Last month, the New York City Fire Department’s first and only transgender firefighter, Brooke Guinan, ignited a media storm after a poster of her — standing defiantly in a helmet, braces, and T-shirt reading “So Trans, So What?” — went viral.
The poster was part of an awareness campaign of the Vocal Organization for International Courage and Equality, an LGBTQ-advocacy group. And since being catapulted into the public eye, Guinan has been hailed as a role model for breaking the masculine stereotypes associated with firefighting and even other jobs that typecast the macho straight male.
What many don’t see beneath the smiles and her comfortable-in-my-own-skin glow is a woman who has fought relentlessly — physically, emotionally, psychologically — to be the advocate she is today.
“I worked hard and studied hard to have the language and knowledge of queer history and gender identity to be able to express myself,” Guinan tells the Voice.
A third-generation firefighter, Guinan grew up knowing that she wanted to help people, but was never clear on how. As a child, she respected what her father and grandfather did. But firefighting was something she initially discounted as a career possibility because she “didn’t identify as masculine,” or as a man.
“Most queer people think that being a firefighter, a cop, or having a government job is unattainable,” Guinan recently told the Daily News. “What a lot don’t realize is you can do it.”
She considered education and social work, but those thoughts never stuck. It wasn’t until she was in college and her father started to regale her with stories of flames he had put out that she reconsidered her doubts. Learning the science behind firefighting intrigued her, and the job’s selfless quality proved the “epitome of what I wanted to do with my life.”
“You Can Do It” is a mantra the 27-year-old Guinan has continued to live by since the first grade, raising eyebrows because she wanted to play with Barbie dolls or put on fashion shows. Or as a college student constantly searching for community — first as a theater major and finally as a sociology major with a minor in gender studies. Or as a young adult uncertain if she was man enough for firefighting.
Guinan has been with the fire department for six years and was working the ladders until four years ago, when she decided to physically transition from male to female. During her transitional period, the department supported her by giving her a desk job in recruitment at its headquarters. As a recruiter, Guinan got more vocal about challenging the stereotypes around her profession and reaching out to more women and members of the LGBTQ community to join the FDNY. Eventually, groups like VOICE took notice.
“I feel like I need to speak out about it because I feel I’m lucky,” she says. “There are so many trans people who are not alive because their lives were taken from them, so many trans people who committed suicide, so many trans people who don’t have jobs or healthcare and stability.”
By “many,” Guinan is referring to findings such as a 2011 report on national transgender discrimination that found that 41 percent of participants had reported attempting suicide. Other forms of discrimination manifest through homelessness, unemployment, and even homicide. In 2012, half of the victims of anti-LGBTQ homicides identified as transgender females.
“Physical violence is an escalation of violence that trans people face on a daily basis verbally,” Guinan reveals. “It’s hard to be a trans person and be confident in yourself when the world tries to take it from you at every turn.”
She is also the product of a very supportive family. The profound respect that people have for her family contributed to sparing her from a lot of negative feedback when she decided to transition at the FDNY.
Nonetheless, she still constantly wages war with internal voices of self-doubt and the external noise of criticism. For trans people, “every day is a process of coming out,” she admits.
“Every day is a process of getting on a subway and wondering how many people look at you, wondering if they know that you’re trans or not. Every day is a learning experience in gender roles, how you fit in your society, what gender roles you accept and what ones you see for the fabrications that they are.”
What is worse is seeing the comments some trolls leave behind on her poster, or the FDNY Facebook page and other articles. People saying things like “I’m a man wearing makeup” or “it‘s gross.”
“You have people who not only want to take away your gender identity but there are people who want to take away my humanity and turn me into an it,” Guinan says. “It took a really long time for me to get to the point of [saying], This is me. This is my truth. This is my identity.”
The FDNY tells the Voice that it does not tolerate discrimination or bullying of any kind. New recruits, particularly LGBT members, can be assured that there “are multiple avenues for redress [of] any harassment that occurs, including reporting to one’s commanding officers and the Department EEO [Equal Employment Opportunity] representative,” the department explains in a statement.
Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro says his department is taking steps to “increase outreach to the LGBT communities and all groups in preparation for the upcoming firefighter exam in 2016.” According to his office, FDNY recruitment teams this year have attended more than 25 events specifically aimed at the LGBTQ community and will only be increasing their engagement next year.
The department does not keep track of its members by sexual identity, but only 41 of its 10,200 firefighters are women. Recruiters like Guinan are fighting fiercely to change those numbers.
For Guinan, she believes her role as a recruiter and as the face of the FDNY’s commitment to enlisting members of the LGBTQ community is to provide real-life proof that it can be done.
“It’s different when it comes from another trans person,” she says. “It’s different when a trans person tells a trans person, ‘Be a firefighter. You can do it. Look!’ ”