“The victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: he or she has become a threat.”
It was a September Saturday morning in southern Virginia. Our road trip to visit family had ended just hours earlier. A then-one-year-old Sage had developed a fever and breathing issues overnight and they seemed to only be getting worse. Rebecca and I looked up the nearest pediatric urgent care center and hopped in the car, leaving Ari safely in the capable hands of her grandparents, aunts, and uncles.
As we entered the facility, I held Sage securely in my arms. I could feel the heavy rhythm of her laboring lungs as she nestled her sweaty curls in my neck. Her tiny hands, the color of wheat ready for harvest, gripped my shirt. We were rushed into an exam room so that a breathing treatment could be immediately administered. As we entered the room, Rebecca sat on the exam table for Sage to rest in her lap.
Medical staff hurriedly entered the room to place a breathing mask on Sage. She began to cry hysterically in a confused panic about what was happening. A registration technician entered the room moments later and asked me to follow him to another room. Assuming the desire to move to another room was fueled by wanting to be able to complete registration in a quiet environment, I obliged.
I proceeded to be separated from my family and questioned for over 10 minutes. The process went as such: the tech would ask me a question (stumbling over his words all the while), press one or two keys on the keyboard regardless of how long my response had been, and then excuse himself from the room. The first couple of times that he did this I thought it was strange, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and supposed he might be new. My anxiety began to grow because I had no idea how Sage was doing. She had been so panicked and still struggling to get control of her breathing when I left the room.
After an extended period of time, the technician returned to the room and said we could go back. When we re-entered, Sage’s breathing had visibly calmed, but she was still crying. Rebecca was doing a tremendous job encouraging her to calm down by humming songs and gently stroking her hair. To my surprise, the technician who had just put me through extensive questioning interrupted Rebecca and began to ask the exact same set of questions that I had already answered. Clearly bothered by this, Rebecca redirected the conversation by saying he should just ask me because she was trying to calm Sage. The technician responded by attempting to hand her a clipboard of paperwork and told her to complete it in order to give me “permission” to answer any questions.
Rebecca refused to sign the paperwork and demanded an explanation for why on earth they needed her to give me permission to account for my own child. Only then did the technician say that they needed legal evidence in order for me to verify that I am Sage’s parent. They never questioned whether or not Rebecca was her parent and did not ask her for any legal documentation denoting such. It was only I who needed to produce legal documentation to prove my motherhood. What was worse is that he never communicated that to me. I had been separated from my family for over 10 minutes with him walking in and out of the room, and never once did he say, “I need you to show me some documents to prove to me you have parental rights over your child.”
The entire time, I had been asked zero questions about our family structure or relationship. A series of assumptions had been made about our marital, familial, and biological relationships and based entirely on the ignorance and prejudice of the individuals whose care Sage’s life depended on in that moment.
There are serious repercussions that could have occurred within all that time that I am glad did not happen. Sage could have stopped breathing. She and Rebecca could have been transferred to a hospital and I could have been left intentionally without notification or detail. I had both of our cell phones with me in the diaper bag at that time, and who knows how long it might have taken for Rebecca to contact me if things got worse. She also hadn’t even been told that they were questioning my relationship before she refused to sign the paperwork.
The easy-sounding truth is that there are legal protections in place (for now…) that make it so that we should not have to produce documentation anywhere that marriage equality is recognized. The hard truth is that most people are ignorant of that fact and Queer folks like myself are so frequently at the whim of other people’s personal judgement when they’re uneducated about the laws. The urgent care center we went to seemed to have never served an LGBTQ family like ours, and regardless of that fact, had not trained their employees on the appropriate protocol. This lack of training left their employees ill-prepared and put my family at risk of having a scary morning turn into a day fated with grief.
Thankfully, we got through it.
We both carry copies of the legal documents that our family lawyer helped us to secure for “in case of emergency: break glass” situations like the above where someone else’s ignorance threatens our rights. I retrieved the documents from my car and presented them to the technicians. They apologized “for the inconvenience,” and then tried to explain their actions away with lots of banter about “biological parent” this and ” usually, mom and dad” that.
I wish I could have taken a picture of their faces when I pointedly asked what made them think my wife was even biologically related to Sage and why they had not questioned that relationship. After an embarrassing pause, the technician who had interrogated me said that his assumption was based on Rebecca holding Sage when he first entered the exam room. I countered by saying that I had been holding Sage the whole time before that, and anyway, the point was that they need to make it their business to educate themselves on the law because assumptions about appearance make for dangerous territory when the care they provide can literally mean the difference between life and death for families. To my surprise, they actually acknowledged that I was right and thanked me for being so poised.
The truth is: underneath the “poise,” I felt furious, scared, and dehumanized. But as a Queer Black woman, the world doesn’t lend me the leniency of displaying those feelings openly in such situations. I have had to train myself to react in measured and calculated ways if I am to have any chance of getting my needs met. This is exhausting work and there are no convenient notifications that pop-up to tell me that the next package containing a shitty situation “has been shipped” or is “out for delivery (arriving before 8pm).” It took me WEEKS to get to a sound emotional place about what happened and it has taken me almost a year to write about it.
As I reflect on this memory today, I am grateful for having honed the skills to navigate that situation. I am grateful to be married to a woman who is 110% down and will never choose the easy-way-out for the sake of appeasing other people’s ignorance. I am grateful for having a therapist who helps me work through the fury, fear, dehumanization, and fatigue.
I am grateful to be self-empowered and to have grown into myself as a mother such that nothing will stand in the way of the love I have for my kids.