NY Fire Dept. Welcomes Trans Firefighter
There’s little that unnerves the heroes of the New York City Fire Department--and a trans colleague, reportedly the first transgender firefighter in the nation, is not set to cause much anxiety, either.
Though the United States Armed Forces recently saw the homophobic ban on openly gay, lesbian, and bisexual servicemembers set aside, trans patriots are still not welcome to be honest about who they are.
The FDNY has gone one step further by accepting the trans firefighter into their ranks, British newspaper the Daily Mail reported on Oct. 3.
It’s quite a shift in a culture where some firefighters can’t take the rigors of riding on an engine for the local gay Pride parade, as was the case a few years ago in California. But gays and lesbians have been making incremental progress in the macho world of firefighters for years.
The Daily Mail described the firefighter as a "tall blonde" transwoman named Brooke, and noted that she is "a third generation firefighter." Moreover, the article said, "her father, who worked on 9/11, is still with the department." His nickname in the firehouse is the Bravest, the article added.
"She works at Metrotech HQ, which is notorious for its macho environment, with only 32 women on the staff," the article added. Brooke’s duties take place primarily at a desk, the article said; Brooke schedules recruitment appointments.
The New York Post reported on Brooke on Oct. 2, and took note of the apparent paradox of Brooke’s warm welcome among colleagues in the same department that had drawn a rebuke from a judge hearing a discrimination case. Reported the Post, "White males make up about 91 percent of the approximately 11,000-member force."
"It’s a tremendously courageous decision," one firefighter told the Post. A very few others, the article said, showed Brooke disrespect by referring to her as "it," but most of those with a knowledge of the force’s culture have extended Brooke the same respect they harbor for her extended fire-fighting family.
"Especially among those who know the [family], this won’t amount to a hill of beans to them," said Brooke’s colleague. "There’s a lot of respect for the family."
Another sexual minority affiliated with the NYFD was gay Catholic priest Mychal Judge, a New York City Fire Dept. chaplain killed on 9/11 who is now remembered as that dark day’s "gay saint." Even as the American mainstream media focused recently on the indelible chain of events ten years later, a British newspaper recalled Judge.
"When he heard about the disaster at the World Trade Centre, he donned his Catholic collar and firefighter garb and raced downtown," columnist Amy Goodman noted in the Sept. 7 piece, which appeared in the Guardian.
"At 9:59 a.m., the South tower collapsed, and the force and debris from that mass of steel, concrete, glass and humanity as it hit the ground is likely what killed Father Mychal," the column continued.
"His was the first recorded death from the attacks that morning. His life’s work should be central to the tenth anniversary commemorations of the 9/11 attacks: peace, tolerance and reconciliation."
A vigil for Judge took place on Sept. 4 in New York, in front of the St Francis Church where Judge lived and worked, just down the block from the Ladder 24/Engine 1 firehouse.
The man behind the vigil, which takes place every year, is Steven McDonald, Goodman reported. McDonald had been a police officer when, in 1986, he was shot by a suspect and left paralyzed. Judge counseled McDonald and helped pull him through a terrible personal tragedy.
Judge "reaffirmed my faith in God, and that it was important to me to forgive the boy who shot me," McDonald told Goodman. "And I’m alive today because of that."
Goodman wrote that Judge had worked with the poor and with people living with HIV; he had also traveled to Northern Ireland, a nation torn by deep and persistent religious and political differences, to promote peace and reconciliation.
Judge himself was not fully reconciled to the world in which he sought to bring healing, Goodman noted. "In his private diaries, the revered Catholic priest wrote, ’I thought of my gay self and how the people I meet never get to know me fully,’ " the columnist reported.
Elsewhere in the state of New York, acceptance seemed harder to come by. Earlier this year a gay firefighter brought suit against the department in the city of White Plains, saying that he had suffered workplace harassment because of his sexuality after his supervisor outed him to his colleagues, leading to a hostile workplace.
Forty-three year-old Steven Saunders, the son and grandson of firefighters, is a father of three, and has served in the military for 17 years. His suit describes a sequence of events in which gossip began to circulate regarding Saunders, and the firefighter went to his supervisor, Deputy Fire Chief Richard Houlihan, about it. When Saunders admitted that he was gay, Houlihan asked him to keep quiet about his sexuality, the suit says, but then spread the word himself.
Saunders’ colleagues began to mock and harass him, the suit alleges, and Houlihan did nothing to stop it. Rather, the supervisor told Saunders to "keep your mouth shut" about the homophobic harassment, and to "get thicker skin because everyone gets teased--Blacks, Hispanics and Italians," according to the Irish Central article.
The suit attributes a job reassignment two years ago from the firehouse to service as the Houlihan’s driver to a wish to put Saunders in "his own room and the other firefighters would not have to sleep" in the same space as Saunders.
Like Brooke, Saunders comes from a firefighting clan.
"I grew up in a family of firefighters and my whole life I knew I’d be a firefighter, too," Saunders told the press at a March 12 media conference. "I’m also a father and a gay man. An important part of my identity has been taken away from me by the people that I trusted."
In 2007, a black lesbian with the Los Angeles Fire Department named Brenda Lee won a lawsuit and a $6.2 million settlement after suffering what she said was anti-gay harassment at the hands of her colleagues.
Lee’s suit "also claimed her superiors made derogatory comments about her and forced her to perform strenuous exercises without proper safety precautions because of her race and sexual orientation," the Associated Press reported on July 5, 2007. The article added that the jury payout was the largest in a string of recent settlements of cases alleging discrimination and retaliation against women and minorities within the Fire Department."
But claims of workplace harassment cut both ways. A group of four heterosexual firefighters who said they had been "forced" to endure a ride in a fire engine as part of San Diego’s 2007 Pride parade claimed in their suit that having been thrust into the midst of so many gays traumatized them. The men said that that they were subjected to catcalls and to the sight of semi-nude men carrying out "simulated sex acts." The plaintiffs said that they suffered a variety of physical complaints due to stress after being in the gay parade, including anxiety, headaches, and irritable bowel syndrome.
San Diego then-fire chief Tracy Jarman--an open lesbian--met with the men to apologize in person about a week and a half after the 2007 parade. Jarman took the post of fire chief in 2006 and was hailed as a gay "role model." Jarman was criticized for the incident, but reportedly had no knowledge of the men being compelled to ride in the parade until after the fact. Jarman was not cited in the firefighters’ suit. She retired in 2009.
The four firefighters won a total of $34,000, plus money for legal fees totaling just under $600,000 plus 7% interest.
One firefighter--who, along with the other three plaintiffs, was still with the Dan Diego fire department--told the media, "This whole thing could have been solved in a day. They knew two or three days before that we didn’t want to be in that parade."
A lawyer with anti-gay Christian legal society Alliance Defense Fund cast the firefighters’ dismay at being in the parade as a matter of moral conviction. "Government employees should never be forced to participate in events or acts that violate their sincerely held beliefs," attorney Charles LiMandri said.
"[Hopefully the ruling] will end the city’s attempts to defend its act of compelling people to participate in sexually-charged events against their moral and personal convictions," added another of the firefighters’ attorneys, Joseph Infranco.