The first day on any job is always a challenge: unfamiliar environment, new people, different procedures. Imagine if your co-workers were also snarling epithets at you. That’s what happened to R. Kevin Mallinson when, at 25, he joined the Key West Fire Department. His greeting from a fellow firefighter that morning in 1981 couldn’t have been clearer: “We heard you’re a goddamned faggot!”
He tells that story—and many more—in his book, “Alarm in the Firehouse: A Memoir of America’s First Openly Gay Professional Firefighter.” Having realized at an early age that he was gay, Mallinson decided to live as openly and honestly as he could. “I had always heard that ‘the truth will set you free,’” he writes. “Well, it seems that it might slap you across the face first. Then, it will set you free!”
Mallinson took a lot of slaps in pursuing his dream of becoming a firefighter. Being snubbed and bullied was bad enough, but there were times when his co-workers actually endangered his life, abandoning him in burning buildings and aiming powerful hoses at him to try and knock him off his ladder. How, he wondered, could “adult men devolve into acting like hostile adolescents? [And] why was I such a threat to these guys?”
Despite the obstacles thrown in his path, Mallinson refused to quit. He became a top-notch firefighter, finishing first in the grueling six-week ordeal of Fire College and gaining the respect of some of the older firemen, who appreciated his commitment and skill. The overall harassment from his co-workers, though, never stopped.
After four years with the KWFD, his life began heading in another direction. Even while he was fighting fires, he was volunteering at a local HELPLINE and at a hospice. As the AIDS crisis came to the fore and friends began dying, he found himself providing health education and counseling. On the advice of a friend, he quit the fire department to enroll in nursing school, eventually earning a Ph.D.
While Mallinson acknowledges that many strides have been made in securing rights for LGBTQ+ people since his experience of the 1980s, he notes that we still have a long way to go in overcoming the “boys will be boys” mentality that allows such abuse to take place. “Alarm in the Firehouse” serves as a powerful reminder of why we should all work to overcome ingrained prejudices so that no one is ostracized or harassed because of their sexual orientation.
R. Kevin Mallinson is a retired university professor, public speaker, and researcher who advocates for disenfranchised groups, particularly LGBTQ+ communities and people with, or at risk for, HIV disease. He and his husband split their time between Lewes, Delaware, and Capitol Hill. https://alarminthefirehouse.com