“Act like a firefighter and you will be treated like one.”
I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how many firefighters feel this way. So, what exactly does it mean? One firefighter said it best when he responded, “When the sh*t hits the fan, you are there for me, I am there for you, and at the end of the shift we go home to our loved ones safely and uninjured.”
Firefighters put their lives on the line every day to protect others, but their duty runs deeper than merely battling a blaze or rescuing a victim. Each man holds the knowledge he must watch the backs of those in his crew and they will be watching his. The bond between firefighters in a crew is nothing short of familial. Most departments operate in twenty-four hour on, forty-eight hour off rotations. During those twenty-four hours on shift, firefighters live together. They sleep in the same room, eat in the same kitchen, share the same bathrooms, and work out in the same gym. They train together, watch television together, and do many of the activities people do when they are at home with their loved ones. They laugh, they argue, they rush into danger and return from it together, and through it all a closeness and respect is developed between the men that carries from shift to shift.
“I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how many firefighters there are who put more weight on the individual as a person than on his sexual preference.”
Although acceptance and tolerance have grown over the years and are continuing to expand, the overall atmosphere of most firehouses remains one of a homophobic nature. Everything is fair game in firehouse humor, including gay jokes and comments. They aren’t always meant to be offensive or insensitive. Often times they are said simply without thought to how they might make someone feel. In such an environment, many gay men feel the need to remain in the closet. They are afraid the fact that they are gay will cause them to lose the respect of their peers and land them in a position where they must face ridicule or be talked about behind their backs.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover just how many firefighters there are who put more weight on the individual as a person than on his sexual preference. While many gay firefighters who have come out to their fellow firefighters have often experienced a period of transition, in the end, their actions proved the firefighters worthy of their career despite their sexual orientation. They faced disbelief, disdain, and even some level of prejudice but, over time, they gained or regained the acceptance of the men in their crew. The respect shown by one firefighter to another has nothing to do with the firefighter being straight or gay. It is earned on the job, through the firefighter’s dedication to his duty, his willingness to have the backs of the men and women in his crew, and his determination to prove himself as a valuable member of the fire service. In speaking with firefighters while researching for my novels, I met more firefighters who spoke openly and honestly about the fact that it didn’t matter to them if their fellow firefighter was gay or not. A firefighter’s performance on the job is what makes him a part of the brotherhood of firefighters.
“FireFLAG’s mission is to educate the public and offer peer support to active and retired members of the fire/rescue services.”
Still, gay firefighters do encounter those who feel differently. There are some firehouses with members of their crews who possess a hatred for gay men. They view the firehouse as a “macho man’s” place and perceive a man being gay as a sign of weakness. This causes struggles and turmoil for a gay firefighter because he’s left with the choice of coming out and being ridiculed for his sexual orientation or keeping his secret to himself. Many firefighters in this situation end up leading a double life, one in which they appear to be straight while on the job while they lead a separate life as themselves when off duty. Because of this, there are organizations that have been founded to act as a foundation block for gays in the fire service. FireFLAG/EMS is one of those organizations. Although it is most active in New York, FireFLAG has representatives and branches across the states and Canada. FireFLAG’s mission is to educate the public and offer peer support to active and retired members of the fire/rescue services. With the gradually changing views and acceptance of the American people and organizations like this, perhaps one day every firefighter will be treated as such and no one will feel the need to remain in the closet in his department.
By Tonya Ramagos