Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Lesbian Fire Chief Blazes New Ground in Minneapolis

(Link) She's not only the city's first female fire chief -- she's the first openly gay fire chief of any major US city. "People want to know, is it lonely at the top?" Bleskachek said. "And I tell them, you know, I've been an outsider my whole life."

1 comment:

LNewsEditor said...

JIC Post:
Associated Press Writer

MINNEAPOLIS — Bonnie Bleskachek shattered a couple of glass ceilings on her climb toward the top job in the Minneapolis Fire Department, but that was never part of her plan.

"I never went into this trying to represent this group or that one," said Bleskachek, the first female chief in this city's history, and the only openly gay fire chief of any major city. "I only wanted to be here if I felt like I was adding something to the organization personally."

After a little more than a year on the job, though, Bleskachek grasps the symbolism of her achievement and has accepted speaking engagements and appearances around the country. But her story isn't so much one of succeeding in spite of her gender and sexual preference as it is how she drew strength from those things to get where she is.

"People want to know, is it lonely at the top?" Bleskachek said. "And I tell them, you know, I've been an outsider my whole life."

The most notable thing about Bleskachek's time as an openly gay, female chief is how utterly unnoticed it's gone, even in this traditionally progressive city. Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, who appointed Bleskachek, said he only got three e-mails of complaint — all from people outside Minneapolis.

It's a significant development in a field that's been one of the last bastions of male domination.

Rybak said he was glad to be able to appoint Bleskachek during what he saw as a time of cultural polarization.

"The appointment was made the week after last year's election, where there was some extraordinarily damaging rhetoric about members of the gay and lesbian community," Rybak said. "I was stopped on the street about a month afterwards, by a woman who is raising her child with her partner. She said for their daughter to be able to see someone like them on front page of the paper, after hearing all the bad things — it meant a lot."

But ultimately, Rybak said, "the significance of all of the labels attached to Bonnie is that they are not as important as her skill as a leader and a professional."

Indeed, Bleskachek, 42, came to the chief's job the old-fashioned way, working her way up the ranks over 16 years that paralleled the rise of women to prominent positions in the department.

A native of Chippewa Falls, Wis., Bleskachek grew up the oldest of five daughters, a high school athlete and self-described tomboy who came out of the closet to her family while she was still in high school, in the late 1970s.

A few years later, shortly after dropping out of college because she couldn't afford it, Bleskachek took an aptitude test that pointed her toward firefighting. She liked the idea of a job that was physically demanding but also allowed her to give something back to the community.

In 1989, she became the 10th woman to join the Minneapolis Fire Department, which had hired its first woman firefighter just three years earlier.

"When I got into the stations, a number of people I worked with had never worked with a woman before," Bleskachek said. "There were plenty of them who didn't think women belonged there. A lot of times I'd walk into a room, and everyone would get up and walk out."

Bleskachek said her sexuality — which she never hid — was less of an issue. In part, she thinks, it's because of a perception — fair or not — that lesbians are tougher and more athletic than heterosexual women.

Female firefighters as lesbians is a common stereotype that Bleskachek said has some ring of truth. Long a member of women firefighting groups, she estimated that half to two-thirds of attendees at national conventions are gay women — though she thinks that might overestimate the total number, since those who attend such conventions are more likely to be of an activist mind-set.

Bleskachek's partner is also a firefighter, though she won't say if she works for the Minneapolis department. The couple are raising an 11-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son, and Bleskachek said one of her biggest concerns with the chief's job is the time it takes from her family.

Bleskachek's sexuality has been raised in several discrimination lawsuits filed against her as chief by dismissed male firefighters who said they were singled out because of their heterosexuality. The lawsuits are still pending, but Bleskachek is dismissive of the complaints.

Instead, she's focusing her energy on the issues that face fire chiefs around the country. Even as they deal with budget cuts, fire departments are increasingly on the front lines not just at fires but in responding to natural disasters, terrorist attacks and biological threats.

"It's difficult when you hardly have enough folks just for fire suppression, which is what we're supposed to be doing," Bleskachek said. "Then you're being asked to do all these other things."

So far, Bleskachek has been able to maintain a harmonious relationship with the department's rank and file — especially compared to her predecessor, whose last few years on the job were marred by layoffs, contract disputes and the closing of several ladder companies.

While there have been scattered complaints on a union Web site that Bleskachek has lost touch with working firefighters, the union chief praised her efforts so far.

"When Bonnie came in she had an uphill battle, and morale was her biggest hurdle," said Tom Thornberg, president of the firefighters union local and a 27-year veteran of the Minneapolis Fire Department. "Slowly but surely she's been winning over the troops. It helps when somebody from within the ranks becomes chief."

As Bleskachek moved up the ranks, she used her growing influence to help bolster diversity in the department's ranks.

"Women are succeeding in a job that 20 years ago people said they couldn't do," said Therese Floren, executive director of Women in the Fire Service, a national professional organization, who also said Bleskachek was the only openly gay chief of a major fire department in the nation.

Today 83 of the Minneapolis department's 444 firefighters are women, the highest ratio in the country. Other major cities like San Francisco and Little Rock, Ark., have female fire chiefs.

"We have a lot of young firefighters on the job, and having women around, that's just normal for them," Thornberg said. "And that's because of people like Bonnie."