Coming Out On The Job

Coming Out On The Job

The following is an article I was asked to write for a website called Fire 20/20 which serves to promote diversity in the fire and EMS service.

One evening at the station, I was sitting with my fellow firefighters watching television.  A female coworker was sitting next to me and began to joke with me in a way suggesting I was gay.  This was in no way a homophobic situation, it was merely a way in which she and I joked to relieve some of the stress of our job. My response to her joke was basically the truth in the form of another comedic reply.  However, she relatively quickly figured out I was not joking, as did the other firefighters who were sitting close enough to hear our exchange.  Once the laughing died down, I was asked if I was indeed gay, to which I replied, yes!

By the next morning at shift change, the word had spread and guys started to approach me to ask if the rumor of the previous night was true, to which I replied, yes!  This occurred numerous times over the next month.

A lot of my coworkers later said they suspected I might have been gay.  Others were surprised and said they would not have guessed it.  For the most part everyone was supportive of me, although a few took a little time to come around.  I think they were just a bit caught off guard at the news, and probably never knew any gay people personally, so they were a bit surprised to learn I was 'normal' just like them.  I did not fit any of the stereotypes they knew of gay people. Some confided in me they had gay relatives and that they were fully supportive of me.  There was a small handful who kind of avoided me for some time, however they never made any negative comments to my face.  I never had any formal meetings or conversations with anyone in administration regarding my sexuality and have never had a negative experience with them.

I feel one of the reasons for my overall positive experience was the way in which I handled the situation.  I made sure everyone was comfortable around me and knew they didn't have to change the way they acted or things they said.  I also would joke about myself with them to make it lighthearted.  When you are confident with yourself, and you defuse any tension with laughter, you will find people will become much more relaxed and comfortable around you.  The other key to my success was making sure I let everyone know that if they had any questions about my sexuality to feel free to ask.  I made sure they knew if they had the courage to ask the question, no matter the nature, I would answer it honestly.  This lead to numerous insightful conversations around the fire station and helped everyone understand what it is like to be LGBT.

I did not have a mentor or advisor in regards to being gay in the fire service or how to come out in the fire service. I was pretty much on my own—I didn't know a single person who was gay and was a firefighter or involved in EMS.  Had I had someone to talk to, it would have saved me a lot of anguish and kept me from planning my exit from the fire service.

Needless to say, I did not end up leaving the service, but before I came out I had begun to put a plan together to leave.  The tremendous stress I was under from hiding who I truly was was becoming too much.  I did not think I could be openly gay and continue to have a successful career in the fire service.  I did not think the two could possibly go together. Luckily I was proven wrong before making the huge mistake of actually leaving.

Had I been able to find some kind of example of someone being openly gay and in the fire service or in EMS, it would have been a tremendous help.  That is the main reason I decided to share my story in the book "American Heroes Coming Out From Behind the Badge".  My goal in doing so is to help at least just one person know they are not alone and they can have a successful career as an openly gay person in this amazing profession.  Our community is tremendously underrepresented in fire and EMS.

The advice I would give to an LGBT person who is considering coming out on the job is that there is a good chance your coworkers already know or at least suspect you might be gay.  Even if they do not, I think you might be pleasantly surprised by how much support you will find.  Do not make it a serious, life changing issue. Treat it as though it is no big deal—that it is just a small part of who you are as a whole person.  If people see you handle it this way, they will do the same.

The only way we are going to change minds and open hearts to our community is to share our true selves.  When you come out to your friends and coworkers, you give them a positive image of what being gay is about.  The next time they are asked about a gay issue or are voting on an issue which directly effects the LGBT community, you will have provided them with a direct connection to the issue as opposed to an abstract link.

-Brett Dunckel