfolding evinced thorny legal as well as social issues. While Jessica’s choice of sexual orientation is protected by law, her sexual harassment of Nancy is patently illegal. Jessica’s freedom of choice does not proscribe her need to seek a potential sexual partner’s unbridled consent. This is the underpinning of acceptable behavior among adults, as a golden rule. A fine line always exists between a deft pass taken as flattery and any declaration, however subtle, perceived as offensive and or encroaching into one’s privacy or assailing one’s 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 arising out the nexus of sexual preference and sexual harassment unsettles the delicate balance of individual rights. An unwelcome pass between two individuals of different sexual orientations can result in very unpredictable consequences. This may trigger an eruptive response when the party on the receiving end has strong and intolerant beliefs.
Nancy’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 connotation certainly was in the eyes of the beholder.
As to be expected, Jessica denied harassing Nancy. That, of course set Nancy 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, seem not to understand the meaning of no. You think you can intimidate me, but it’s not gonna happen.” She cocked her head to one side to make her point.
Heather knew she had a hot potato on her hands. Her seat feeling like a charcoal pit, the cauldron-like atmosphere becoming suffocating, Heather realized that Nancy would not let up and would become more aggravated if anything. “The chickens are coming home to roost,” another nurse barked, from the lounge. 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 Nancy’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, but unwilling to stand in judgment, 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 an indictment of its nemesis, 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 acceptable under my watch. I believe in fairness and always practice what I preach. I am a lesbian and I have suffered from people or society not accepting my willful choice of such a lifestyle.” This revelation was seminal. 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.
Nancy had to reconcile the optics of Jessica as an aggressor versus the calm and collected manners of Heather. Heather’s forthrightness about her sexual preference and personalizing people’s intolerance and the hurt she feels made her reconsider her own misgivings about other people’s life choices. Nancy was witnessing a leader using resolute but skillful method. “I respect each person’s right to choose. I expect no less from others,” Heather said, speaking to no one in particular but Nancy felt the words were meant for her. “Prejudice knows no gender, ethnic group. Victims of discrimination can turn around and discriminate against others based on all sorts of characteristics, including sexual preference.” That sounded even closer to home. By necessity, rather than by reason, Nancy was slowly learning to accept the fact that people can have a different sexual pulse than hers.
“I would have never thought of you that way,” Nancy said. “Look, it goes both ways. We need to respect each other’s sexual preference, religious beliefs, ethnic culture, to name a few” Heather said, and adding further, “what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their home is no one else’s business. At the same time, no one can force his or her belief on someone else. When we come to work, we agree to this principle. We take care of patients who have different religions, and we treat all of them equally. Same for people from different backgrounds. That’s the beauty of the civil rights movement. It forced all of us in society to come to terms with each other’s rights.” A white person talking about civil rights was peculiar, thought Nancy. As if responding on cue, “I am sorry about the whole matter. Next time let me know at once about any type of personal discomfort,” Heather opined, cupping Nancy’s shoulder, sealing a covenant. The participants understood the gesture’s symbolism.
Needless to say, Heather touched Nancy in an unpredictable way. Nancy had every right to be upset at Jessica’s persistence but no right to condemn Heather’s lifestyle. That was an epiphany for her. It started an internal debate about religious creed and directives in civil society. As much as she had a different notion of a couple, she couldn’t find fault with Heather as a person. It was not an easy hurdle to overcome; she could easily find sections in her holy book railing against lesbian lifestyle. How can one treat as heathen someone who treats you fairly?
Nancy’s mooring became challenged by the twin recognition of the limits of religious creed, and the flexibility offered by tolerance. She realized the need for necessary adjustments to be made to her thinking process in order to achieve if not harmony, at least peaceful co-existence, in an environment full of diversity. That became a lifelong struggle for Nancy whose reflexive reaction was always through religious lenses.
From Nancy’s perspective, the coda of this kerfuffle was encapsulated by a couple of exchanges among some of the participants. Another nurse turned to her 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.” Another nurse replied, “At the same time, we are all flawed. We all hold a skeleton in our closet called ‘intolerance’. It’s a contagious disease. Therefore, we all live in glass houses. We must be careful about throwing stones.” The concept of tolerance, hard to grasp and difficult to practice in everyday life, became easier for Nancy to accept and implement when she associated it as part and parcel of the commitment she keeps pledging with her daily prayer of “Treating others as I would like to be treated.”
Reynald Altéma, MD.