New Yorkers were first introduced to Brooke Guinan as the face of the “So Trans So What” LGBT rights awareness campaign three years ago. Now, she’s the subject of a documentary focused on what it’s been like to thrive as New York City’s first openly transgender woman in the FDNY, a profession dominated by men.
“Woman on Fire,” directed by Julie Sokolow, follows Guinan through the years of her life that followed her decision to pose for the viral Vocal Organization for International Courage and Equality campaign poster. Leading Brooklyn Pride, appearing on a United Nations billboard in Times Square, and speaking at the NYC Pride Rally are just a few of the big milestones documented in the film, all leading up to Guinan landing the honor of the 2017 Pride March grand marshal.
“I followed Brooke for two years. When we started filming in 2014, she was still an active firefighter,” Sokolow said. Today, the nine-year veteran serves as the FDNY’s LGBTQ outreach coordinator, helping to boost awareness and inclusivity of the trans community in the city, at a station in Astoria.
The 90-minute doc touches on Guinan’s decision to transition, the obstacles and challenges she has faced within the FDNY, and her strengthened connection to her father, a 35-year FDNY veteran and 9/11 survivor.
You can watch “Woman on Fire,” a FilmRise release, via Amazon Video, iTunes, Vudu and on DVD and Blu-ray.
Here’s what Sokolow had to say about the film.
What drew you to work on “Woman on Fire”?
Brooke’s upbeat energy captured my imagination. She’s a pioneering firefighter and role model. She was out in the world, saving lives and being true to herself. I thought she could teach me how to be a better person.
Too often, transgender people only make headlines because they are victims of tragedy, denied of their human rights, or worse, murdered for simply being who they are. Brooke’s version is different: She entered the spotlight as an empowered hero.
How did you first connect with Guinan on the project?
I first learned about Brooke when a photo of her went viral. She’s standing tall in her firefighting helmet and a shirt that reads, “So Trans So What.” She seemed like a futuristic superhero who represented a world I wanted to live in.
When I read more about her, I realized she is actually a third-generation firefighter whose father and grandfather also served in the FDNY. I was really curious to meet the whole Guinan family. So, I reached out to Brooke — we got along amazingly — and started filming together.
Why do you think it’s important, especially in today’s political climate, to tell Guinan’s story?
The film celebrates Brooke’s unlikely bond with her father, George Guinan. George is an old-school FDNY lieutenant — a 9/11 first responder who is Christian and conservative. Meanwhile, Brooke is an LGBTQ role model who challenges the FDNY to become more inclusive.
Brooke’s family is a microcosm of the polarized political forces in America today. George’s love and acceptance of his trans daughter Brooke suggests that our divided society is capable of reconciling its differences. Love can trump hate.
What are you hoping people take away, or learn about being trans, from the film?
I hope people recognize the story’s universality. We’ve all had moments when it’s difficult to be true to ourselves at work, at home, or in our relationships. If people can relate to Brooke’s story, then hopefully they’ll leave the theater with a new sense of respect for transgender people.
Did you yourself learn or experience something new while filming?
There are only 64 women firefighters in a workforce of over 10,000 FDNY firefighters. That is less than 1 percent. Brooke is the first and only openly transgender New York firefighter in history.
Similarly, in the filmmaking industry, women directors are in the minority. So, that created a connection between Brooke and I and our relationships to the work we do. I realized that our struggles aren’t so different. If we want to create a better world, we all must come together and support each other.