Safety in numbers?

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What’s it like to be an out gay person in the emergency services field?

It seems like a simple question, but getting people to share their stories with O&AN was challenging. More than 15 gay and lesbian emergency service personnel who work in Middle Tennessee were asked to participate in this story. Very few were willing to do so.

Choosing to be out as a firefighter, medic, 911 dispatcher or police officer can often land an employee in a dangerous position. When working alongside others who are responsible for the safety of each other, coming out to co-workers could be considered a life-or-death decision. And with lawmakers on a mission to revoke rights for the GLBT community, the basic protections that others take for granted can be compromised.

"I will have to say I thought there was some bias when I first applied to my current position," admits Tony Smith, DNP, RN, ACNP, CCRN, CFRN, EMT-IV, a chief flight nurse for Vanderbilt LifeFlight. "However, I now know it was due to some uneducated homophobia, which now is not present and, in my opinion, has been changed due to having well-educated and prepared nurses in the current positions."

Smith is one of the few employees we interviewed that works for a company that provides protection to its GLBT employees, and also provides same-sex benefits. Vanderbilt has been doing so for more than ten years.

Smith’s experience suggests that, with a new generation entering the workplace, emergency service staffs are slowly creeping into the 21st century. Others aren’t so sure about this shift.

"There are a lot of people with hate, and that’s just the nature of the business," says paramedic Matthew Fuson. "They don’t care for anything that might deviate from the social norm. We deal with the public, and Nashville has a big Hispanic population, Kurdish population, and so on. To be fair, it can be any group (that is discriminated)."

The recent controversy involving Nashville Fire Department paramedic Kevin Kennedy, who posted homophobic remarks directed at fellow employees on his Facebook page, illustrates that discrimination is no longer tolerated. In 2009, Metro Nashville leaders passed an ordinance which protected city workers from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

One would assume that the South’s fire departments, long dominated by older white men, might be a constrictive environment. According to Fuson, residue from those old-fashioned attitudes remains.

The question then arises: How would these employees react to an openly gay co-worker?

"It would be the same exact thing as if a woman walked into the room," Fuson says. "Speech would get tailored and the conversation would change. I wouldn’t say it’s discriminatory, but some of the conversations are less than desirable. There are certain things I know not to add to the conversation. That’s as much to do with my own bias than anyone else’s."

Emergency medical technician (EMT) Nick Keel has been the subject of those conversations. Keel and a former boyfriend were assisting a patient last year when the air conditioning unit in their ambulance stopped working. To maintain the patient’s temperature, he broke the window to allow for more air.

Keel’s sensible solution to an on-the-job problem became comic fodder for his co-workers.

"Later that night I had to come back to do a report. I found two co-workers of ours talking about the incident and saying we must have been getting it on in the back of a truck and broke the window," he says.

There were no negative consequences after this private conversation: "Now a year has gone by and one of those employees has been promoted."

The Nashville Fire Department’s swift condemnation of Kennedy’s comments included a passage about how discrimination can have a negative impact when lives are at risk. Though Fuson says the Kennedy incident has "set a precedent" for emergency services departments across the country, homosexuality is still a taboo topic. 

"Part of my safety was my anonymity. They looked at me as a paramedic. My private life was my private life," Fuson says. "My sexuality does not impact my patient care, and patient care is the most important thing to me."

For emergency services dispatcher A.J. Powell, exhibiting excellence at the workplace is far more important than the intimate details of their personal lives.

"Although my sexual orientation is very much a part of who I am, I’m very privileged to be working for an employer that values my skills as a emergency services dispatcher," he says. "I think my dedication to the public can be seen by my quality of work. I have a wonderful working relationship with all of my co-workers. We are dedicated to saving lives and sexual orientation has nothing to do with that goal."

Powell was prepared for ridicule over his sexual orientation, but instead he was pleasantly surprised at the reaction.

"I had some initial fears, but I overcame those and decided to be very open and honest about my sexual orientation at work," he says. "Although my sexual orientation is very much a part of who I am, I’m privileged to be working for an employer that values my unique skills.

In a line of work where employees are risking everything for the sake of someone’s well-being, the wall of intolerance can make morale suffer. Though he’s frustrated by the occasional comment, Keel’s will has been galvanized through the difficulties he’s faced.

"I don’t let it stop me because that just makes me stronger," he says. "People think that we can change our sexual orientation overnight or think of someone else to love. You have to stand up for who you are and don’t let anybody break you down because people will think that it’s okay and keep letting it go on.

Powell believes that hiding one’s personal views can create a toxic workplace and compromise their important mission.

"I don’t know if anyone can be truly passionate about saving lives and protecting the public if they feel like they have to hide who they are," he says. "Nobody deserves to be bullied at work. The public is counting on us and there is no reason for emergency responders to ever be subjected to discrimination or hate."

In the end, finding the simple joys in a difficult profession is what keeps these trusted individuals motivated to serve. All can agree that the quality of care they provide should surpass all else.

"When someone is hurt, they’re not looking at there sexual orientation or the color of their skin, but they’re looking at the inside of a caring person that would risk their own life to save them," Keel says.

Despite the usual stereotypes associated with his field, Smith encourages job seekers to pursue their passions regardless of any criticism they might receive.

"Sadly, being a male nurse is a cliche. However, no matter what you want to do, just do it," he says. "With time and a lot of effort, you can do it. Success will not just happen; you have to make it happen."

Fuson agrees with this glass-half-full approach: "I wouldn’t let anybody try to stop me from pursuing my goal and my passion."