Some of the firefighters in my fire station are gossiping about me–saying I’m gay. It’s difficult to deny and even more difficult to talk about because it is true. I do my job very well (even they admit it), and this is what I will do forever. I’m not thrilled about being in the “rumor mill” but worry that telling the truth will lead to hazing and maybe even hold me back career-wise. What’s the right move? I’m not currently protected by any laws in this state.
– Gay But Not So Happy
Dear GBNSH (and those you work with),
A few years ago, I would have said that this is a very tough issue, but now, in 2015, it’s just a tough issue. As they say, “Things get better,” but not always so quickly and sometimes not always.
I often say, “Once you’ve seen one fire department, you’ve only seen one fire department,” and that’s a fact. There are some towns in North America where just a few miles away one fire company does it one way and another one does it “their” way. Amazing. There are some fire departments where one shift likes this hose load and another likes this nozzle.
There are, however, a few common denominators that are found in almost all fire departments, and one is the desire to help people. We have a very well-known and very positive reputation for helping anyone at any time for pretty much anything. That’s how most of us are. Color? Who cares. Nationality? Doesn’t matter. Sexual orientation?
W……….? (Enter loud car screech brake noise here.)
Actually, I hope that’s not the case. But I understand that some have a “problem” with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. And to some extent, that’s their personal prerogative. You may not like certain types of people, but you must help them when they need help. Agree so far? Good. If not, time for a career change. Seriously. If you are not willing to help whoever dials 911, then this is a very poor career choice for you. It doesn’t meet the genetic makeup of helping people as firefighters must do.
OK, so, we have helping people covered. Now, let’s cover LGBT firefighters. Boys and girls, they are out there and have been doing the job–and doing the job like any other firefighter–for years; you may just not know it.
So here is the issue for discussion: If you are willing to help anyone who dials 911, are you willing to work with someone who meets (or exceeds) the same standards as you? Name the standard or qualification; if they meet or exceed it, are you willing to work with them?
I am going to guess different than I would have 10 to 15 years ago. I am going to guess that most firefighters would work with an LGBT firefighter, that they wouldn’t have a problem with it. I hope my guess it correct.
But here is the issue, gang: It is not about you having a problem with it or not. This isn’t about you. Are you thinking, “As long as they don’t go ‘homosexual’ on me, I am OK with that”?
Isn’t that like someone not going heterosexual on you? Isn’t this about being qualified (no matter what your sexual makeup) and being able to do whatever task is required of your company? No need to answer the question–that is all it is about.
“But Nozzlehead, what if someone of my own sex tries to touch me?”
Touch you? Why would someone touch you? You mean hug you after the two of you grabbed some trapped kid out of the second-floor bedroom? Oh that? Sure; hug ’em back.
Or do you mean someone of your own sex, at work, touching you sexually? Really? Has that happened? Do we have studies on that?
What would you do if someone of the opposite sex tried to touch you at work? Well now … that’s totally diff … (car brake screech sound–again). WRONG also. Wake up and understand you are at work, volunteer or career, and you are in quarters to do the job. Focus on the job, not the sexual orientation of someone. Sexual orientation is just one aspect of a human being. A person. Like your mom, dad, husband, wife, partner, child, grandchild. You get the picture? LGBT, GLBT, ABCD, or EFGH … act like a firefighter.
Now, as far as dealing with it as an LGBT firefighter …. You’re obviously surrounded by some who act like morons (or, quite possibly, other gay firefighters who just act this way to fit in). It creates an uncomfortable situation for you; dealing with your situation is probably difficult enough. “It’s been a lifelong struggle with sexual orientation,” said one of the friends I spoke with, adding he knew he was gay from day one of his life. He said he grew up in a home where you were told at an early age what you could be, and gay was not on his family’s to-do list. So here are some options that may help:
Option 1: Simply keep it to yourself and deal with the pressure, but 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. None of it was worse than 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 we all own it or it wouldn’t happen. But realistically, the firehouse can be cruel, good leadership or not.
Just listen to the things that come out of people’s mouths, probably your own (and mine) from time to time. I have 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 usually there, unless no one knows they’re there–just like you described. Get it?
Option 3: Carefully select a fellow firefighter whom you know you can trust. Discuss your situation with that individual to better help you gauge your department’s or company’s reaction. Remember, you may risk losing friends and colleagues, but you’ll likely be better off than you were before.
Maybe you should seek 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 (www.mynefpa.org).
Also consider the National EMS & Firefighters Pride Alliance (www.FireFlag.org).
There are plenty of resources on online. Google it.
Coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender to friends and family is challenging enough. But with no federal workplace discrimination protection based on sexual orientation currently established, coming out at work is even more difficult–because you risk losing your job or a promotion.
Know your local and state laws, and “size up” your situation to determine the best course of action. And to be clear, when I say the “best course of action,” I mean to get past this issue and get back to acting like a professional 2015 fire department or company. Federal law is being considered as I write this, essentially to determine if every American has the same rights as others. But until then, size up your situation and determine the best course of action.
I did speak with some friends who are veteran firefighters and who are very qualified to speak on this issue, since, as it turns out, they have “been there and done that.” Here are some of their comments:
“In my close to 20 years on the job, I have personally witnessed transgendered firefighters and gay firefighters, and the only ones who made it through were those who performed the job first for many years before coming out. That made coming out a nonissue, which of course it is.”
“Please mention that there are other support groups that can help. People may not have fire service groups as an option in their communities.”
“I confronted this within myself. Another firefighter hired at the same time told me to lie about my lifestyle, which was crazy considering I have a partner and a daughter. If I lied about that, how could people trust me, which, in my mind, is the number-one issue regardless of lifestyle? Bottom line: Firefighters have to trust each other. So I spoke my truth and have never looked back. Firefighters should respect honesty and integrity. The rest is just BS. Oh, and have this person contact me if they need moral support. I’m happy to help.”
“A lot of people will say that ownership of the truth takes power away from those who are trying to be destructive. The issue here is Mr. Happy needs to be proud of who he is.”
“There are those who will always find it an issue regardless of how proud you are. In the end, he can choose to admit or not. Either way, the talk continues. It’s all about how much he chooses to empower them.”
“Negative discussion is always destructive to firehouse unity or at least the person you’re talking about. Leadership can only do so much to step in and stop the ‘chatter.’ In the end, it’s the person who’s being gossiped about who stops the chatter either by confirming it or not. And, as mentioned above, the talk may continue. He needs to feel good about himself regardless of what’s being said.”
In the meantime, reach out for support, be happy, and focus on being a firefighter, a fit one with training and preparedness being the number-one priority. Then await the next run, and when it comes in, put your gear on, because no one can tell anything about you other than the fact that you and the crew are all there to help.