A shift of firefighters (Station 2 Shift B) has been selling t-shirts to raise funds for charity. It was something firefighters have done before, and they didn’t really expect that much attention, at least at first. But the t-shirts were Pride-themed, and over the weekend negative rumors and speculation began to circulate, including some amongst the LGBT community. So on Monday, the Nashville Fire Department posted about the Pride t-shirt, and that the proceeds were going to support the Tennessee Equality Project Foundation. In doing so, they also revealed a quiet fact: the Nashville Fire Department, like a growing number of other Metro departments, now has an LGBT liaison, and it has for a while now.
The story of the t-shirts has gone viral, at least locally, and individuals from as far away as Australia have expressed interest in purchasing one. Right now, the firefighters of Station 2 Shift B are struggling to meet the demand, since they personally fund the printing of the shirts, but they are looking into ways fulfill online orders.
In the meantime, O&AN decided to pick up the other thread and introduce Matt Fuson, the department’s new LGBT liaison, to our readers!
Grady: So when did you officially become the liaison?
Fuson: We met about it—and I said yes—on February 11. It became official some time after that.
Grady: What was your role with the fire department before the before this?
Fuson: I was—and am—a paramedic on an ambulance.
Grady: What does this role add to your other duties?
Fuson: I’ll be honest with you, that’s still evolving, and I’m still learning. I’m the first, so there’s no real blueprint for me. The plan was for me to take some time and get grounded in this role before any public announcement most likely around Pride… If the t-shirt story hadn’t gone viral, my entry was not going to be … essentially what it’s turned into.
Grady: How’s it developing? Was this role originally intended to be public facing, or an employee relations position, or a mix?
Fuson: Both. Internally, I’m going to do some education, in terms of how we interact with the community… For instance, if we respond to a call and are taking care of a transgender person, how do we address them, what pronouns do we use, things like that… How to be sensitive and provide the care that is needed to that patient, to that citizen.
The liaison’s position would also create a space for anybody within the department having issues… I could be a point person for them to come to, in order to help them navigate, and ultimately help take it up the chain of command…
I think it kind of puts a face to the LGBT community for folks. It says, ‘Hey, this is Matt, he’s gay, and he works for the fire department, where he’s open… We as a department are inclusive, and are supportive of all races, creeds, colors, gender expressions…
The liaison would also be a point person for somebody within the community. If they have issues with or questions for the department, they could come to me, and I can help to facilitate that answer.
I’ve started meeting with a couple of different kind of community groups. And I’ve got more on the books. It’s just a matter of what I can do with my time… It’s done on my days off.
Grady: How have you gotten involved with Station 2 B Shift around the t-shirt issue?
Fuson: Well, when they brought the idea to the department and it was approved, I knew the t-shirt sale would be big. I didn’t think it would hit us this quickly, though. I thought that we would originally sell to department members. And then, come Pride month, once everybody within the department has been taken care of, we would then be able to do some sort of other sales.
But now that the attempt to paint these firefighters’ charitable work in a negative light has backfired, we’re getting requests from out of state… And there’s been a pretty steady flow of people here at the fire station today. It feels incredible to know that the community, people in Nashville, are so appreciative. It’s just been very overwhelming for me and for all the firemen here.
I mean, this is literally one shift of firemen that work a 24-hour shift every third day, that set out to basically bring awareness that they are supportive of the LGBT community. Essentially, it started off with a group of straight allies. There’s not a gay man in this fire hall that I am aware of.
Grady: So this didn’t originate with an LGBT firefighter?
Fuson: Not at all. It isn’t an exciting story, but basically it all began with a chat one of the firemen had with one of his gay friends, who told him about the state of LGBT rights in Tennessee and the discrimination that people still face. It was pretty eye-opening, so he brought it back to the station and suggested this as their next project!
Supporting local charities is kind of a tradition. They have sold t shirts in the past for the BLAZE mentoring program and other causes that were important to them… So with this project, they just started off with the idea: ‘We’re straight allies, and we want the community to know that.’
Then they identified what they felt like was a great LGBT charity to support—the Tennessee Equality Project Foundation —because it provides so much education about LGBT issues in Tennessee. Plus, the Foundation is separate from the lobbying group—it’s purely educational in focus and this is not about politics for the firefighters, it’s about raising awareness.
It’s surreal, what this has turned into. So we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to be able to not disappoint all the folks who have expressed interest!
Grady: Internally, is there a lot of support amongst the rest of the firefighters for what Station 2 Shift B is doing?
Fuson: Support is definitely not just from the shift. It just happened to be these guys on this shift that brought up the idea and made it happen, which is why it’s kind of limited to that at the moment.
Grady: What would you like the community to know about the Nashville Fire Department, and you as a representative between the two?
Fuson: The change in the department that I’ve seen in 10 years has just been phenomenal. And I think it kind of goes with progressive city that we’re in… You see the social landscape of the city change as well…
I’d like people to know how far we’ve come as an organization in the last ten years. We’re inclusive. It’s a family, and we don’t turn anyone away from that family. I am accepted in this family. My fiancé is accepted in this family. Things like holiday dinners, you know, we’re both invited. And I can tell you that that is the norm for the other LGBT people I work with. They are included; they are part of the family.
This is part of our way of letting everyone—especially the citizens of Nashville—know that, when we are called to serve a person in our community that happens to be LGBT, we’re going to take outstanding care of them, no matter what.
Grady: What would you tell Nashville about yourself, as Nashville Fire Department’s LGBT liaison?
Fuson: As for me, I’m an ambulance, boy. I take care of patients, you know? I respond to 911 calls, take people to the hospital… So I’m still learning a lot. But, while public relations isn’t really my background, I’m really excited and honored that the department felt that this was something that they needed to do, should do… It’s just the right time; it’s something that we need to do in the city.
I am very much overwhelmed and honored. But it could have been anybody else. I just love the fact that they’re doing for the department…