Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on November 1, 2018.

Struggle for Acceptance

Fellow firefighters knew her as Peter, but privately Katie Cornhill knew she was a woman. Her story, and the lessons she hopes it can teach firefighters in the U.S.


For Katie Cornhill, a fire service officer in the UK, the ideals of inclusion and acceptance are "intrinsic to the job" of being a firefighter.

In the 1970s, at her grandparents’ home in the southeast of England, Katie Cornhill and her siblings would sit at their grandfather’s feet as he regaled them with lively stories of his days as an auxiliary firefighter in London in the 1930s. Cornhill recalls the story sessions fondly, experiences she says planted the seeds that would blossom into her own firefighting career.

Now 46 and with more than two decades in the United Kingdom’s fire service behind her, Cornhill has many of her own feats to extol. In 2016, she was a finalist for the nation’s fire service Woman of the Year award, and today she serves as group manager at the Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and Rescue Service, a role that includes overseeing emergency incidents with nine or more fire engines on scene—roughly equivalent to the rank of division chief in a big-city or county fire department in the United States.

Her position would be a laudable achievement for any ambitious firefighter, but Cornhill’s story is made more remarkable by the fact that she was actually born Peter Cornhill—for the first 40 years of her life, she said, she had to assume a male identity that never felt like her own.

"When I looked in the mirror, it didn’t align with how I felt,” she told NFPA Journal. “Although in my mind I knew who I really was, I also knew I had to portray an identity that wasn’t my true self, and that was at times very painful. You have to build up quite a bit of resiliency.”

After much apprehension and consideration, Cornhill came out to her department in 2012, and for the last six years has lived openly as a woman. She is the UK's most senior openly non-cisgender fire officer, a distinction she believes comes with a responsibility to help smooth the path for others in the fire service who don’t fit the traditional firefighter mold of the white heterosexual male.

In October, Cornhill delivered a presentation at the 2018 NFPA Responder Forum in Birmingham, Alabama, entitled “Fire Harms and Kills, So Does Non-Inclusive Leadership,” about her life experience and the urgent need for the future fire service leaders in attendance to implement transparent and inclusive employment policies. The importance of these efforts extends beyond simply helping firefighters with non-traditional backgrounds or identities feel safe and accepted at work, Cornhill said. By actively promoting equality and inclusion, the fire service fulfills its important and inherent responsibility to lead by example, she says.

Watch an interview conducted at the Responder Forum with Katie Cornhill

"People look up to us, and it is our job to embrace that privileged position and drive forward acceptance of all differences,” she said. “Every firefighter and every fire officer should be a role model of acceptance and inclusion. It should be seen as no different than our responsibility to role model heath, well-being, road, and fire safety.”

A few weeks before her talk at the Responder Forum, Cornhill spoke to NFPA Journal about her journey, and how she views the role of the fire service in driving social ideals.

How did you end up speaking at the NFPA Responder Forum?

I have been helping support a firefighter in the U.S. who contacted me via social media because she was struggling with her own fire department to be who she is, and she wanted some support and mentoring. She told me that she just wants to be herself, but she doesn’t know what to do because her fire department is not supportive of inclusion or, in her case, her transgender identity. I asked her to go back to the department and find out what policies are in place. She came back and said they don’t really have policies, and that she wasn't happy about how she was being managed by her department. I reached out to a colleague in the U.K. with ties to NFPA to learn more about U.S. standards and workplace policies for fire departments. Through those discussions, I was asked to come and speak.

Your talk centers on inclusive policy in fire departments and ensuring they lead societal efforts at inclusion. Why are these so important?

Public agencies have real-world experience with people of all identities actually working within our organizations, and we should be upwardly leading society's efforts to be more inclusive. But I fear our current standards are not inclusive enough, and I see people being left behind. Public agencies need to look at their own organizations, compare them against the governmental legislative framework that exists, and make sure that we write our standards in our local departments that meet the minimum governmental legislative standard for inclusion and nondiscrimination. Those standards should also go above and beyond governmental standards to reflect, protect, and embrace all the diversity we have in society.

What do you hope your audiences take away?

I want to promote conversation and make attendees think individually and organizationally. As leaders representing their organizations, are they adequately knowledgeable of the wider identities people have in modern society? Generally, what level of awareness do their organizations have about non-heterosexual, non-cisgender identities? What are the signs of accumulative stress people can experience as responders if they are not allowed to be themselves? As organizations, are we truly inclusive in our recruitment strategies? Do we truly understand who we want as firefighters?

The last thing any of us want is for anybody to be turned off by fire departments because they don’t consider it a valid job. And if they do decide to go for that job, we don’t want them to join an environment that makes them feel excluded. That would be a very bad and perverse outcome for all of us.

You’re referred to as a transgendered firefighter. Do you consider yourself ‘transgendered’?

I recognize completely that there are some people who do identify as transgender, but I do not. I identify as non-cisgender. The term transgender in the medical world is synonymous with the term ‘transition.’ Linguistics is quite important to me, as it should be to any leader, and when you say ‘you transitioned’ you are saying ‘you changed,’ but I didn’t change. I simply became who I really was from the moment I was conceived. It is important to recognize that in order to validate my very being.

When did you realize that you might feel differently than other children?

At four years old, I started to think something was quite different about me, but I didn’t know what it was. When I looked in the mirror it didn’t align with how I felt; it felt like I didn’t fit in anywhere. I felt a lot more comfortable associating with my older sister than I did associating with other boys at that age, and I began to explore the toys and the environment my sister lived in. My mother was a mental-health nurse, and both my parents were very supportive. I was allowed to go to bed in a nightie and was allowed to play with my sister’s doll houses and things like that. I remember my parents got me a wig and some makeup, and I would sit behind my sister as she put on makeup and I'd play with my makeup. My sister is six years older than me, and when she was a teenager I used to see her life as a young lady and was always very jealous. I would always want to do things with her.

When did you start feeling pressure to conform to the expectations of your birth gender?

Although my parents had been supportive of how I expressed my gender identity when I was very young, when I started junior school, at age nine, they directed me that my identity was male and I had to grow up as a boy and that’s what I accepted for most of my life.

Before my father passed away I spoke to him about that. He told me that the reason they made that decision was not so much that they didn’t understand there was something different about me, but that it was about protecting me. It was to protect me from society, but also to protect the family. They were very afraid about how people would react and how I might get bullied. Looking back now, I understand why they did that. The whole issue of being non-cisgender was not really well known back then. Certainly, in a mental health context this sort of thing wasn’t discussed much either. I would have been seen as literally having a mental health issue.

What was your school experience?

In my early junior school years, I suffered quite a bit. I used to cry in my bed. I suffered from bed wetting at a young age, which I realize now was because of the stress I was going through. In senior school, I was bullied for being a little more effeminate than the other boys. I naturally lent myself to being in groups of girls, joining in with the girls’ games and chats. I’d come out of a classroom on break and go and play with the girls, but very quickly be told, ‘What are you doing playing with us? You’re a boy, go out and play with the boys!’ Then I’d go play with the boys and I was often told, ‘Go away, you’re a girl, you’re not a boy, you queer thing,’ and all that. With few exceptions, I found quite literally that I didn’t fit in. But I eventually became quite effective at dealing with that and built a strong level of resilience as a child.

After school, at age 17, you joined the Royal Marines for six years and then joined the Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service—both traditionally very male-dominated occupations. For someone who had been bullied and had struggled with identity, those seem like bold choices. Why did you go that route?

I didn’t look at the military or firefighting as going into male jobs, I saw them as going into public service jobs that look after people, jobs that at times require you to do some very difficult things. I didn’t feel like I was running away from anything, just gravitating to a career I wanted that I felt matched the values I hold for humanity. I never considered whether it was a male-dominated career or female-dominated career.

Were you afraid that joining the military and later the fire service would mean continued bullying or judgment by your peers?

I had some fears in the back of my mind about what it was going to be like. I knew I had to keep my true self hidden. But before I joined the military I met my future wife, who was the most amazing person I could have met at the time. When I sat down and told her for the first time how I felt about myself, she just said ‘oh, is that all?’ She was very supportive and helped me become the person I am today. Within a couple years, she was allowing me to express who I really was in our own home. Then I had to go to work in the wrong identity, which was a real struggle at times. One minute you can be exactly who you are, and the next minute you had to be someone you really weren’t. But my wife helped me get through.

When you began your fire service career in 1996, what was your role?

I first became an on-call firefighter (the equivalent of a volunteer firefighter in the U.S.) at Hampshire Fire and Rescue, and about a year later I was lucky enough to be hired full time. I was literally just a regular firefighter, sitting on the back of a red fire engine, doing whatever we were called on to do. I’ve now spent just over 20 years as a full-time firefighter. I’ve been a firefighter, a crew manager, a watch manager, a station manager, and I am now a group manager, which is the first level of strategic management.

Throughout all of this you were still living outwardly as a man. Can you describe the process you went through when you were deciding to come out as non-cisgender?

I spent about four years putting an immense amount of energy into exploring the fire and rescue service across the country to see if there was anybody else like me. I found a fire brigade union who represents members across the U.K. who identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual, and I joined that group. There was no one else there who fit with my identity, but I was able to do a lot of exploration and ask lots of questions of the group, which was really the only source of support I could find at the time. I was fortunate to learn of someone in a similar situation a little while later, whom I eventually met. In the last year of those four years I started to speak to my organization, and that’s when I came out. That was in 2012.

How did the first conversations go?

I approached my line manager at the time and said, ‘I need to have a meeting with you one to one.’ We sat down and I told him how I was feeling. He just nodded his head at me, his mouth open and jaw on the floor. After I was done, he sat silent processing it for a couple minutes. Then he just looked at me and said, ‘OK. Right. Katie. I do not confess to understand at all what you’re going through, but what I do need to know is what I can do for you as an individual in managing you and what our organization can do for you.’ I can remember I was palpitating at the time waiting for a reaction and his reaction was almost elating. I did feel a little shocked at the same time, because I did not expect such a positive reaction. And I have to say, for me, that trend with him carried on from there.

How did you and your organization manage the transition?

I saw this as an opportunity for the organization to be educated about a particular journey that people go through in their lives, so I approached it from that point of view. I was very encouraging and coaching of the organization—we were all going through the process together.

Shortly after my initial discussion, I asked the line manager if I could have a meeting with my team to explain this to them at the end of a team meeting. He arranged for me to have an hour and a half with the team to talk about this and answer questions. I worked with human resources on what we called a shared memorandum of understanding, which was basically a description of how I would manage my transition—their term, not mine—in Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service. A couple of months later, I began to come to work identifying as my true self.

I also decided to have what I called an affirmation party. I invited all the people in my office and other people in the service that I wanted to be involved to a pub in my hometown and we had a bit of a celebration of the social journey I was continuing to live as my true self. I had a really good turnout, probably 30 to 40 people. The whole process was daunting, but it was a very affirmative experience.

Were you met generally with acceptance by your colleagues?

At the time, I was a watch manager, which was basically a regulatory role conducting fire safety inspections in buildings. In the fire safety team I worked with, there were a number of shocked people, but there were a number of people who were genuinely very supportive and interested in the journey I had gone through in my life. Some people just have that value set, an innate ability to be inclusive. Some do not, and are unwilling to develop themselves positively.

Many people like you don’t take the step to come out, for a lot of reasons. Do you think fire service leaders would be surprised to learn how many people who have non-traditional backgrounds are in their ranks?

I think every fire and rescue service is populated with individuals who are not out to their colleagues. That is in terms of both sexual identity and gender identity. I think that what every fire and rescue service needs to do—we are not there, and nowhere near it—is to create an environment where we embrace diversity so people can truly feel like they can be themselves. To do that we need to acknowledge and validate all non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities, including but not limited to just those that identify as LGBT&Q.

Do you feel like, as one of the only out non-cisgender firefighters in the U.K., you have an obligation to share your story and to push this issue forward?

I 100 percent see it as my responsibility, not just as a non-cisgender individual but as a firefighter. I passionately believe that as a firefighter I have a unique responsibility to role model the values of our fire and rescue service—the values I believe are that of a decent human being—and to make people feel safe in their communities, no matter their identity. I think the only way we can truly do that is to be as visible and verbal as we can, no matter what differences we are talking about.

Are you saying that the fire service has an inherent responsibility to be a role model for openness and inclusion for society at large?

I absolutely am. That is exactly what public service is. When you join the fire department anywhere in the world, whether you realize it or not, you take on a community role model status. We are representative of a well-established, well-known, and well-respected profession and we should realize those ideals of inclusion and acceptance are intrinsic to the job.

Do you think that’s how most firefighters see it?

I think everyone should know and understand that when they join, but I don’t think we as fire departments emphasize that enough to our members. As firefighters, we don’t discriminate—no matter what we do in our job, wherever we go, no matter what type of rescue we go to, we don’t discriminate against the human being in need. And we shouldn’t do that in our safety messages or in our firehouses, either. It’s all the same thing.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: Courtesy of Katie Cornhill