Gay and lesbian members of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) have come a long way in achieving recognition and acceptance among their heterosexual colleagues. And that’s no mean feat for a profession where macho and heterosexual have traditionally been the order of the day.
LGBT members of FBU have worked closely with chief fire officers and civil servants. It’s the sort of engagement which meant that just two years ago the London Fire Brigade (LFB) was ranked the top gay friendly fire and rescue service in the country. Yet in a surprising move, the union’s LGBT section recently announced that they were refusing to march with their LFB colleaguesbecause of a breakdown in communication with the more senior levels of the organisation.
The FBU’s decision came after LFB decided to withdraw from the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index; the Brigade also scrapped its own equality and diversity strategy early last year.
Pat Carberry, the union’s LGBT secretary, is bemused as to why LFB have seen the need to take such dramatic steps: ‘Why withdraw from an index like that, which is highly successful?’
It would be fair to say that the FBU has had its fair share of disagreement with those who run London’s fire service, with a dispute over new contracts only resolved in February, and involved very public disagreements with Brian Coleman, chair of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, who is himself gay. Regardless of the wider political issues, however, a perceived lack of engagement and interest must be worrying for the gay, lesbian and bisexual firefighters who from small beginnings have built up a strong support network over the last 20 years or so.
‘The FBU was the first to notice that a group of people were meeting whose issues didn’t seem to be heard,’ says Yannick Dubois, a firefighter based in Brighon and a member of the LGBT group. ‘They gave us financial support and a way to speak nationally about us in trying to bring the LGBT agenda to the table, way before brigades were interested in LGBT staff. Through the FBU we ensure that fire brigades don’t drop the equality agenda, and continue to provide equal opportunities away from discrimination for our members.’
And with London hosting World Pride in just under a year, Pat Carberry is keen for gay and lesbian firefighters to be visible. ‘There is a massive opportunity,’ he says. ’We are not closing the doors on future discussions, but without the engagement we are missing an opportunity.’ He adds that he is concerned about possibly reversing the progress made under the previous government, where a strategy was in place to meet targets to achieve a more diverse workforce.
It’s a sentiment also expressed by Carberry’s colleague, Stewart Brown, who is based in Chelsea and the West End. ’We’re disappointed with the lack of dialogue with London Fire Brigade,’ he says. ‘They were in a good position with the trade union and LGBT section. We reached the point where it was becoming quite easy – and then the politics changed. In the early days, we even advocated people not coming out because the legislation, policy and awareness wasn’t there. Now we have a seat on the TUC’s LGBT Committee, which is a huge achievement. And we have so many people joining the fire service who at an early stage are LGBT people willing to come out.’
And although attitudes have changed dramatically over the years, ‘it’s not exactly a liberal haven in the whole of the London Fire Brigade’, he adds. ‘Sexuality has become less and less of an issue. Where I work, it’s fine. But that’s not to say there are still pockets of homophobia – more of a hard-nosed culture still exists in the East End, for example.’
Brown says his visibility helps break down barriers: “When I go to fire stations, people know who I am. But it’s a long process for us”.
Yannick Dubois works for East Sussex Fire Service in Brighton, and didn’t always find it easy as a woman, let alone being open about her sexuality. ’It took me six years and a change of station to come out,’ she recalls. ‘I was to busy trying to fit in as a woman. Firefighters would expect you to be gay anyway if you are a woman, because you want to do a “man’s job”.’
Dubois says that at her current station she never had any problems being gay, but that more issues came when she became a union official for the LGBT committee. ‘In my place of work now, it’s not an issue at all. I’ve not had any problems being gay here. East Sussex Fire Service have been extremely supportive and have allowed me to set up a LGBT network for all staff, not just union members.’ She adds that some people were, and still are, against the LGBT section, but says that, broadly, her experience at her current station has been positive. ‘I do still get problems with some people thinking that we are advantaged and get a direct line to the chief fire officer. The LGBT poster has been torn off the noticeboard few times, and it’s difficult to keep our magazine for LGBT staff members “on station”, but that’s it.’
Last year, a successful LGBT conference was held just before Brighton Pride, with around 100 delegates. ’We have four fire engines attending the march this year, and a number of chief and principal officers, as well as around 60 employees,’ says Carberry. It may not be surprising in a city like Brighton and Hove, but on 13 August there will be a very clear symbol of progress for LGBT people in the fire service: the rainbow flag will fly over Preston Circus Fire Station. It probably won’t be happening at every fire station in the country, but FBU members are clearly proud of the progress they’ve made in securing more equal treatment for their gay and lesbian members.