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A gay firefighter faces many challenges in the fire station work environment. Some of these challenges are singular to gays, but many are shared with other individuals who are labeled as different and excluded from the group. It may be even more difficult for a gay male firefighter than a gay female firefighter to gain acceptance in his workplace, but both face challenges with obtaining benefits for partners, getting hired, and social issues within the group.
One significant complaint amongst gay firefighters is that employment benefits are not always available for their partners. In many states, gay partnerships are not eligible for marriage licenses, and without a marriage license, many employers will not legally recognize an employee's partner. In many cases, a gay firefighter's partner cannot be added to the firefighter's health insurance plan or be listed as a recipient of life insurance or a pension plan.
Typical employment policies state that it is illegal to discriminate in hiring based on race, religion, color, gender, or national origin. Many agencies also have a policy that protects gays from discrimination based on their orientation, but this is not always the case. Depending on the region, discriminatory practices that exclude gays may be legal. This can pose significant difficulties for gay firefighters if they are looking for employment.
The atmosphere of the workplace itself can be difficult for gays and their straight coworkers. Firefighters work 24 hours shifts and have communal showers and sleeping quarters. Everyone experiences some reservations about sharing close quarters with others. Sometimes, individuals believe that a gay firefighter of the same sex will behave inappropriately in these situations, and gays may feel the same way about their straight coworkers. For instance, straight firefighters may fear that the other will stare lewdly or make sexual advances towards another person, causing tension in the workplace.
Tension in the workplace is one of the most common and emotionally disturbing challenges for the gay firefighter. Sometimes other firefighters are unwilling to accept a gay firefighter as a colleague and equal. In a job like firefighting, it is very important for all members of the team to act as a cohesive unit. If coworkers cannot work with a gay firefighter, the whole team suffers.
A gay firefighter may suffer from verbal attacks, especially careless jokes, gossip, and rumors. Gays are not solitary sufferers: many different types of people have suffered verbal harassment from their coworkers. Typically, these issues can be resolved by discussing the situation with a supervisor. If the supervisor is unsympathetic, or worse, participating in the verbal abuse, legal action may be necessary.
Some firefighting professionals believe that an openly gay male is less likely to be accepted by his co-firefighters than an openly gay female. The stereotypical view is that a lesbian is a strong, masculine female, characteristics which make her a good candidate for the physically demanding requirements of firefighting. Gay men are commonly believed to be effeminate and weak and therefore unsuited to the life of a firefighter. Even so, women, whether lesbians or not, have undergone their share of discrimination in the fire station as firefighting is traditionally considered a male profession.