Being Gay in the Firehouse

Advice for a gay firefighter surrounded by cruel co-workers

By Nozzlehead
Published Monday, February 1, 2010 | From the February 2010 Issue of FireRescue

Dear Nozzlehead: I’m a gay firefighter and I am wrought with pain. The problem is that my brother and sister firefighters don’t know, and they’re so cruel in their remarks about gay people. We cover a city that has a large gay population, and they hate all GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) people—the same people who pay our salaries—and they would probably hate me if they found out. They use the word “gay” as an insult all the time, as well as much worse words, and while they see them as just words, they don’t get it. People suggest that I come out, and I laugh and cry at the same time because nothing could be worse for me, considering the firefighters I work with. Of course, what I do know, and what they do not know, is that a significant number of their superior officers are GLBT. Sometimes, that’s my only comic relief.

I’m not really sure why I’m writing you, but thought you might have some ideas, suggestions or advice—unless, of course, you’re also a hater.
—Rainbows on the Bay

Dear Rainbows,
You’re correct. I am a hater. I hate lima beans. I mean, I absolutely HATE them. They’re mushy, nasty and have no taste at all. They serve no purpose but to get in the way of my other frozen mixed vegetables. Can you imagine what a wonderful world it would be with just corn, peas, carrots and pea pods?

First of all, I addressed this subject in this column many years ago, but I think it’s a subject well worth discussing again. So in responding to your letter, I’ll use some of the information I provided in that column as well as some new thoughts.

Now before I go on, I should say that I’m not fully qualified to discuss this subject because I’m not gay. I do have several gay friends (and possibly more whom I don’t know about) and am never shy to be around them. That’s simple for me because I really don’t care.

I’m not sure why, but some people are very concerned about what others do in their private lives. Honestly, I would guess most folks do some things in their private lives that shouldn’t be advertised. But how does that impact any of us at the fire department? It shouldn’t. It has nothing to do with the job, so who cares?! The answer: You do and they do, and the emotions are running high.

The problem is that when we’re in the firehouse, we forget that it’s NOT all about us—it’s about laws, policies, procedures and opinions. Our behaviors and opinions can and should be controlled and directed for the overall good of the whole. Our personal opinion really doesn’t matter, especially when it’s potentially harmful to those we work with or serve.

As for you “haters,” you’re probably in the wrong line of business, career or volunteer, because one day, one way or another, you’ll respond and help a gay person and then what are you going to do when your friends find out? Are you gonna be in trouble or what?!

Well, maybe this isn’t all that simple. Maybe as a firefighter, you don’t like gay people but are willing to help anyone. There, that’s better. Then how about we just shut up about the kind of people we like and the kind of people we don’t like? Just be quiet, if that’s possible. Are you able to function knowing you’re working with gay firefighters? Are you able to function knowing you’re serving gay people?

I’ve done my homework and spoken to several friends who are gay. So now, I’ll try to give you some applicable information.

I’ve been a firefighter for almost 40 years and have met and worked with many people along the way. As much as it may surprise you, your letter does not surprise me, and I can imagine and understand the pain and problems you’ve dealt with.

I bet hiding who you are hasn’t been easy (this from a person who writes under the name Nozzlehead). We both know we all work with all kinds of jackasses. Problem is, they can act like jackasses and not worry about it. After all, they have been “outed” as jackasses by their jackass behavior. They don’t really care to hide who they are, but they oughta. Sometimes those who aren’t ashamed to show who they are or what they’re made of should be the ones to stay in the social closet.

To be honest with you, I couldn’t care less what you do in the privacy of your own home, bedroom, kitchen or bathroom. Just don’t do it in the firehouse. Hey, here’s a tip: No sex in the firehouse for anyone of any gender or sexual orientation. Sexual behavior in the firehouse is a huge problem—we read about it almost every day. And in many cases, it doesn’t bother us—until it’s too late. We think it’s OK to “play” while on duty. Silly firefighters. Silly straight firefighters. But then, some firefighters find out that another firefighter likes to be around their own kind and WHOA! We have a crisis! And we really shouldn’t. Bottom line: Don’t do anything on duty that you wouldn’t do in front of your mom, your chief or an attorney, and you’ll probably be safe.

But as for off-duty, the lifestyle you choose to lead is yours.

When the few gay firefighters I know chose to come out to me, I treated their information with the utmost privacy and respect—to the point where I would say, “I don’t care whether you’re gay, just get off your rear and go do your job.” But I didn’t say that until after we had spoken. I listened and assured them they were no different from anyone else; they needed to focus on the fire department’s mission. I’ve never had any problems due to the fact that some members chose to out themselves to me. I can appreciate the relief that one would have in being able to discuss it. But again, it’s a very personal choice, and I can respect a person’s decision to come out or stay in the closet. Quite frankly, in our business, depending on where you work or run as a firefighter, you may very well be better off keeping it to yourself—and I don’t particularly like the fact that this is what I recommend, but it’s probably reality for your own security and comfort.

You’re obviously surrounded by some homophobes who act like morons (or, quite possibly, other gay firefighters who just act this way in order to fit in). It creates an uncomfortable situation for you; dealing with your situation is probably difficult enough.

So here are your options, Rainbows.

Option 1: Simply keep it to yourself and deal with the pressure, even though that’s not the easiest way to live.

Option 2: Come out to those you work closest with, which is what one firefighter I worked with did. He was accepted to some extent, but I also heard some negative comments and saw some negative behavior. However, none of it was worse than the comments and behavior displayed prior to his coming out.

Life in the firehouse can be pretty cruel. I know someone will write me and say, “That’s leadership’s fault.” Well, I guess so. But realistically, the firehouse can be cruel, good leadership or not. It can be a macho man’s place where anyone showing weakness can become a target. Just listen to the things that come out of people’s mouths—probably your own from time to time. I’ve observed this classic firehouse mouth-running for years in every firehouse I’ve ever been in! This behavioral problem exists with men and women, so those women out there shaking their heads, listen to the things you say as well. It’s human, albeit cruel, behavior. Normally, when we run our mouths at the firehouse, those we’re talking about aren’t there unless no one knows they’re there—just like you described. Get the point?

Option 3: Carefully select a fellow firefighter whom you know you can trust—I mean REALLY trust—to help you decide whether to come out. Think really hard about that. Discuss your situation with that individual and ask for their assessment of your department’s or company’s reaction should you come out. Remember, you may risk losing friends and colleagues. But you’ll likely be better off than you are now. Maybe.

Unfortunately, your decision is a simple but complicated one. Simple because it’s either come out or don’t. Complicated because the solution may be to live two separate lives. During your 24-hour work shifts, you can be a straight-appearing firefighter who shares virtually no details of your private life with those you call your brothers and sisters. When off duty, you can lead a happier life as a gay person within your circle of friends.

If you come out, you may have to deal with your fellow firefighters saying, “I don’t trust him (or her)” and “I’m not sleeping in the same room as him (or her).” Firefighters are a strange group. We’ll risk our lives and do anything to save anybody of any color, race, religion or sexuality—until after the fire. We’ve all heard our fellow firefighters talking politics or personal opinions. Through the years, I’ve been shocked by some of the nasty, prejudiced and cruel comments I’ve heard. And for those of you reading this, getting all nervous, relax: Gay people normally don’t go around “hitting” on someone they know is straight, just like you usually don’t go around hitting on someone who’s gay.

Maybe you should seek out other firefighters in the same situation as yours. There’s nothing better than the lessons learned from others to help us determine the right course of action. Your situation is no different.

Consider contacting FireFLAG/EMS, a national peer support group for gay, lesbian and bisexual firefighters, EMTs, paramedics and their friends. Check out their Web site at www.fireflag.org. You can also reach them at 208 West 13th St., New York, NY 10011.

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