Being a firefighter is tough. Being a trans firefighter seems tougher still, unless you’re Brooke Guinan and are undaunted by the challenge of becoming a pioneer for equal rights and respect.
Guinan is the subject of Woman on Fire, the engaging new feature-length documentary from Pittsburgh-based filmmaker Julie Sokolow (Aspie Seeks Love). It makes its Pittsburgh premiere this weekend at a special event at the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Guinan grew up George William Guinan VI in a family of New York City firefighters. Both granddad and dad were committed to FDNY, describing the job as a brotherhood and “a home away from home.” But young George felt different growing up; he came out as gay as a teen, but that wasn’t quite it. “The person looking at me [from the mirror] was never the person in my head.”
So began a journey: joining the FDNY as a gay man and having a rocky time of it, before transitioning to Brooke, a female. “I was always performing who I thought people wanted me to be,” she explains.
Sokolow’s film spends a lot of time with the likable Brooke, as well as her family, who undergo their own journey of acceptance; Brooke’s parents stress how traditional firefighter families are, and how male-dominated the field is. And the film is big-hearted, acknowledging that everybody has struggles, whether it’s Brooke’s dad’s PTSD after Sept. 11; Brooke’s partner, Jim, negotiating with his elderly parents about his new relationship; or the sexism that other female firefighters face. (Even today, of the 10,000 who make up the NYFD, fewer than 50 are women.)
But understanding and openness is key. As Sokolow documents Brooke’s commitment to fully be who she is, it’s an affirming go-girl story, with Brooke confronting and overcoming obstacles and prejudices. It’s a fight that culminates in some high-profile public victories, though for Brooke, the cessation of struggle within herself is surely the sweetest battle won.