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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Tempest near a tea pot: Or how Rick Baxter ruined a great store in Jackson for me.

Some background information for an upcoming post:
Several months ago, I was dispatched to a local wine merchant to secure a gift basket for the banker that helped us finance our new home. The owner of the establishment is a loud and obnoxious guy, but likeable nevertheless. As this oaf and I were wandering about the store selecting wine for this gift, another customer came in and began commenting on a young man that was going to be performing in town that weekend. The owner began mincing about, making faces, elevating his voice a few octaves and generally mocking the alleged sexuality of this person. I was steaming inside, but was frozen with what thoughts of what to do. I had over $100 worth of business in a basket right in front of me, and here was the owner of this store mocking this young man’s and my sexuality as he valiantly attempted to wrap the basket in cellophane and raffia. It was lunch, the place was crowded, and I was tired. I wasn’t ready for a fight or for any kind of confrontation. If I didn’t get the wine here, I would have to travel across town and buy it at a mega-store, something that I didn’t relish on a Friday afternoon. I sucked it up and left the store with the wine in hand, and a lump in my stomach. I got home and relayed all the details to my partner and the other couple who went in with us to buy the gift. The comments that came back ranged from: “I would have said something (what?)” to “I would have walked out.” I debated both scenarios in my head, and neither one really offered any kind of easy out for me.

I had recently been awarded the “Mission” award from the Jackson area PFLAG chapter for my work with the Gay-Straight group at the college where I teach and for my advocacy and support of LGBT issues here in town and beyond. I felt that I should have sent the award back to the group, and asked them to give it to someone with a spine. I was tired, and I didn’t feel like being an activist that day. I wanted the wine, I wanted to deliver it to our banker, and I wanted to be done with the day. If I would have confronted this lout, he would have blown it off as a joke. He wouldn’t have gotten the deeper message in what I would have told him and his behavior would have most-likely continued both at his store and in his private life. If I would have walked out without saying anything, he would have simply put the wine back on the shelf with a shrug and been done with it, no questions asked. Maybe I got called away for an important phone call, maybe I forgot my check book… maybe…

I just returned from Chicago with a group of friends and one of their siblings graciously hosted all of us for the long weekend. We had decided that some kind of food gift would be appropriate, so I stopped by a local culinary store to buy the goods and have them shipped off to Chicago. I love to cook, and consider it to be my top hobby, even eclipsing art which is my vocation. I have often fantasized about being called to the witness stand in a trial, and instead of swearing on the Bible, I would demand a copy of “The way to cook” by Julia Child instead… but I digress. The cooking store is one of my favorite haunts here in town as it is chock full of goodies, gadgets, and stuff only a certified gourmand would want, let alone know how to use. As I was checking out, I noticed a stack of “TEAM BAXTER” flyers on the counter. I asked the people behind the counter “when did this become a political shop?” and one responded that one of the workers there is married to Rick Baxter, the politician the flyers were promoting. Baxter is a very staunch anti-gay county commissioner here in Jackson County. He is now running for state office and is using the momentum he gained passing his ridiculous “defense of marriage” resolution here in Jackson this past summer. He is regularly the topic of conversation on our town’s forum on M live and he spends a great deal of time reassuring the readership of the forum that he is NOT homophobic or anti-gay, rather just worried about the sanctity of marriage. I was deeply disturbed to find this kind of propaganda at the store, and I mentioned this to the workers ringing up my order. The one worker responded back that “they felt it was okay to support him” seeing as his wife works there. I said “then I don’t know if I can support YOU” and left my stuff on the counter. As I was walking out, one of the workers yelled to me, “you can still support us!” and I replied with “well then I would be supporting Baxter and his campaign, as you are using your store to help further his political career.”

They just did not get it. I am sure that there is a high percentage of LGBT clientele that frequent that store, as well as their supporters. As I drove back to the college, empty handed, but full of pride, I mentally composed a letter that I eventually sent out to all of my gourmand friends on my email address book, telling them my tale of woe. My mind was running a million miles a minute, and I had class to teach that night. Putting my thoughts down on paper and sharing this experience with my friends seemed to be the right thing to do. I asked them to not patronize the store until I had heard back from the owner regarding this situation. My rationale being, if they didn’t support us, why should we support them?

One of our friends is friends with the owner of the store, and he was on the phone immediately with the owner once he received my letter of concern. The owner was mortified, and asked that I stop “trashing” her business. She agreed to talk to me, and it was reported that the two workers would be “talked to” as well. She also reassured my friend that the flyers were there on accident, and that they were removed. She and her husband were out of town, and had no idea that Baxter’s wife had put them out there in her absence.

After the phone call, I sent out another letter telling everyone that the store had removed the flyers and that the great Spice Boycott of ’04 was now officially over. I thought that it would be as easy as that, but it wasn’t. People were hurt and wanted their feelings to be known to the owners of the store. A quote from a fellow PFLAG award winner summed it up nicely: “Even small statements, like where we buy our saffron, paprika, and stuffed capers, carries weight if enough of us are speaking.” I couldn’t agree more. I still sent my letter of disgust to the owner, with an added postscript to my letter thanking them for their swift action. But I remained vexed over the one worker’s attitude. She didn’t seem to care that I was walking out of the store and leaving about $75 worth of business on the counter. She didn’t seem to care that my feelings were stomped on, and that my entire view of the store had been clouded by a harmless stack of paper. They seemed to be more concerned with a sale than with the feelings of a customer. I am not a business major, but it doesn’t take an expert to realize that the core of any business is the customer base, and when the customers are not happy, business will suffer. It seems to me that the person behind the counter missed that day in training where they talk about keeping the customers happy and most importantly, coming back.

I didn’t mean to become an activist that night, but it just happened. It would have been easy to suck it up and buy the stuff, ignoring the attitude of the employees, but I couldn’t. I wondered in my head if this is how Rosa Parks felt the day she defied moving from her seat. I am by no means comparing myself to Miss Parks, but I wondered what would have happened if Rosa said, “okay cracker, here’s your seat” and moved to the back of the bus as she was told to do. Where would we be now as a nation?

Although the materials may be gone, the attitude of the one employee is still there, and that bothers me. I was eager to hear back from the owner, and eventually I did.

It wasn’t easy hearing the owner of the store tell me that I was wrong in what I did. She was not happy with me, and I was not happy with her. Both of us were in the alpha mode, looking out for number one and neither one was hearing what the other had to say. Her main complaint was that I didn’t come to her with my complaint, and that I painted her as a homophobe, which in my estimation, I did not. The woman that I saw behind the counter was apparently working on the books, and seemed to be busy in some administrative task. I assumed she was the owner… and since the whole attitude was permeated throughout the whole front of house, I assumed it was everywhere in the store. When I asked about the flyers, the woman behind the counter’s comment about “we thought it was okay since his wife works here…” lead me to believe that she was in deed in charge. The owner swears that she had never seen the flyers, nor had she been aware of their distribution. Fair, but I want to know just how long those had been out there for distribution. She even went so far as to tell me that I should have “thrown them away” instead of doing what I did. Uh, no, it’s your store honey. She was also concerned about my email, and where it emanated from, and how I was abusing my work account, even going so far as to call the president’s office to complain about my actions. But what bothered me the most and I can not either confirm or deny the validity of this comment, is her stating that she had talked to “a lot” of her gay friends and none of them seemed to see what the big deal was, and basically accused me of over-reacting to this situation. She mentioned that my credibility in the gay community was now tarnished by this action, and that I wouldn’t be respected anymore. Ouch.

I shut down. I apologized to her, sent out yet another email, and did what I could to help rectify the situation. But a lesson was learned, and it is one that will be with me for awhile. You play with fire (controversy) you will get burned. I ended up with an upset stomach, headaches, insomnia, and potential litigation (yes, she said she is calling her lawyer, and is threatening to sue for defamation of character and libel), and a potential blotch on my employment record with her phone call to the college president.

So where do I go from here? I sulked around for a week or two, and slipped into an apathetic haze, barely responding to simple questions posed by my partner. It hurt, it hurt a lot. I was trying to make a statement and it back-fired, and I needed time to recover from the whole scene. She didn’t understand how disgusting those flyers were to me, it was as if a cobra was coiled up on the counter, ready to strike at me. I was repulsed that someone as repellant as this county commissioner would dare show his face in that store. I always felt comfortable there, and “at home” as I browsed the aisles, but those days are over. I don’t know if I can ever go back there, as the image of “TEAM BAXTER” and the hatred and homophobia he brings to our community still shroud my memory.

I thought back to October during the awards dinner for PFLAG, and my own words came back to haunt me. In my acceptance speech, I spoke of the need to watch out for each other. We need to share the burden of activism; we need to share our resources and our hides. For if it is just a few of us doing the work, then who will be left to do it when we are all burned out? This experience has left me emotionally drained and exhausted. I have replayed the film-loop of that Tuesday afternoon’s events in my head a million times, analyzing each frame for culpability or error on my part, and I have finally come to the conclusion that I did indeed do the right thing in leaving my purchase on the counter and walking out empty handed. I have also absolved myself for putting out the email so quickly, but I went on the premise that perception is reality, and in my view, the store was supporting Baxter and his intolerant heterosexual agenda. My Latin teacher in high school had a poster behind his desk that read: Noli nothis permittere te terere. Which, when translated to English reads: Don’t let the bastards get you down. I should have remembered that phrase as I moped about these past few weeks. I let that bastard get the best of me, and I let his hatred fill my own personal life and space. In a way, I had let the terrorists win, and I had let my country down by not fighting this good fight for what is right and true here in America. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of spices.