By Joel P. Engardio
When your house is on fire, does it matter if those saving your life have diverse backgrounds and accepting attitudes? You’re probably just happy to get help, without questioning what goes on in the firehouse.
That might explain why it took court action – and a decade of monitoring -- to get the San Francisco Fire Department to hire more minorities and women.
Shortly after Keith Baraka joined the force, in 1997, a federal judge determined there was enough firefighter diversity to let the department handle its own hires. Baraka was counted as African American. But he’s also gay, and that wasn’t part of the court-ordered equation.
It was the age of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the military, but Baraka imagined San Francisco’s firehouses were different -- especially in the Castro, where Station 6 is located
Although Baraka left his family in Ohio for an easier gay life, he said nothing was tougher than the decade he spent being a gay firefighter in Station 6.
“It’s a long day when you work with people who won’t talk to you,” said Baraka, recalling the mornings when he would enter the firehouse kitchen, greet his colleagues and watch them get up from the table and move to another room.
At first, he wasn’t sure what the cold shoulder was for. Maybe it was because African Americans tended to work in other stations. Perhaps word had spread about his recovery from a past drug addiction. Or was it the rainbow sticker on his helmet?
When 7x7 magazine came to Station 6 to photograph firefighters, the rainbow sticker on Baraka’s helmet was visible in the published photo. A copy didn’t survive long on the firehouse wall. Baraka found it on the floor, its frame broken and glass cracked. “We don’t want that picture in here,” he said he was told.
The word “fag” allegedly was thrown causally around Baraka in the firehouse. So was talk about penis size. He says items went missing from his locker, his name was repeatedly erased from the assignment chalkboard and his car was keyed.
The Department of Human Resources dismissed the alleged incidents last year, ruling they didn’t meet the standard of harassment or weren’t reported within a required 180 days.
"It's hard to prove discrimination because people are a lot smarter about it now," Baraka said.
Yet the Fire Department’s historically troubled personnel culture seemed to persist in 2013 with a $175,000 payment to an African American firefighter who claimed he was called a “house boy” and a $3.7 million jury award for age bias.
We won’t know if Baraka’s Station 6 colleagues isolated and ostracized him because he was gay. But here’s what we do know: the Fire Department has no recruitment program for gay hires, no support group for gay employees, no gay members on the Fire Commission and few openly gay firefighters.
“The gay community deserves better,” Baraka said. “Especially from the Castro firehouse.”
Baraka is well known for his volunteer work in local politics, and he even serves as the proxy for state Sen. Mark Leno at meetings of the San Francisco Democratic County Central Committee. Still, when Baraka transferred out of Station 6 last year, he says that a parting note in his locker said, “Good Bye, Good Riddance Bitch!!”
The Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club sent a letter last fall to Mayor Ed Lee, the Board of Supervisors and Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White.
“This segregated station exists in the heart of the LGBT community,” wrote the co-chairs of Alice at the time, Ron Flynn and Martha Knutzen. “Worse, the station is hostile to our community.”
The letter was personal because Baraka serves on the group’s board of directors (I am also a board member, but had no role in the letter).
Most of the letter’s recipients had sought the group’s political endorsement, so the club wasn’t shy with its demands: department-wide LGBT sensitivity training, recruitment of LGBT firefighters and a LGBT member on the Fire Commission.
The club highlighted the example of the San Francisco Police Department, which has become so gay friendly some might forget it had a rocky history with the gay community.
The fire chief’s response letter acknowledged the club’s concerns without offering any action. But Baraka and the group won’t give up. The newest co-chair of the club is retired Navy Cmdr. Zoe Dunning, who successfully fought the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.
“We’re asking for very reasonable goals,” said Baraka, who now happily works for Station 21 near Alamo Square. “It only makes for a better Fire Department when the firefighters reflect the people they serve.”