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FIRE 20/20's monthly eNewsletter delivers inspiring articles, thought-provoking interviews and useful tools for Fire/EMS personnel, and those considering a career in the fire service. Topics are oriented around diversity recruitment and retention.
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By Lana Moore
On the wall at my engine house hangs a large framed photo featuring the silhouette of a firefighter against vivid flames. Underneath is a caption that reads: “Courage comes from a reserve of mind more powerful than outside circumstances.” As emergency first responders we are often lauded for our courage following some bold public act, yet I believe that the hardest courage is sometimes being brave enough to be honest with yourself.
Coming out as a male to female transsexual on the fire department wasn't easy. Wow, that's an understatement if ever there was one. In fact, for the longest time, not only did I think it would be extremely difficult, I believed it impossible. Having been on female hormones for two years, my physical transformation was well under way. I had recently separated from my wife and our marriage dissolution was pending. I decided that it was time to make my announcement and begin living socially and professionally as a woman, but I was convinced that there was no reality for me where I could be true to myself and also keep my job as a Fire Captain.
Let me add some historical context to explain how I shifted to seeing my on-the-job transition not only as possible, but as something I MUST do...
In December of 2006, after decades of hiding and fighting something coded deep within me, I had reached a tipping point. I was finally ready to take action regarding my struggle with my gender identity and I began taking hormones. My doctor and I were using them as a diagnostic tool. The theory is that if a male bodied person has a female brain, then female hormones will help blend body and mind. Ideally, the hormones' effect on that brain will be complimentary and positive. If, however, the brain is male, then the hormones will clash and a negative effect would be experienced.
After just one month on hormones, I felt as though for the first time in my life the world was making sense. The clouds had parted and the sun was finally shining through. Have you ever been listening to a radio for a very long time that was slightly off station, and then when finally you tune it in clearly, the static goes away, the bass is richer, the highs are clear and the entire listening experience is suddenly more robust? This is how I explained it to my doctor. We both agreed that I should continue the hormone therapy.
Over the next 24 months my body slowly changed from male to female. I underwent hours upon hours of painful and expensive facial hair removal. I spent 3 months in voice therapy so I could train my vocal chords to speak in a higher pitch. Some of it came naturally, but I had to practice the subtle differences in things such as tone, resonance, and inflection that make a voice sound female rather than male. I grew my hair from a short buzz cut to just above my ears which was the most that I could get away with given our strict hair grooming standards in the fire service. People were seeing the changes in me, yet were not realizing what was causing them. I looked odd for a man. I'm told now, that there were rumors and concern that I might have cancer. The irony is that while my body was finally becoming in sync with my mind and I was becoming whole for the first time in my life, my friends and colleagues worried that dark days lay ahead for me.
August of 2008 was a critical turning point in my life. I experienced heat exhaustion on an emergency scene. I had been shuttling hand line crews in and out on the nozzle where we were keeping the flames of an erupted gas line at bay. I was about to pass out when the Safety Officer saw me and ordered me to rehab. The next thing I knew I was lying on a cot in the back of a medic response vehicle. As the medics removed some of my clothes and packed me with ice, I feared that my secret was about to be exposed. I frantically tried to decide what to do--who could I very quickly confide in? Thankfully, I was able to keep my shirt on, and because I was in very good health, my vital signs quickly returned to normal levels. I was able to convince the medics that I did not need to go to the hospital, and, instead, the Deputy Chief drove me back to the Fire Station. He and I had always been close friends throughout our careers and I decided that I needed to confide in him. We had a very long conversation in my office back at the firehouse. He was relieved that I wasn't dying of cancer and responded with kindness and empathy and pledged his full support.
My plan had been to retire a little early and move on to other career opportunities. No one had ever transitioned on the job in our Division of Fire, nor any other City of Columbus employee for that matter. But now the economy was starting its downturn and I became angry. Why should I have to give up a good career, my family tradition, my passion, just to be honest about who I am? I realized that they would all learn the truth anyway and that if I left early and did this, it might appear that I felt that my transition was something to be ashamed of. The ensuing jokes and harsh criticism would all seem to be justified. I couldn't let that happen. I had to face my "Fire Family" with the same honesty and directness that I had done so with my mother, my children, my siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles. I had to give my "Fire Family” that same chance to accept me. I believed that it was just as wrong for me to assume the worst in them as it would be for them to turn their backs on me.
The decision to stay on the job was further buttressed by four amazing people who took the time to counsel me: Daralyn, Diane, Julie, and Malana. What do a garage mechanic/shop manager, a US Army Colonel Special Services Commander, the owner-operator of an electrical engineering firm, and a junior high school teacher, respectively, all have in common? All four of them are transwomen. All four shared their transition stories with me and I became convinced that being in the Fire Service did not make my obstacles any more special than the challenges that they all had faced. Gender transition is an extremely difficult endeavor no matter where one works. The challenges to be true to one's self may be a little different, but no one gets an easy path when doing something truly worthwhile. As Tom Hank 's character Jimmy Dugan says in A League Of Their Own, "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard... is what makes it great."
Deputy Chief, Sam Cox, Lisa Callender from our City Employee Assistance Program, and I became my three-person transition team. We met with The Fire Chief, Ned Pettus Jr. and outlined our plan on how I could do this without disrupting the business of our department. Chief Pettus was on board 100% and his goal was that I become “a success story.”
I felt strongly that I had to somehow let the entire Fire Division know all at once. With over 1500 members, it would just be too emotionally draining and logistically impossible to explain my situation to everyone one-on-one or to let the rumor mill fill in the details. I wasn't able to use official Division resources to make a personal announcement, so we decided that our labor union's on-line message board would work best. And it did with lightning speed. In just two days my post had over 1200 hits. I'll never forget the morning when I clicked on the "send button." At that very second I knew there was no turning back. My life was moving in the direction it needed to go. As frightening as it might seem to others, I felt empowered.
Local 67 union president, Jack Reall was equally supportive. He proofed my announcement letter and was quick to be the first to respond with a post promising his full support. There were a few other supportive posts to my announcement on the message board, none were negative. Jack did have to edit one well-meaning, but light hearted response from a fellow firefighter, because as he pointed out, it was important for it not to appear as though I was fair game.
I later heard through the grapevine that the topic of my transition was brought up by some cynical union members, they asked, "What are we gonna do about Captain Moore?" I was told that Jack immediately took a stance and resolved those types of questions. He said something to the effect of, "We're going to support her, what do you think we would do? She's a human being and she's one of us." I credit Jack's leadership along with that of Chief Pettus', Sam--in fact everyone's from Mayor Michael Coleman down the entire chain of command to my Battalion Chief David Farrand --all of them gave me the support that I so desperately needed. It's amazing how many barriers can vanish when key people do the right thing.
It's been almost four years since I made that arduous transition. I spent the first 21 months at a desk job, as we felt that it was best not to disrupt the daily duties of the fire station while I completed my physical transition which involved some periods of recovery time-off following my surgeries. This also gave the other members of the Division time to "transition along with me" because you see, it's not "all about me." This is something that every gender transitioner usually learns along the way. As difficult and all-consuming as it can be--we have had our entire lives to deal with, as we come to terms with our gender identity issues; however, for those around us, it is a sudden shock which also takes some time to process. I knew that their feelings were always just as important as mine, and I hoped they would keep an open mind.
I've been back at my regular assignment as Fire Station Captain now for another 21 months. I'm on the truck, fighting fires and responding to medical emergencies with my crew just as I always have. The dust has settled and I am told that I am no longer the "talk of the department." Any new issues I may have probably will be more to do with me being the only woman in the firehouse than with me being transsexual. Sometimes less is more and by easing in slowly, we were able to accomplish a smooth transition. They saw that any fears they may have had about me were not realized. I also saw that most of my own fears never materialized into anything real. People are basically good and real life experience will trump bias, false notions, or innuendo. I am so proud of and thankful for the City of Columbus and my "Division of Fire Family" for believing in me and giving me the chance that every human being deserves--the chance to be and to thrive as their best self.
Captain Lana Moore is a 31-year veteran of The Columbus Division of Fire. Her current assignment is Northmoor Engine House #19 located in the neighborhood known as Clintonville in Columbus, Ohio. She lives in Westerville, Ohio and has two children, Lauren & Nicholas.