Firehouse harassment

Female firefighters come forward with stories that go beyond locker-room high jinks.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
Published December 5, 2006 8:29PM (EST)

It seems that the Los Angeles Fire Department isn't just fostering racist attitudes, but sexist ones, too. This past weekend, the Los Angeles Times detailed the harassment the city's female firefighters face -- and it goes beyond the expected locker-room talk and hazing rituals. Luckily, the problem is getting increased attention following recent allegations of racial discrimination in the department.

A complaint filed by Capt. Alicia Mathis, who's worked in the LAFD for 17 years, suggests that the harassment is pretty pervasive: "Almost every female firefighter on the LAFD has suffered unwanted touching, leering or derogatory comments. A dildo was put in a women's locker, a female firefighter was told to sleep in a closet, and women have often been referred to as 'bitches.'"

There's plenty more. Next spring, firefighter Brenda Lee's lawsuit alleging harassment and discrimination (as both a woman and a lesbian) will go before a jury. Already, the city settled firefighter Ruthie Bernal's lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and battery with a payout of $320,000. An audit this year found that more than 80 percent of female firefighters were "aware of or had experienced sexual harassment." And this situation didn't develop recently: Controversy also arose in 1994, after a videotape titled "Female Follies" surfaced; the tape had made the rounds among the city's fire stations and featured footage of women struggling to complete physical tasks while male firefighters completed the same tasks effortlessly.

Not surprisingly, some view complaints from female firefighters as proof positive that women just don't know how to hang with the guys and take a good joke. We tend to think most female firefighters tolerate, and maybe even enjoy, the occasional frat-house-type high jinks. Problem is, as Mathis' lawyer Genie Harrison argued, in many cases it's gone far beyond "'boys will be boys' stuff." She told the Times, "You get into bed with a woman and start to physically assault her, that's not a prank -- that's an attempted rape."

Princeton psychology professor Susan Fiske said "the most common reaction to sexual harassment is not to tell anybody at work." When Mathis was a rookie, she had a colleague accost her in bed but didn't make an official complaint; 10 years later she saw him, still working in the department. "You think, 'That was just me. I got out of it and made my way and I was fine.' Now I wonder what happened from that time on," she said.

It's worth noting that harassers aren't always male and their targets aren't always female; the Times notes that Harrison has represented two male firefighters who've received harassment settlements. And just last week, Bonnie Bleskachek, Minneapolis' first female fire chief and the first openly lesbian fire chief in any major city, resigned from her post following allegations that she had sexually harassed and discriminated against female firefighters.

Tracy Clark-Flory

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