[CW: Racism, Homophobia, Language, #MAGA]
Today’s post is a hard one to write for a number of reasons, and as the content warning indicates, I will be discussing my business and its position within our changing America. No doubt some of you have seen the story about us in the Times News. On the afternoon of July 10th, a mere seven days before our seventh anniversary, I received a hate-filled, threatening email from a self-professed Trump supporter who not only copiously used racist and homophobic language but also vaguely threatened to burn down the shop. What the paper was capable of printing was in no way the full extent of the heinous missive. The craven writer cloaked himself in anonymity, calling me an n-word lover and a “dumb gay bitch” who had too much sex with black men for any “real” man to ever want me (and yes, that is a polite paraphrase). Just reliving the moment I opened the email causes my heart to palpitate with anxiety, and the prospect of further talking about it, especially with the media and now on the blog, is not something I relish. Nevertheless, I was given an opportunity to call out this kind of rhetoric and bullying, and I will not be silenced by fear.
When I first read his personal attacks, a tingling sensation spread across my spine, and my cheeks flushed with heat. I was furious. How dare this disgusting individual send me such a repugnant, grammatically-incorrect message and not give me the opportunity to correct “your” to “you’re!” That wasn’t exactly how I felt, but making light of stressful situations is my preferred coping mechanism. The truth is I was so fucking angry I wanted to scream and cry and pound my fists into the walls in frustration. What a coward to hide behind an anonymous fake email account and say such terrible things to me. At least grow a pair of ovaries and sign your damn name, you racist, homophobic piece of shit.
As my anger continued to grow, I realized another emotion lurked below the raging surface, an emotion I rarely likely to acknowledge. I was afraid. I have never been a person who is easily rattled or frightened, and for someone to destroy my composure, to take away my feeling of security, was devastating. I hadn’t felt that way since we suffered the home invasion three years ago. Generally, I conquer what scares me, but how do you conquer a shadow? Could I wake up one morning and see smoke from my bedroom window only to arrive at work and find my dream in ashes? What if I was alone in the store? Most threats never come to fruition, but some do. What if this was one of those cases? Would I ever feel safe in the shop again? And with anonymity shielding the person who wrote the email, is it possible they would walk in and I wouldn’t even know?
When I showed the email to my dad/business partner, I think he was even more livid than I was. He immediately started pacing about the store, clenching and unclenching his fists, before printing the message and consulting our landlords about the threat. On their request, we called the police to file an official report. The exact quote was “YOUR WHATS WRONG WITH AMERICA . . . YOU ARE LUCKY WE ARE ONLY BOYCOTING YOUR STORE INSTEAD OF BURNING IT DOWN.” Legally, the police have no recourse should they ever locate the sender. Of course, since he used the fake email account MAGA@KAG.COM and sent it through our anonymous contact form, I doubt his identity will be revealed.
After we filed the report, my emotions were flying high, and I took to my private Facebook account to post about the incident. I shared the original email with some friends, and my dad posted it publicly on his page for which he was banned for 24 hours. A week later, a reporter contacted us about an anonymous message she received from what I’m assuming was a well-meaning friend.
It was several days before I responded because I was reticent to discuss the email. It’s a dangerous thing to be political with a business, especially in today’s climate. Over the last seven years, I have worked tirelessly and made countless personal sacrifices to grow and improve A Sophisticated Pair. We have cultivated a wonderful atmosphere here, and all of our reviews have been exceptionally positive. Taking a stand could jeopardize all of our hard work and even lead to us closing permanently. How many times have we seen people flock to social media and post reviews explicitly to destroy businesses they never even visited because they disagree with their politics? I’ve always wanted A Sophisticated Pair to be in the news because of the good things we do for our customers or for the community, not because of what I believe politically.
My friends were about as ambivalent as I was. Some adamantly argued this was an opportunity for me to be the ally I have been privately, to not tolerate hate speech, and to speak up for the value of inclusivity and diversity. Others believed commenting could ignite a political firestorm the store may not survive.
As I mulled it over–and oh did I mull it over, I recalled my mom’s sage advice to me when I was younger and giving into peer pressure. “Erica Lynn, I did not raise you to be a follower. I raised you to be a leader, and I expect you to stand up for what you believe and to stand up for what is right, especially if it is hard.” Like all of her advice, it has guided me to making better choices even after her death. My mom was also the kind of person who never met a stranger, and her warm, welcoming attitude toward all people was imparted on both my brother and me. Making friends and interacting with people with different life experiences and situations helped me to understand the importance of representation, the meaning of privilege, and the ways in which I could help.
Half of our customers are people of color. We proudly serve all genders (including trans and non-binary), races, ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, levels of ability, and religions. What I kept coming back to as I weighed whether to go public was simple. Standing up for myself and for my shop would cause backlash, but what kind of ally and friend would be if I stayed silent? Am I the kind of person who takes minority money but when it comes time to put some skin in the game I back out? No, my mom raised me better than that, and it would be a disgrace to her memory to be any other way.
We support our customers, and giving a statement that this kind of racism and homophobia would not be tolerated is one more way we could show that support. I can’t ever put into adequate words how much all of you have sustained our business, and I won’t let fear dictate what I do. Meet with the reporter I would. Of course, I didn’t quite expect to have my picture taken and figured if they did anything it would be of the store’s exterior. I was in the middle of crazy allergies, didn’t do my makeup, and was like “Eh, screw my hair. Scarf!” If there is one funny bit to this, it is the picture they took of me–mid-sentence and gloriously chubby chin–makes me look like an impassioned, angry bitch ready to fight.
A lot of people have asked me why the email was sent in the first place, and I don’t have a precise answer. A week prior, I expressed criticisms of President Trump and some of his administration’s policies, especially with relation to their treatment of minorities, on my private Facebook page. A customer made some comments suggesting I shouldn’t be allowed to express an opinion or risk ruining my business, and my amazingly supportive friends were quick to chime in that it was my page and I could do as I wished. They were right obviously, and I gave what I considered to be a thoughtful, measured, and polite response.
A week later the email arrived. Draw your own conclusions. Since the story broke, the response has been mostly positive. Our customers and community have sent lovely messages of solidarity and encouragement, and I learned that Burlington is home to so many caring, sympathetic people. It reminded me not to view each person as someone who wants to cause harm to me or my business but as someone there cheering us on and supporting our dreams. I’ve even had the pleasure of meeting people in charitable community organizations we plan to work in the future. Going public with this email will literally result in us being able to do more to help more people in our community, especially the marginalized and disenfranchised.
Naturally, there have been others who jumped on the hate wagon or decried the story as “fake news.” The situation has made a hard month even more stressful. We’ve been fighting with vendors for inventory, hurriedly placing trade show orders, and then to have all of the ensuing chaos of this email . . . well, let’s just say my stress levels have been rather high. I nearly collapsed in the store Saturday from fatigue and had a 50+ hour migraine where I could hardly see out of my right eye. But, I’m still here, and I’m still standing, standing for myself, my friends, my customers, and my business. I asked earlier how I could conquer a shadow. The answer is with light. By shining a light on this kind of behavior, I hope it encourages people to evaluate what civility really means and why it is crucial that we stand against hate speech. And if you feel the need to boycott my business because of this situation, that is a price I am willing to pay for being honest. But make no mistake: I would rather my business end tomorrow because I took a stand than last in perpetuity because I compromised who I was. I will choose to be a better ally, a better friend, and a better person over the almighty dollar every day.