Captain Brenda Berkman broke down barriers, built coalitions, and lives her dream
In just over a year, Captain Brenda Berkman will celebrate 25 years as part of the New York City Fire Department, a position she had to win a federal nondiscrimination suit in order to hold. As a passionate advocate for nontraditional employment for women, Berkman has had to fight at times violent prejudice and discrimination based both on her gender and her sexuality. Her story was recently portrayed in the documentary, “Taking the Heat,” shown on PBS’ Independent Lens and narrated by Susan Sarandon.
Berkman is the commander of Engine 239 in Brooklyn, an adjunct instructor for the National Fire Academy and she founded the United Women Firefighters in New York City as well as leading the national organization, Women in the Fire Service, serving as a trustee and president of the board.
CHRISTOPHER MURRAY: When did you first realize you wanted to be a firefighter?
BRENDA BERKMAN: It was kind of a process. Keep in mind that prior to the mid-’70s, paid departments didn’t even allow women to apply to become firefighters. But I knew that I wanted to have a job where I could help other people and where I didn’t sit behind a desk all day long. At one point I thought about going into the military, but that was during Viet Nam and I was opposed to the war, so that wasn’t going to happen. I thought about being a police officer but I really didn’t want to point a gun at anybody. I met some firefighters when I moved to New York and I saw something about what their job was like and it really appealed to me. Then when the opportunity arose to take the firefighters’ exam for the first time in 1977, I applied.
CM: That was the time when no women were considered to have passed the exam?
BB: In ’77, when women were first allowed to apply, the Fire Department changed the physical abilities test. They made it more difficult to pass. In fact, the assistant director of personnel, the person responsible for administering the test, said that it was the most difficult test that the city had given for anything. When I went to take the test, I had really prepared, I had worked very hard to get myself in excellent physical condition. I was a marathon runner, I’d worked out lifting weights, but there were things about the test that I thought had nothing to do with figuring out if a person was qualified to be a firefighter.
Once I found out that none of the 90 women who had shown up to take the physical had passed the exam, I decided to talk with someone to figure out if the exam was actually job-related. If it wasn’t directly related to the work of being a firefighter, I would challenge it. We tried to get the city to develop a new test that would be job-related without discriminating against women, but they refused to do that, so I brought the lawsuit.
CM: The lawsuit charging discrimination based on gender in this test was successful in 1982 and you’ve been with the Fire Department ever since.
BB: Yes, by the time we won, I’d been practicing law myself for almost five years. The city forced me to testify under oath that I’d give up the practice of law if I won the lawsuit. I think that’s the first time that anyone’s ever been forced by the New York City Fire Department to agree to not practice law if they were hired as a firefighter!
CM: And probably the last! I know the issue of nontraditional employment for women is very important to you. Do you consider yourself a feminist?
BB: Absolutely. I believe that men and women should have equal opportunities and that people shouldn’t be excluded from activities by reason of gender. That is the way that I define feminism.
CM: What do you think it was about your character or experience that caused you to fight so hard to become a firefighter?
BB: I think it goes back to my childhood where I had a very strong sense that little girls were being unfairly kept out of activities that they were good at and would really enjoy doing. When I was in school, there was no Title IX, [the Federal legislation amended in 1972 to ensure gender equality in educational sports]. I was a little tomboy and I really enjoyed sports. My mom tried to get me into Little League and I wasn’t allowed to join because I was a girl. I wanted to take shop class in high school because I enjoyed working with tools and I couldn’t because I was a girl. That seemed really unfair to me because if that was where my interest was, why shouldn’t I be allowed to do those things?
CM: A lot people who are marginalized in some way wind up thinking that something is wrong with themselves and not the system.
BB: Maybe if I had been bad at sports, I would have thought it made sense in some way, but I knew I was good!
CM: Your identities as a firefighter, as a woman, and as a lesbian, what’s the point of intersection among them?
BB: It’s just happenstance on one level. I don’t think one follows from another. I’m all those things and they all work together. I think the job itself if great for anyone, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender is. If they are reasonably physically fit, enjoy doing different things all the time and helping other people, then regardless of other things, it’s a great job.
CM: Within the pre-existing culture of the Fire Department, was the problem the integration of women or homophobia?
BB: There is definitely homophobia in the fire service. Even before I came out as a lesbian, while I was married, people just assumed I was a lesbian. After all, if you were going to be physically active as a woman, then you must be a lesbian, right? That’s just crazy! There’s plenty of physically talented women who are straight, but we have this prejudice in our society around these things. I really believe that the homophobia against gay men in the fire service is much more debilitating than toward lesbians. It’s harder for a guy to come out because there is a tremendous fear among straight men in fire service that they’ll be hit on or something. It’s nonsense, but it’s a powerful fear.
CM: Is there a direct parallel between such attitudes in the fire service and the military’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy?
BB: I always thought that Don’t Ask, Dont Tell was one of the worst things to come out of the Clinton administration. That policy is incredibly damaging to people’s self-images and the way they live their lives. When I went to Washington as a White House Fellow in 1996-97, that was the first time I really came out in my job. It was very difficult for gay people in the military to associate with me. I saw how they had to live these very secret lives and for the first time I wasn’t. I felt freed from a cage, but they were still stuck in it. It hurt me as a person who wanted to have these friendships, but felt shunned by these people who couldn’t risk their careers by being seen with me.
CM: Potential White House Fellows are subject to FBI checks and rigorous scrutiny, were there concerns about you being out of the closet in terms of being granted high-level security clearances?
BB: They had had gay applicants before and it had been a problem, because if you aren’t out, you’re a security risk for blackmail, but if you were out, you were precluded from the necessary clearance level you needed to be a Fellow. I didn’t even know that had been a problem until I was midway through the selection process and made it clear that I was living as an out lesbian. The Clinton administration was the first to allow out gay or lesbian people as Fellows. Isn’t that shocking?
CM: You were the first out gay person to ever be a White House Fellow?
BB: Yes, and also the first professional firefighter as well.
CM: How are things better around nontraditional employment in the Fire Department versus when you began?
BB: It’s changed a lot. When I came on the job, I was getting death threats at my home and people were not speaking to me or eating with me or training with me. It was really quite a miserable experience, but now we have come a long way. We have uniforms and gear that fit women. We have a commitment from the Department that they are at least making an effort to provide private bathrooms and changing facilities in the firehouses. We don’t have that really tremendous harassment that we had when women first came on the job. That doesn’t mean that sexism and racism and homophobia have totally disappeared from the Fire Department but certainly things have improved a great deal.
CM: You mentioned racism and I was struck by the fact that one of the few groups that supported women in the early days was the Vulcan Society, the FDNY’s society of black firefighters. What have you learned in your journey about the importance of being an ally?
BB: You can’t do this stuff by yourself. So, first of all you need organizations to support your issues and that’s why those of us who were the first women hired formed the United Women Firefighters to advocate for us with the powers that be. As women continue to be such a small percentage of firefighters we need allies both in and out of the Fire Department. The Vulcans to their credit stood up for us when no other organization would. We needed the coalition of uniformed women’s organizations, the legal groups that supported us, and then we formed the national organization of women firefighters as well.
CM: Now that you are a captain and the commander of Engine 239 in Brooklyn, and finishing up the Executive Fire Officer Program, is it lonely at the top?
BB: Sometimes people misconstrue your motives or think it’s a big ego trip for you. For the most part it’s just hard work and people have to realize that when they commit to trying to achieve social change. This stuff doesn’t happen overnight. That doesn’t mean that it’s not important work that everyone has something to contribute to, even if you can’t devote a career to it. It’s important that people are supportive and try to make things more fair for the next generation.
CM: What does Gay Pride mean to you?
BB: I remember when you could not get any firefighters to march in Gay Pride in uniform. It was too much of a risk that co-workers might see you. Now we have the fire truck going down Fifth Avenue and the people on the sidelines recognize what bravery it took to come out on the job and participate in Pride events. I hope other young gay and lesbian people will consider this as a career for themselves. We have another firefighter exam filing coming up at the end of the summer.
For more information on Women in the Fire Service, visit wfsi.org; on the Fire Department City of New York, visit nyc.gov/fdny; on the film “ Taking the Heat,” visit takingtheheat.com.