Why New York's First Trans Firefighter Put Her Life on Film

In 'Woman on Fire,' Brooke Guinan allows cameras to document her transition, with all its ups and downs, as the FDNY's first and only trans firefighter.

by Sam Riedel
Oct 4 2017, 7:43pm

Brooke Guinan, in a still from Woman on Fire.

Brooke Guinan is used to being scrutinized. As the New York City Fire Department's first and only openly transgender firefighter, Guinan has been in the spotlight for years as a bright spot of gender diversity within one of New York's most conservative institutions. And though she's seen a great deal of support from her FDNY supervisors, her journey hasn't always been an easy one.

Today, more eyes are on her than ever before, as Woman on Fire—director Julie Sokolow's documentary about Guinan's path to transition—hits streaming services this week. And though Sokolow takes time to explore the ways Guinan's life has changed for the better, following her through milestones like gender-affirming surgery and marriage to her husband, Jim, the film's major focus is on how everyone else in Guinan's life transitioned with her—or got out of her way. Guinan spoke with VICE to discuss her hopes for the film, her unique family bonds, and why she's working for diversity in the FDNY.

VICE: In Woman on Fire, you're very blunt when talking about the depression that you felt before transition. And in one of the first scenes, you're trying to define for the audience your personal experience of being a woman, which is really as personal as we can get when we tell our stories. Was it painful to revisit some of those topics?

Brooke Guinan: Timeline-wise, I've been full-time for about seven and a half years now. I know there are some trans people who know they're trans from a very, very young age, and sometimes they can put it into words—they can say "no, I'm not this, I'm this," or "my body is wrong" or whatever. I was not one of those people. I did not have the language. Fifth grade was the first time I heard the word "gay." One of my classmates called me gay, and I knew that it was a bad thing by the way they said it, but I was like, "What's that?"

It wasn't until college that I took gender studies and queer theory classes, and really explored a world beyond what I was provided with growing up. And I was probably dealing with depression. Senior year of college at homecoming I got drunk, and they sent me to the emergency room, to the psych ward, because they thought I was going to kill myself.

You mention that briefly in the film, that it was one of your darkest points.
Some of this didn't get explored in the film, and I think it was a choice, because it was kind of a difficult narrative to fit in. But I was very suicidal to the point that I was self-harming, cutting myself six, seven times a day. I was in therapy once a week at least. Luckily I was able to work through a lot of that. But it was a very difficult time, and I've gotten used to exploring that, because of all the different interviews I've done and whatnot. And that's another part of why I was OK with that not being the focus of the film.

Woman on Fire is very much a cisgender outreach narrative, explaining all these different aspects of yourself and presenting them in an accessible way. But how do you feel about having some deeply personal aspects of your story included, like the immediate aftermath of your bottom surgery?
As a trans person, I think that having diversity in our storytelling and having our stories out there is super powerful. But on a larger scale, my whole thing was always just about making this a platform for discussion. As someone who is white and has that privilege, as someone who is a firefighter, I felt like I had this platform, and I didn't want to fuck it up. I wanted to do everything that I could to use it in a positive way and not waste whatever 15 minutes anyone would pay attention to me for, you know? I felt like if I was going to be able to do anything, it was just be human, be relatable, and maybe make people think about things in a way they might not have before. We wanted this film to be something where people could walk away and have a connection with, and maybe make them reexamine their thoughts.

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I want to ask about how your relationships, particularly with your parents, are portrayed in the film. I remember thinking in several parts "maybe I have really thin skin, but I would be hurt if somebody in my family said this to my face." Did you have any moments watching where you thought, OK, we're going to need to talk about this later?
Yeah. Some of the misgendering was difficult. But my mother and I have had numerous discussions about it. She is my best friend; we're super close in a way that I find amazing, considering that when I was 14 I lived in a bedroom with my door shut all the time. I wasn't very close with any of my family as a teenager. And it was certainly a long road to get this close with my mother. But I think we're as close as we are now because of what we went through.

My mother was always very upfront with me—even today we were talking about it and she said something like,"I hope you understand that I've always loved you. I've always respected you." And I know that for a fact. But it was definitely a process. There's one point in the film where she said that she had to bury her son to accept her daughter. And I understand that.

As far as my dad goes, I remember one time, when I was in the middle of my depression, he and I had dinner. I told him that I felt like I was letting him and my mother down by transitioning. And he told me, "Look, you're my kid. Any problem in my house with anything you're doing is not your problem. It's mine, because my job is to love and support you, and I'm going to do that. And any problem I have," he said, "I'll deal with it."

That's very much my dad. He's that strong silent type, and even if he doesn't agree with something in my life, I know I can always count on him to love and support me. Even if he doesn't agree with me. So there are some times where he says stuff that can be a little bit of an issue for me, like one point in the movie where he says something like, "My kid is now transgender and in a gay relationship"—it's very obvious that my dad sees things in black and white, in a binary. My life is not binary, and my life is not black and white.

Do you think that the FDNY has made similar leaps forward since you've been out with them?
Yeah. The fire department isn't my family. It is my job. So I am a little more lenient in some ways, and I'm less lenient in others. They are not my family, so when it comes down to it, I can just say, "I don't need this job. I can do something else." But at the same time I'm going to give them more leeway in some ways, because they pay me. Because I'm a trans person and I have amazing medical benefits, and I think that's really rare and important for a trans person—that job security, that protection of a Government of New York City job, so I know that I'm not going to be fired for being trans.

For the past two years... I've been the LGBTQ outreach coordinator for the fire department, and it's probably the best experience I've had with them, because not only do I get to do recruitment now, like at pride events, but it's a year-round position where I do youth mentorship, I get to go to high schools throughout the city and talk to young people in queer groups, and it's not even just recruitment. I can not only say "join the fire department, it's great and here's why"—I get to talk to young people and say "don't let the world limit you."

What I do is amazing. We're working on the FDNY's first ever LGBTQ diversity training program, something that is going to impact the entire fire department. And I'm super, super excited, because there are people I've talked to who literally don't know what LGBT stands for. To be able to provide that sort of education and information to people—we serve the whole city and respond to car accidents, medical emergencies, water leaks, gas leaks; you have to deal with people all over this city, and it's New York City, one of the most diverse places in the world. So you have to be able to interact with real, diverse people. And to provide this education to people in the fire department makes me so happy, because hopefully they'll be better able to interact with queer people and less likely to traumatize or misgender a person, and provide good service. Because we're public servants. It's what we do.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Julie Sokolow
gender transition
Woman on Fire
Brooke Guinan