Thursday, 22 January 2009


This story concerns the case of nine Glasgow fire-fighters who refused to attend a gay pride march in Glasgow in 2006 in uniform and hand out fire safety leaflets. They were disciplined and had to attend diversity training. One man was demoted and had his wages cut by £5000. The fireman who has received an out of court settlement took his case to an employment tribunal on the grounds that attending the gay pride march was against his Catholic religious views.

On a Radio Scotland phone-in today I was not surprised to hear some of the callers indulge in homophobia, describing the lifestyle of homosexuals as “disgusting”. The Catholic Church has also been prominent in the media today, ensuring that the voice of religious conservatives is heard.

The fire-fighters’ main concerns seem to be that attending the gay pride march was against their moral beliefs, or that they were scared to attend the march in uniform in case they were embarrassed or sexually harassed. There also seems to be a view amongst the public that fire-fighters are there to fight fires and fire prevention is not part of their core duties. Obviously I have not seen their job descriptions, but I would think that preventing fires and giving safety advice should be a core part of their role.

LGBT people may be somewhat excluded from fire safety campaigns, because they may be afraid to contact home safety initiatives or let advisers into their homes, as they may be fearful of drawing attention to their sexual orientation. The Pride Scotia rally presented an excellent opportunity to engage with people who might otherwise miss out on home safety advice.

I do think management were heavy-handed in how they dealt with this. They had options like asking for volunteers to attend the gay pride event initially, while sending all staff on diversity training. They could then discipline people if necessary if, after receiving diversity training, they refused to give fire prevention advice at the gay pride rally the following year. They could have allowed the fire-fighters to give out the leaflets wearing civilian clothes.

It raises a controversial aspect of trade union work. Should the FBU defend and represent the fire-fighters, as every worker is entitled to representation? What about the rights of LGBT fire-fighters who are also trade union members? How do they feel about paying subs to defend the rights of workers who refused to engage with gay people?

When I heard about the Catholic fire-fighter receiving damages I perhaps fleetingly thought about taking my employer to a tribunal. For 20 years as a female nurse, I have actually been subjected to all manner of sexual harassment and abuse from patients and relatives, as I imparted health and safety information wearing my nurse’s uniform. I also thought about all the people whose lifestyles offend my morality – the gangsters, murderers, rapists, paedophiles, religious fundamentalists, the far-right, racists…….I could go on an on. Maybe I can refuse to give health promotion to these people because being associated with them is embarrassing, or offends my morality? Or maybe I can refuse to give any health promotion in a situation where a man “might” sexually harass me? And who do I claim damages against when I feel demeaned walking past Ann Summers shops on every High Street in the nation, with the naughty nurse outfits in the window?

Do you think people would phone up radio shows defending me, saying I had every right to make moral choices about who I, as a public service worker engage with? Would they say I had every right to refuse to give health promotion to men because they “might” sexually harass or humiliate me? Would people call in claiming saving lives is my core job and I can just ditch the other stuff in my job description when I feel like it?

No, I thought not. I’m a woman doing women’s work so it’s different, eh?

You know I never seriously thought of claiming damages for being sexually harassed by patients and relatives, or of refusing to promote health in groups I am morally opposed to. Why? Because even when people oppress or offend me, I strongly believe they have a right to equal treatment. Equality - that’s what public service is all about.

Here are two links about this story from the BBC.

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