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The fire department closet: Being gay in bunker gear

I am a volunteer firefighter; I am also gay

Diverse fire department

To be both gay and in uniform is not a betrayal; it’s hope that maybe one day we can finally get beyond this bullshit assumption that the world can be divided into “us” and “them.”

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By Mikey Heinrich, FireRescue1 Contributor

I am a volunteer firefighter and have been for nearly a decade. I am also gay and have been for over four decades. Now that I type that I am suddenly feeling really old.

When I meet someone for the first time, I don’t tend to lead with either of those things, as I don’t think either of them is remotely close to being the most interesting thing about my life. I usually start by mentioning that I have a side job where I do nothing but write about “Doctor Who,” because I feel like it’s important early in a relationship to establish that you’re an enormous dork.

I’m more or less out to all the folks in my department. To their credit, I’ve yet to have a single negative reaction. There are a few who have probably scratched me off their Christmas card list, but they’re civil enough to me and treat me respectfully enough on the job, which is all you can really ask.

There was one in particular who took me aside after this year’s spousal appreciation banquet (to which my spouse does not go) and bought me a drink, telling me, ‘This is my way of saying I’m cool with… you know… what you are.’ He was awkward about the moment, sure, but he was making an effort to let me know that he and I are solid, regardless of who I sleep with, and the effort was appreciated.

There are still a couple of people that I haven’t had the ‘official talk’ with yet, but I’m fairly certain they know, after all, I don’t put much effort into hiding it.

At least not these days.

Keeping quiet

For the first few years, I did hide it, which was an odd feeling. I’d been completely out for a very long time before I joined the fire service, and covering it up when meeting the guys on the department felt a lot like stepping back in the closet. In my defense, I had a pretty good reason to do so.

I’ve been in a committed relationship for over 17 years. When I first met Roy, he was a cop. In 2003, his department (for whom he had worked for 13 years and was both their senior officer and field training officer) found out that he was gay and fired him immediately. They barely bothered to pretend that there was any other reason.

Two years of lawsuits later, his peace officer license was expired and they’d trashed his reputation to anyone who would talk to them, and so he isn’t a cop anymore. This is the extremely abbreviated version of the story.

So, with that in fairly recent history, I kept my mouth shut about my personal life when I became a firefighter. When asked direct questions about my personal life, I generally evaded or flat-out lied because I thought that’s what I needed to do. I was wrong.

Recently, I’ve been proven wrong.

On June 12, 2016 a gunman opened fire on a gay nightclub in Florida. I was on duty that night, some 1,500 miles away. I spent the night checking in with the online group of LGBT police and fire service personnel to which I belong, waiting to hear if I knew anyone who had died, either as a victim inside the club or as an officer responding to an active shooter situation.

It was three days before I was certain that I didn’t personally know any of the victims. It still has not occurred to the media that any of the first responders could just as easily have been victims inside the club if they hadn’t been working that night.

A betrayal of neither

But more relevant than that, on May 28, 2016, the Philadelphia chapter of the Gay Officers Action League was asked to resign as the grand marshals of that city’s Gay Pride parade. The gay community in Philadelphia circulated a wildly popular petition declaring the police to be the enemy of the gay community and demanding they be removed from what is supposed to be a celebration of unity.

I can only assume that the people signing that petition were completely unaware that the officers in question were every bit as much members of the Philadelphia LGBTQ community as they themselves were. Or maybe they just didn’t care.

Now, there is a lot that can be said and debated about the relationship between the LGBTQ community and the police. The argument that an organization — law enforcement — that has been the cause of so much pain and injustice to the LGBTQ community should have no place at a celebration of pride is not entirely invalid, as much as I would like it to be.

But it overlooks an essential truth: To be both gay and in uniform is not a betrayal of either. It’s hope.

It’s the hope that maybe one day we can finally get beyond this bullshit assumption that the world can be divided into “us” and “them.” By focusing entirely on the pain of the past, Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community denied the very real efforts toward hope for the future.

We cannot continue to be enemies. We just can’t.

Because some of us are also some of you. And vice versa.

And so I’d like to publicly thank the City of Brooklyn Center Fire Department for consistently affirming me as part of the team.

There are a few people on the department who I imagine might read this in complete surprise, and I genuinely do not know how they’ll react. I hope that they will be reasonable. I hope that they will be kind. I hope they know that no matter who I sleep with at night, I will still absolutely carry them out of harm’s way no matter what their reaction is to my personal life.

If you, as you read this, are on a fire department either full-time or volunteer, and you think that you don’t have any LGBT firefighters at your department … you’re wrong. We walk among you. We’re one of you. If you don’t know of any, maybe ask yourself why they might not be comfortable being themselves around you.

Be kind. Have hope.

This article, originally published August 2016, has been updated.


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