Josh Rittberg

Arts and Culture Editor

On Wednesday, March 27th, the Women’s and Gender Studies group at Millersville University  hosted a screening of the documentary, ‘Woman on Fire’. This film told the inspiring story of a queer woman named Brooke Guinan who made history as the first openly transgender woman in the Fire Department of New York, or FDNY for short. The film explored her journey as a trans woman into the fire department, but most importantly it showed her story in a human and universal manner that transcended gender or sexuality. Brooke Guinan herself appeared at the screening, which added a reality and weight to the film.

The documentary began with the introduction of Brooke and her coming out story in realizing she is trans. Coming out is a process that does not happen overnight, and it is a journey that is different for everyone, as we each have our own path. Brooke’s journey was actually greatly affected by her own family’s background in the firefighting community. Her father George is a FDNY firefighter and a respected member of that tight knit community. Growing up in a largely masculine environment, she always felt a bit different. After years of questioning, she initially thought she was gay. In one powerful scene, Brooke’s mother, Susan, reads her daughter’s original coming out letter and comments on how she had to come to terms with it. One thing this film did well was communicate with the audience how coming out isn’t just a process for the one directly going through it, but also for the people surrounding the one involved. Her father’s story in the documentary was especially moving. Although initially confused and disappointed about Brooke being trans, he eventually realized that his daughter was still the same person she was before. Her father ultimately felt that he had to be there for Brooke and encourage her in her journey of self-discovery.  

Along with Brooke’s story, we also hear of her partner Jim, who has his own dilemma. He has to introduce Brooke to his parents while also focusing on moving to a new house. This part of the film is particularly touching as Jim’s parents are instantly accepting of Brooke and view her with the same respect as any of Jim’s other girlfriends. His move with Brooke to their new house also brings humor to the film as he is not the best in preparing for a big move.

In Jim, Brooke has a partner that sticks with her through good times and bad. This is shown in the wedding scene, and throughout, as they have constantly entertaining banter and memories together. A major part of the film was also Brooke getting used to being in the firefighting force herself and finding peace and joy in that field. She initially decided to join after being incredibly moved seeing her father fighting fires and saving lives. She wanted to make a difference herself, and saw the firefighting community as an outlet to do just that. Although she faced adversity, being a trans woman, the support system from Jim and her co-worker and good friend, Sarinya Srisakul, gave her the spark she needed to keep going. In the force, she constantly had to come out to her coworkers as trans. After letting adversity get to her, she decided to be an advocate herself by becoming a spokesperson on a campaign called So Trans So What. Being a part of this campaign allowed her to be a platform of visibility, not just for the Firefighting force, but for the LGBTQ+ community and for Trans visibility.

The film overall was an opportunity for students to be exposed to a potentially new viewpoint in life. The film helped the audience realize that no matter who you are, we are all capable of achieving our dreams if we put in the work and have the drive. Hearing from the real-life subject of the film was especially humbling. The audience of students and professors got to ask Brooke about the movie itself, and in the process got a broader response and outlook not just to Brooke’s story, but that of the LGBTQ+ community. This was an event that was eye opening, but also one of great weight and importance. Trans voices specifically are often ignored by society because it is still new to mainstream entertainment and media. Having Brooke’s story heard on a college campus not only validates and inspires us students in the LGBTQ+ community, but also just as importantly, educates older generations and allies on LGBTQ+ and trans experiences. Brooke as a role model exemplifies overcoming adversity. In our time of panic and confusion in the world, stories like Brooke’s need to be heard. Sometimes hope and pride in oneself can extinguish the world’s biggest fires.