28 February 2015

The Bravest Among Us

Now that listings for poetry readings, concerts and apartments for rent are available online, I rarely pick up a copy of the Village Voice, even though it’s free.  For that matter, I don’t look at the Voice online.  The number of pages in any print edition is maybe a third of the number one would find, say, thirty years ago.  And the amount of sustenance in any issue has fallen even more.

But this week, something on the front cover caught my eye.  There was a photo of a tall, rawboned trans woman with the headline, “New York’s Bravest”.  That’s the nickname of this city’s Fire Department. (The police are known as “New York’s Finest”.)  On the left-hand side of the cover was this caption:

By Gender
Males: 10,000+
Females: 44
Trans:  1                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           Now, whenever someone categorizes gender in that way, it upsets me even more than someone trying to squeeze everybody into the “M” or “F” box.  Most of the time, when I see categorizations like the one on the front cover of the Voice, I think the categorizer could just as well have called us “it”:  Such a person thinks we’re not really one or the other, or anything human at all.
So, of course, I picked up a copy.  Actually, I might have anyway, as the cover story recounted the saga of Brooke Guinan, the city’s first known trans firefighter. You might say that she has taken up the family trade:  Her father is a current FDNY captain and her grandfather retired as a lieutenant.  Had she become a firefighter as a male, she would have been like thousands of other firefighters who followed their fathers, grandfathers, uncles or other relatives into the department.

Ironically, I liked the article more than I expected, and for a reason its writer (Irene Chidinma Nwoye) probably didn’t intend:  Ms. Nwoye covered, however briefly, Brooke’s struggle to come to terms with who she is. 

Being tall and burly isn’t the only way she doesn’t fit the stereotype of a trans woman.  As a child, she loved her dolls, but she loved comic books just as much.  In fact, she was drawn to one particular genre: that of superheroes, her favorite being Marvel’s X-Men.  Not surprisingly, her mother thinks that being a firefighter is, for Brooke, like being a superhero. 

But in other ways, she was the effeminate boy who got picked on by other kids.  And—here’s something I could really relate to—for years she identified herself as gay because she wasn’t like the boys but was told by many people that she never could become a woman.  She was effeminate, yes (and, not surprisingly, got picked on for it) but, in the eyes of others, not feminine because of her appearance and voice, among other things.

Attempts to get her involved in sports failed almost comically.  However, she was very drawn to theatre and performing.   In fact, she went to college as a theatre major but switched to sociology and gender studies. One of her professors, impressed by her communication and other interpersonal skills, tried to encourage her to get advanced degrees in gender studies and become a professor.  Her mother saw her as a teacher.   When she and her husband couldn’t dissuade Brooke from signing up for the FDNY, they tried to convince her to “butch up” on the job. (By that time, she had gone back, briefly, to living as a gay male.)  But, she was determined to go into the Fire Department on her own terms. 

She’s been there for seven years now.  She won’t talk about the medical aspects of her transition or her relationship status.  I can understand that.  However, being on her journey has inspired her to help other trans people with theirs. “I can’t enjoy my life if there’s all kinds of other problems that other people like me are facing,” she says.  “I can’t live with the guilt of ignoring that.”

Spoken like a true super-hero!                                

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