Woman on Fire


God bless all first responders.

(2016) Documentary (Animal) Brooke Guinan, George Guinan V, Susan Guinan, Jim Baker, Bill Deblasio, George Guinan IV, Sarinya Srisakul, Charlotte Guinan, Joe Baker, Maureen Baker, Charles Radcliffe, Darren Melcchiore. Directed by Julie Sokolow

It is a different world we live in today than those my age lived in when I was growing up. Things are less settled, less certain. You can’t even count on biology to necessarily get things right.

Brooke Guinan is a firefighter for the Fire Department of New York City. She is a rarity in that she is a woman in that very male profession; in New York City there are just 44 women out of roughly 10,000 total firefighters, that’s just 0.4% for those keeping track. But she is also unique; she is openly transgender transitioning from male to female. She is the first and only (to date) transgender working as a firefighter in New York.

She was born George Guinan VI to conservative parents and at a young age presented to Susan Guinan (his mother) a letter explaining calmly that he was pretty sure he was gay. He was 11 years old at the time. Susan and George V (his dad) were devastated but over time, they accepted their son for who he was. When 9/11 occurred, Georgie was inspired to follow in his father’s footsteps. He got a lot of ribbing from the fairly traditional culture of the men of the FDNY but Georgie was pretty sure that he could take it. There was just one problem.

Georgie had it wrong. He wasn’t gay. He was a woman living in a man’s body. Making the decision to transition wasn’t an easy one and when he informed his parents that he would be known as Brooke from now on, her parents once again were devastated. As Susan put it, “First I had to bury Georgie before I could accept Brooke.” Her dad wasn’t sure what to think.

And it wasn’t any easier at work. The ribbing got to be something else from the men. Even the women of the department weren’t accepting Brooke; it took six months for them to agree to allow Brooke to join their support group, mainly at the urging of the group’s president Sarinya Srisakul who had emigrated from Southeast Asia as a young woman and accepted Brooke not just as a woman but also as a friend.

As Brooke became more visible in the department, she was dubbed “New York’s Bravest” and she did a lot of publicity for the department, becoming the face of acceptance for the department and indeed the city. She became grand marshal at gay pride parades and appeared on talk shows and lectures.

Her boyfriend Jim, an Air Force veteran, accepts Brooke but he’s not sure how to break the news to his parents that he’s dating a transgender woman. Jim also seems to be hesitating to marry Brooke; he’s a bit commitment-phobic. When the two decide to buy a house together and invite Jim’s parents, it’s time for things to come out into the open.

Sokolow, who also directed the 2015 Florida Film Festival favorite Aspie Seeks Love, is a director who likes to focus on people who are part of groups that are marginalized by society. To me, that’s an admirable way to choose documentary subjects and Sokolow, a former indie rocker, shows a little more confidence on this her second feature. While she isn’t as innovative with telling her story as she was in Aspie Seeks Love (which was organized by holidays), there is definite improvement when it comes to telling the story.

It helps that Sokolow has a subject who is charismatic, eloquent and important. At a time when the Christian right seems intent on showing just how intolerant they can be to the transgender community, trying to limit which bathrooms they can use because they’re concerned that transgender men will rape straight women (cases of that actually happening: zero) whereas transgender men have been beaten up in men’s bathrooms which often lead them to hold it until they get home. Yes, Virginia, the transgender community should be allowed to use public bathrooms too – and the ones that belong to the sex they identify with. Brooke puts a human face on transgender women, much as the justifiably lauded Amazon series Transparent does. The only difference is that this isn’t fictional.

The quibble I have here is that we rarely see Brooke doing her job; mostly she is seen hanging out at the fire station and doing promotional appearances. We concentrate more on her personal life and her relationship with her family and I agree that this is an important aspect of her life. However, if you’re going to use her standing with the FDNY you should at least give a sense of her as a firefighter. This is clearly a large part of her identity and I don’t think Sokolow was successful in portraying this aspect of her. It does Brooke a disservice because viewers may get the impression that she’s more of a publicity stunt than a real firefighter. That is certainly not the case.

Still, this is a fascinating story and we get to see Brooke’s relationship with her dad, which is simply inspiring. It is good to see how far the two have traveled. I don’t doubt that her dad is Brooke’s hero and he’ll be your hero too. When Jim’s parents do arrive at their son’s new house, they treat Brooke with such affection that it makes one think that perhaps most people are more accepting of transgenders than we think.

This isn’t a big leap forward for Sokolow as a filmmaker but it is definitely a forward motion for her. There is some improvement and that’s always encouraging; the subject matter is certainly worthy of a documentary. I’m not sure if Brooke Guinan is New York’s Bravest but a case can definitely be made for that. You won’t forget her once you’ve seen this film and if that doesn’t spell success for a documentary, I don’t know what does.

REASONS TO GO: The movie gives a human face to the transgender community.
REASONS TO STAY: We never really see Brooke at work as a firefighter.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Guinan is a third-generation firefighter; her father was at the World Trade Center on 9/11 and her grandfather retired a captain.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before You Know It
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Somewhere Beautiful

Before You Know It


Ty at the crossroads of his life.

Ty at the crossroads of his life.

(2013) Documentary (Unraveled) Robert “The Mouth,” Ty, Dennis. Directed by PJ Raval

Florida Film Festival 2014

Prior to the Stonewall Riots of 1969 in New York, there was no Gay Liberation. Gay men were marginalized as freaks and sissies and were subject to harassment, bullying and arrest without cause. The courts treated gay men – and women – with contempt.

Fast-forward forty-plus years. The men of that era are senior citizens now. The world is changing around them, much of it due to the hard work and organizing of their generation. Some of them had a hand in those changes themselves.

Ty, for example, remains an activist with SAGE, a group that creates a space where the elderly gay can gather, socialize and let off steam in a safe environment. He is based in Harlem, which as he notes has no gay bars. New York is on the cusp of legalizing gay marriage and they are heady times in the Empire State. At a local street fair celebrating the African-American experience, SAGE sets up a booth. Ty is a bit worried how the straight black citizens will react but as it turns out they are much more accepting than he expects.

Ty, like his peers, is overjoyed when the state ratifies same sex marriages but that leads to a different sort of situation. His partner, Stanton, is not so sure he wants to get married. Both Ty and Stanton are getting on in age and Stanton thinks that a wedding at their age would be superfluous, a point of view that Ty doesn’t agree with at all. However, Stanton seems to be open to keeping the lines of communication on the subject open.

Dennis splits his time between Niceville, Florida and Portland, Oregon in a retirement home geared towards gay and lesbian residents. His family in Florida isn’t aware of his sexual orientation; he was married for many years to a woman who was aware that Dennis liked (and continues to like) to dress up in women’s clothing. When he’s in full drag he calls himself Dee and reminded me a little too uncomfortably much of my mother-in-law, facially.

It wasn’t until after his wife passed away that Dennis finally felt free to explore his sexuality as a gay man and it seems like he is being pulled slowly out of his shell by the open and accepting population of Rainbow Ridge, the retirement home in Portland. He signs up for a gay cruise and even marches in a gay pride parade in Portland. Feeling neglected and forgotten by his family in Florida, he seems ready to sever ties and take up full-time residence with his new family in Portland.

Robert “the Mouth” has known he was gay from an early age. He is the owner of Robert’s Lafitte bar in Galveston which has become something of a home for the drag queens and gay men of the area. His nephew helps Robert run the bar although Robert still continues to perform occasionally in the drag show that the bar continues to present regularly.

Robert’s health is failing, due in large part to a lawsuit being brought against the bar because a patron of the bar drove home drunk and got into an accident, killing the members of the family bringing the suit against the bar. While there is some evidence that the patron in question may have stopped at another bar to drink further, Robert’s nephew is fully aware that if they lose the suit, the bar will have to close, leaving a lot of locals without a home.

The stories are blended together nicely without giving any one of the three short shrift. All three of the stories are compelling but none more than that of Robert. He is as lively and outrageous a queen as you’re likely to meet but despite the acerbic comments and insults he dishes out with great glee, there’s a big heart there. He has a big personality and a big wit. He’s the kind of guy you want at every party.

Ty is more the grandfatherly sort, a man who wears his wisdom on his sleeve. He’s not really the flamboyant sort but he is passionate about his cause and works very hard to make the world a better place – at least his corner of it – for the gay men and women of his community. I admire him tremendously after seeing his story here.

I was struck by Dennis’ loneliness. He seems to be a man who has been in a cocoon for most of his life and is just beginning to peer out and realize that he’s a butterfly, but there’s a shyness to him that’s endearing and a little sad. There are times he seems to be waiting for something to happen for him; I hope that he gets the self-confidence to make something happen.

I wish that Raval had been a bit more judicious in the editing bay. He spends too long on the three Gay Pride parades that he covers (well, one’s a Mardi Gras parade but still) and he tends to linger on certain scenes a little more than he needs to.

Still, the stories are compelling enough to be worth a look. Each one brought out a different emotion in me; joy in the case of Robert “The Mouth” (a cultural icon waiting to happen if ever I saw one), sympathy in the case of Dennis/Dee and respect and admiration in the case of Ty. These are three men who I wouldn’t mind spending time with, gay or straight. At a certain point, sexual orientation doesn’t matter because in the end that’s just a label – it’s the person behind the label that does.

While the movie is still playing the Festival circuit, for those who are unable to attend a screening it is available on DVD from the film’s website which you can get to by clicking on the picture at the top of the review.

REASONS TO GO: Fascinating stories. Robert “The Mouth” bound to become a cultural icon if this gets any sort of distribution.

REASONS TO STAY: Runs a little bit too long.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some nudity and some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at the 2013 South by Southwest Film Festival.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: And the Band Played On

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Ernest and Celestine