Houston lesbian finds happiness in public service

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Iris Rodriguez is a longtime Houstonian with a smiling face and genial personality that's familiar whether she's wearing her firefighter gear or her camo fatigues from the Army. And it's her quiet determination and laser focus that leaves a lasting impression.

The Houston lesbian, volunteer and organizer has served two careers over the last two decades – that of a Houston firefighter for 23 years, where she's been a captain for six years, and soldier with the U.S. Army Reserves, where she's served for 25 years and is now a master sergeant.

And over the years, she's lent a hand to myriad local organizations addressing education, spirituality, lesbian health, veterans’ issues, softball, human rights and more.

But she didn’t begin her life in the Bayou City. Rodriguez was born in Mexico and her family – eight brothers and sisters – followed her father to Houston.

“My father and uncle immigrated to Houston, and started an auto body repair business,” Rodriguez says. “My father spent a few years in Houston before he called his wife and children to join him, but my mother was not receptive or eager to move. Understandably by not speaking the language, understanding the culture, nor having any idea how to negotiate a new city, let alone a foreign country, she feared the unknown and hesitated. He left her no ultimatum so she moved our family to Houston.”

Rodriguez blossomed in her new homeland, and so did her artistic talent. But after graduating from Art Institute of Houston as a graphic artist she felt unfulfilled in the corporate world. She sought a career that offered “a sense of purpose that was meaningful and definitely bigger than myself.”

“Someone is always in need, there is always a pet that needs petted, a child that needs read to, or someone who needs to borrow your understanding ear,” Rodriguez says.

She found that sense of purpose with her decision to devote her life to defending the country protecting the safety and wellbeing of her fellow Houstonians. 

Rodriguez shared her thoughts with Project Q about joining the military under the scrutiny of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, the challenges and rewards of her firefighting career, and the importance of giving back to the community she dearly loves.

What inspired you to become a firefighter with the Houston Fire Department?

Firefighting came up on my short list after having taken one of those career evaluation tests. It was perfect for me. I researched all the requirements: education requirements and qualifications, physical training, mental stamina, courage, endurance, a sense of public service and the ability to live and work with others under conditions of stress and danger for extended periods. I had completed the first steps to becoming a firefighter and though it took three years to finally be hired, it has been worth every trial.

Those three years found me exploring becoming a police officer until I found out the awful work schedule. They said, “Go apply at the fire department; they only work two days a week and everyone loves them.” I did and jumped through all of the hoops to become accredited and certified. I finally got into a class and was ready to go and then the call came; they didn’t have enough students and the class got cancelled. After this latest disappointment I went to the Army and asked if I could be a firefighter there. They said yes, I raised my right hand and joined the ranks.

What’s the best thing about being a firefighter? 

Having a second family of over 4,000 brothers and sisters!

The best thing about being a firefighter, for me, is knowing that I'm doing my part to make a difference and knowing my profession is more than just a job. We're here to do some good by helping people in their greatest time of need. It’s wonderful having a worldwide community that gets what you do and understands the need to help those in need no matter their background or creed.

At fires when I take off my gear and bystanders see I am a woman, it is almost the only thing that takes their attention off of the fire for a moment. Even today I hear, “Oh! I didn’t know girls could be firefighters,” and I smile. 

What’s the worst thing?

Having a second family of over 4,000 brothers and sister! 

We are expected to respond with very little information to the very worst moments in people’s lives; it can be stressful. The worst for me is responding to calls where infants, children, or the elderly are injured or killed. Death is always hard, but it’s a part of living. The very worst is when it it’s my fellow brother or sister firefighter. 

Describe your typical day with HFD – do you actually respond to calls? 

Yes, I do respond to emergency calls, and medical calls of all types. In our typical day we also respond to fires, car wrecks, hazardous materials calls, automatic alarms, and a variety of “general helpfulness” calls. And yes, I have responded to a cat in the tree. 

No two days are alike and each day is dynamic. Our shifts are 24 hours long and the day starts early. I arrive at work as most Houstonians are waking up. My mornings start with inspecting my personal protection equipment, then personnel accountability and reporting, followed by apparatus and equipment maintenance and cleaning. We cook breakfast and lay out the day’s goals between cleaning the station and responding to runs. We go to the store and cook lunch and dinner and ponder the ice cream on sale.

We also stay active in community service, such as visiting our local schools, community centers, parades, etc. If we’re fortunate, we may get a few hours of rest. Each day is vastly different and this variety is one of the many reasons my job is so rewarding.

You’re open at HFD about being a lesbian. Obviously, if there are any issues with that, you have been able to deal with them.

Throughout my entire career, both in the military and the fire department, I’ve made it a non-issue and kept my personal life private as I bonded with firefighters, built close relationships and trusted them through the years. If I have shared my personal life with co-workers, I have been delighted that they treated me no differently from any other firefighter. Bolstering that position, a city executive order from the mayor’s office lays out the rules and guidelines for a workplace free from discrimination. That gives some indication we are moving in the right direction.

I have always operated under the code that the workplace is a place for professionals and professional behavior. The fire service, however, does have the occasional person who has not gotten the memo that we treat all people with dignity and respect. It is hard to listen to a culture that casually tosses off the phrase, “That’s so gay!” Those fortunately rare persons seem to take pride in their ignorance. I look across the table at a friend I know hasn’t outed himself or herself to the department, and I hurt for them. 

Also, as minority woman, Hispanic and an emigrant, I’ve always spoken out against discrimination of all types. There were times in my career where I had to wonder if speaking out would improve or worsen a situation. 

For the most part, I was accepted on my abilities and qualifications to get the job done like my male counterparts, so it was fairly easy for me. As I moved up through the ranks I made it very clear, “I couldn’t care less what you do in the privacy of your own home, bedroom, kitchen or bathroom. Don’t bring it or do it in the fire station and we’ll get along just fine.” It’s really simple: there are to be no antics in the fire station from anyone, no matter what your gender or sexual orientation. Don’t do anything on duty that you wouldn’t do in front of your mom, your chief, newspapers or an attorney.

What is your message to young women who seek a career in firefighting? 

Women have been a part of the paid fire service for 40 years; longer, in the volunteer sector. The fact is, women make excellent firefighters and leaders in the fire service. The job doesn’t require “male” or “female” characteristics; it seeks people with a passion to help others, work in a team and a community, and adapt cheerfully to demanding situations. 

Women considering a career in firefighting need to know it’s still a male-dominated field, but by no means does a woman have to act like a man to become a good firefighter. Each person brings individual talents and skills as assets to the team and it is this diversity that strengthens a team. 

Switching to your military career, how did the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell affect you? 

I entered the Army at a later age than most recruits. I had no false pretense or expectations that it was an equal, fair and just system for me as a soldier, a noncommissioned officer or minority soldier. I clearly understood the ramifications of expressing or sharing any personal information that could have me discharged from the military, possibly dishonorably. So for many years I carefully negotiated situations between blurred lines of highly androgynous behavior and my true being. I called it tap dancing around and between people’s perception of reality. The Armed Forces is governed sternly by reams of regulations and orders stacked as high as the Sears Tower. 

As a civilian I experienced the LGBT cultural shift of acceptance in our society and watched it slowly weave its way into the Army’s paradigm of social norms. As a soldier who prides herself in serving our country as a soldier and noncommissioned officer for over 25 years, who's been deployed overseas to Bosnia-Herzegovina and called to active duty three times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, I always felt pride in who I am as a complete person. But I was resigned I would not see the change or experience acceptance during my time of service in the Army.

I managed with the help and support of loved ones, family and friends, by keeping my nose to the grindstone while staying the course, remembering the NCO Creed, and praying. One of the benchmarks of my determination to succeed was becoming indisputably competent at my jobs and taking on all tasks before me. Never could it be said I shirked a duty or a command. I took my own internal discoveries and used them to treat all persons in my command as fairly and equally as possible.

So when [Don't Ask, Don't Tell was repealed] the effect it had on me, professionally and personally, was monumental! 

The ability to move freely throughout a hierarchal, patriarchal organization without outwardly discrimination or retribution was freeing beyond belief, racing through the core of my being like a lightning bolt of grace. The space I once filled as a pseudo-soldier has gradually faded and disappeared. Something as simple as the constant need to change pronouns had vanished. I could invite my partner to official military events such my promotional ceremonies, be a part of the Family Readiness Group and military balls, to name a couple.  

And I could finally share details about my community volunteerism, my passion for volunteering and helping those in need in the LGBT community. Before DADT was repealed, I could only share very few volunteering events that were acceptable in their perception of my reality such as church events, human rights events, and volunteer events related to my civilian work as a firefighter. 

Decades and thousands of hours volunteering went unnoticed on my evaluations by Commanding Officers, not recorded in my official military records nor documented in the Volunteer Management Information System (VMIS). VMIS is a tool provided for soldiers and their spouse to manage volunteerism in your military community. The archaic military rules before DADT simply did not allow for acknowledgement of my efforts in the LGBT community including AIDS Walk Houston, the Houston LGBT Pride Parade, Kindred Spirits Foundation fundraisers, Lesbian Health Initiative, Montrose Softball League, Houston Women Softball League, and attending and organizing several other LGBT fundraisers and events.

For the first time it would be possible to merge two parts of my world while creating and implementing training programs that would help shift this new culture of acceptance. Personally, I felt a huge massive relief and a deep satisfaction of acceptance. 

However, I’m not naïve – an act or executive order does not change a person’s attitudes, personal values and core beliefs. I find soldiers, like most civilians, to be curious creatures. When you work in close confines with colleagues, you often learn a great deal about one another, both professionally and personally. It takes time to remove stereotypes and fallacies while building trust with honesty through human connection. 

Truthfully, today I serve with a new sense of pride, integrity, and dignity and am not constrained to the trite phasing and attitudes I used to put up false boundaries so my co-workers wouldn’t “discover” me or be in conflict. Today I can serve without fear of reprisal as the true person I am by the Army’s seven core values: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage.

What community organizations are you currently involved with?

I’ve narrowed it down a bit and focused on few non-profits like the 1st Annual Houston Human Rights Day Festival (co-sponsored by City of Houston, Rice University, and Youth Human Rights Organization). Additionally I volunteer with Resurrection Metropolitan Community Church, the local fire union and Camp Houston Fire.

I also competed as a boxer in conjunction with the “911 Games: Guns and Hoses,” benefiting Special Texas Olympics. Firefighters and police officers compete in a variety of sporting events such as track and field, archery, rifle and pistol competitions, and bowling. The games end with a boxing tournament. I’m undefeated and my record is 3-0. I stopped fighting because my mom asked me to.

Anything to add?

People have asked me, “When will you retire?” I’m not sure. I still have a kick in my step, I love what I do now, and I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up.  

In a world of endless possibilities I feel very fortunate and grateful and for all who have helped and supported me through all my endeavors. Each day has helped shape me as a person that I am today. While saving lives, protecting property, and serving our community with courage, commitment and compassion and living the seven core Army values it has helped boost my confidence, develop humility, have a new sense of pride, empathy, and built a resiliency to deal and adapt to most issues or situations in life. 

I encourage anyone out there that is looking for their way, exploring a new career, pondering a lifestyle change, or just not sure what they want to be when they grow up to get out and get involved in any small way with your community. 

I’ve always said, “It’s not what’s wrong with me, is what’s right with me!”


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