I decided many years before I left school that I wanted to be a firefighter. I think the combination of being in a profession where you’re helping people plus the in-built excitement attracted me.
I realised my dream of becoming a firefighter at the age of about 20. At that young age I was a gay man in a very macho, straight world, such is the type of business that it is. The people who I worked with were very male-oriented and it was very much a man’s job.
When I joined the NSW Fire Brigades, I was still going through the process of telling friends and family I was gay. Work was the place where I was least willing to let it slip -“ we’re talking a world of many married men and certainly people a lot older than me, which made it very difficult.
However, I quickly confided in three or four other firefighters, who I found to be more than accepting. I had always felt that to come out would be detrimental to my career. But in retrospect that clearly wasn’t the case.
Once on the inside, all the stereotypes of the big, tough macho firefighter were soon broken down. Most of them were in fact very kind, caring, family-type people.
In my 21 years as a firefighter, I’ve never experienced any intolerance. I’m sure there would have been things said behind my back. But as a family, as I like to call it, we look after our own so people tend to do the beating up behind my back. They will tear apart one of their own and say, Don’t say that about him. I have been shielded from that.
At the age of 27 I met my former partner, who wasn’t a firefighter. Many Fire Brigade friends and families would come over to our place. We were made to feel as if we were the same as any other couple.
About six years ago a work transfer took me to Bathurst, where I’ve been ever since. My experience has been the exact opposite of people who might think it’s homophobic in the country.
The statement that gets the questions isn’t I’m gay because the answer is likely to be, Oh, okay, cool. What sort of car have you got?
And you’re inclined to go, Hang on, you missed something. But the same reply will come again, or they’ll say, My brother’s gay, or, I went to school with a gay guy, he was really nice. I’d say that’s the reaction 98.9 percent of the time.
I’ve had no problems at all being known as Andy the gay firefighter who sings karaoke -“ that’s an unofficial title that I have. I’ve sung in practically every club and pub up here, and a couple of years ago I won the Bathurst Idol singing competition.
Over the years, I think I’ve seen a progressive change as opposed to a major change about attitudes to gay men and lesbians in the Fire Brigade.
In small pockets of the service there would be underlying networks of gays and lesbians. But as a general rule, unlike other services I believe, we don’t have any formal group at this stage.
Entering the Mardi Gras is a step in the right direction. It’s a closer step to showing that we’re a very accepting brigade, we acknowledge diversity and we’re certainly willing to do what it takes to show that to the world.
I am the coordinator of the float, which is the first ever Mardi Gras entry by the NSW Fire Brigades. There will be between 20 and 30 people on the float. We’re looking at having a fire brigade vehicle and a marching contingent with a big red fire truck behind it.
The marchers come from across the Fire Brigades. They come from all over NSW, from down south to out west. There are some from Sydney too. There are about half men and half women.
One of our main themes in the parade will be calling 000. The Mardi Gras brings in a lot of people from overseas, and particularly from the US. Of course 911 is the number that people are prepared to call. While they’re having a good time over here, we would at least like them to learn from the Fire Brigade that 000 is the number.
I haven’t asked specifically about sexuality in the expression of interest for the float, since it’s their own business. But I would be more than surprised if we didn’t have members of the gay and lesbian community in there. Whether they choose to be out is up to them, but I’m certainly not the only gay in the village.
In any case, I hope the Mardi Gras entry leads to a much wider acceptance and understanding from those in the ranks who may in fact be gay or lesbian and not sure who to talk to.
Interview by Ian Gould