After last Wednesday, I can no longer say I don't know any gay firefighters. That's when I met Michael Carlsen.
At the age of 6, "Mikey" knew he was different from other boys. It was at outdoor school. The object of his homo-crush was a high-school counselor. "He was cute," says Carlsen, now 32. "I didn't know what being gay was, but I knew I was different."
But this small-town Oregonian followed a tough path for a queer kid: jock, senior class president, military school and then, finally, a job as a firefighter. "I couldn't have made my life more difficult," says Carlsen.
Hired as a firefighter/medic with Clackamas County Fire District No. 1 five years ago, Carlsen has never met another gay fireman. He felt he had no choice but to stay in the closet. "I would listen to the guys at the firehouse talk about their lives and families, and I couldn't say anything," Carlsen says about this "incredibly lonely" time in his life. He sank into a deep depression. "I knew if I was to survive the next 20 years, I needed to come out."
At the age of 29, spurred by meeting Jason, the "man of his dreams," Carlsen came out—to his family and co-workers. "Mom said it was the first time she'd seen me smile in years."
That's not where Michael's story ends. That's because Carlsen, who has been with his partner for three years, is the only out firefighter I know. "I'm the only one I know, too," says Carlsen.
It hasn't all been an easy ride down the fire pole, though. After confessing to his crew, the skinny, compact Carlsen ("they make me go into all the small spaces," he says) was accused, by a chaplain, of being promiscuous and sick. A fellow firefighter told him he was going to hell. But that wasn't the typical reaction from his firehouse peers. In fact, far from it.
"The response was overwhelmingly positive," he says. "You depend on the guy beside you for your life. They may not have liked it, but they respected me."
"It is uncharted territory," says Carlsen regarding why he thinks it's hard for firefighters to tell others they are gay.
No lie. Just take a look at Washington state Rep. Richard Curtis (R-La Center). A married, two-term legislator, Curtis used to be a fire captain. That was before he got caught having sex with another man in a Spokane hotel room in late October—in ladies' lingerie. His behavior is indicative of someone who has something to hide. But Carlsen doesn't see anything to be ashamed of at all. In fact, his experience has taught him the opposite. And now he's figuratively working his way up the fire department ladder—he wants to become a lieutenant.
When I told Carlsen how heroic it was for him to share his story, all he had to say was: "My heroes are my co-workers. They said, 'We love and support you for who you are.' Who could ask for any more than that?"
Which raises the question, to closeted Portland firemen and -women: If this firefighter didn't get hosed for being gay, why are the rest of you still afraid of getting burned?