Activist paves the way for LGBTQ firefighters

By Shanna O’Mara

Brooke Guinan talks to students about her experiences in the Fire Department of New York.

Strutting on stage wearing a short, black dress featuring a triangular cutout on her chest, Brooke Guinan gripped the gold lasso at her right hip and fully embodied her Wonder Woman persona, her fiery spirit and the pronoun “she.”

Guinan, this year’s keynote speaker at the Gender and Sexuality Studies 36th colloquium on March 29, is the first openly transgender firefighter at the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). She works at the FDNY headquarters as the organization’s first-ever LGBTQ Outreach Coordinator.

“The FDNY has been around for over 150 years now, and it wasn’t until I came out publicly in 2013” that the department had an openly transgender member, Guinan said, admitting it was “shocking” to have been at the center of widespread media praise and scrutiny after her announcement.

“While I’m likely not the first trans person that the FDNY has ever had, I was the first person who was open about my identity, and I got a lot of attention for that,” she said. “I think that says something about the world we live in. I was on the front page of the [New York] Daily News for nothing more than just owning up to who I am.”

Guinan, who said she struggled to fit into the mold she was assigned at birth, tried to find humor in every tough situation.

“I was never really properly gendered from the start,” she said. “I did little league, baseball, soccer. There were many opportunities for me to be the proper boy that society and everyone dreamed of me being. At every opportunity, I turned it into something it was not supposed to be, whether it was singing and dancing in the outfield while I got hit in the head with the ball or caring more about fabulous poses and the outfits in sporting events than it was actually about scoring goals.”

She shied away from labeling herself throughout her adolescent years while others took that initiative early on.

“The first time I actually heard the word ‘gay,’ I was in fifth grade,” she said. “We were sitting around right before recess, and we were reading the story of Ichabod Crane around Halloween. The description of Ichabod Crane was that he had this nose that protruded very birdlike, and I guess I found that humorous. I must have giggled a little too femininely, and one of the boys in my class turned around and, with so much disdain in his voice, said, ‘You’re so gay.’”

At such a young age, Guinan had never heard of the term nor did she know the negative connotations often attached to it.

“I was like, ‘What does that mean?’ The teacher shut it down and said, ‘It just means you’re happy. We’re moving on.’ I was like, ‘Alright, but it doesn’t sound happy to me,’” she recalled, the same childlike laugh echoing through the room.

As she got older, Guinan found her niche performing on stages like the one she owned during this presentation.

“I was able to get into community theater and high school theater and hang out with other freaks like me,” she said.

After graduating from her Long Island high school, Guinan chose to stay close to home and attended Wagner College. She began her freshman year with a declared major in musical theater but was not met with the same acceptance. She began taking courses in gender studies and sociology, during which she said she was “unlearning the history that I had been taught.”

“We live in a world that has heteronormative culture that defines male and defines female but sort of leaves out the things in between, so we are left with this thing where we think of reality as what we’re taught,” she said.

She continued to struggle with her identity and others’ perceptions of her.

“How do you connect with a world that is not prepared to meet you where you’re at?” she asked.

As a child, she had been treated like a boy and then a gay man during her adult years, but something still didn’t sit right. She said she began denying the masculinity expected of her, something she never delivered anyway.

“I got to a point that I was so fed up with failing at that maleness,” she exhaled deeply. “I was so done trying to fit into that box that I denied it altogether. I identified as anything other than male. If you’re not going to provide me access to this thing which you tell me I should be but never will be, then f–k it.”

Embracing this new, self-rewarded freedom, Guinan started to dress and act however she deemed “authentic” to her.

“At that time, I had short, spiky hair,” she said. “I had a goatee or a soul patch, but I also had what my mother likes to call my street-walker makeup and my nail polish and sometimes a halter top, with or without a shaved chest.”

She joined the FDNY in 2008, following in her father’s footsteps, and began her transition a few years later. She filmed her documentary, “Woman on Fire,” based on her experiences in life and in the department. The film was shown in the Sweigart Auditorium the night before her speech.

Senior psychology major Ashley Leeds said she admired Guinan’s courage to come out in a community where being transgender might not have been embraced.

“Brooke is an inspiration to all because she comes from a conservative and Christian family, and she was never exposed to transgender principles before she was in college,” Leeds said. “She is not only the minority as a female firefighter, but she is also the sole [openly] transgender firefighter in New York City. She has assisted in defying negative stereotypes that merely men are meant to be in the field by introducing diversity to other firefighters.”

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