Bad news from Minneapolis: The Associated Press reported today that Bonnie Bleskachek, the city's first female fire chief and the first openly gay fire chief of any major U.S. city, is on leave amid a flurry of sexual harassment lawsuits.
Firefighting is a notoriously tough profession for women to break into. In 1989, Bleskachek became the city's 10th female firefighter, only three years after the first was hired. She endured slurs from co-workers and co-founded a group to help women train for the firefighting test. And, gradually, the environment changed. As of March of this year, 17 percent of Minneapolis' 350 firefighters are women -- the highest percentage among urban firefighting departments in the nation. Bleskachek was appointed chief in 2004.
Unfortunately, three lawsuits filed by firefighters claim she let her love life rule her personnel decisions. Kristina Lemon says that after she rebuffed Bleskachek's advances, the chief denied her training and advancement opportunities. Jennifer Cornell, who is Bleskachek's ex-girlfriend, also claims she was denied advancement opportunities, and contends that Bleskachek's current girlfriend received special treatment. A city investigation "found evidence that the department gave preferential treatment to lesbians or those who socialize with them," according to the AP. Lemon told the wire service that woman-to-woman harassment is especially disheartening: "Even after we've gone through hardships, that we can turn around and perpetrate the same behavior ... it's a sad thing," she said. Bleskachek's lawyer, Jerry Burg, has denied the allegations.
The danger here is that, regardless of whether the allegations prove to be true, some will draw broad conclusions about sexual orientation based on the scandal. Burg put it succinctly: "I think it feeds into the bias that lesbians are masculine and men behave like pigs, therefore lesbians are pigs." Of course, Burg's point works both ways: No one should assume that Bleskachek's gender or orientation causes her to behave badly, but neither should she be exempt from scrutiny. Lesbians are as prone to opportunism and bad behavior as anyone else. But it's terribly sad that, whatever the case's outcome, Bleskachek's trailblazing reputation will suffer. Theresa Glomb, a professor of human resources and industrial relations at the University of Minnesota, told the AP, "It's really kind of unfortunate because of her position and her minority status. I imagine, even if [the claims are] found to be false, it could be very difficult for her to regain the respect that her achievement deserves."