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Seattle's first woman firefighter inspires
Seattle's first woman firefighter inspires
by Nick Ardizzone - SGN Staff Writer

On March 24, retired Battalion Chief Bonnie Beers, the first woman firefighter in the Seattle Fire Department, spoke on her groundbreaking 30-year career to a crowd at Seattle City Hall. Strong and confidant, Beers applied as a firefighter in 1976, wanting little more than a well-paying, exciting job. She had no idea that her subsequent success in the face of doubt and discrimination would make her a powerful role model - one whose struggle has a special poignancy for those in the GLBT community.

"I was the outsider that nobody wanted," Beers said during an interview with the Seattle Gay News. "The firefighters had their own boys' club, and they didn't want anybody who was different than them."

"There were times when I knew to shut up and not say anything, but there were also times when I knew I had to be verbal and had to say something. It was a fine line between showing you're assertive and not going to be run over, but not be so sensitive that they can't get along with you."

Beers said the firefighters were hard on her when she began, but her courage and perseverance ultimately earned their respect. "They were amazed that I was able to be successful when they knew it was very difficult, when it would have been difficult even for them." Beers rose through her career with the support of those who once doubted her abilities. The presence of a woman in the firehouse "definitely added a new dimension, though I don't think they used to want that dimension."

The presence of an openly Gay firefighter is another dimension whose time has come, though Beers feels the Fire Department might be hesitant. "I think they're not ready for it yet. They should be ready for it, but I'm not so sure how easy it would be. They are much more accepting [now]," she laughed, "but I'm not sure they're that accepting."

"I'm sure there are Gay men [in the Fire Department], and there are going to be more Gay men, but they're going to have to be very strong [to come out]," she said.

Beers knows how difficult is it to face adversity, and understands the decision to stay closeted. "I don't blame them [for not coming out]. It's a lot easier without doing that. Sometimes you have to decide in your life what is easier."

"I couldn't hide who I was," she reflected. "If I had been able to, I probably would have."

She briefly shared a story of a Gay firefighter who was outed in recruit class and ended up quitting to avoid dealing with the fallout. "Being a recruit is already hard enough without dealing with that dimension," she said. "I'm not saying it's impossible, but you'd have to have your shit together."

Beers, unique in her experiences in an intensely male-dominated, hypermasculine field, offered advice to Gay firefighters, whether new recruits or veterans:

"If he felt he was accepted enough and he wanted to come out, go ahead! I think it would cause some bumps, but if you're strong and you know what you're doing, go ahead - though if you're having problems or your life isn't exactly right, why would you do that to yourself?" Beers paused. "I'm sure Gay men are going to have a hell of a time."

"It has to be worth it to do that," she said. "I think, for some people, it is worth it."

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