LALO GAMBOA has lived a truly unique and inspiring life. The 30-year-old was once a gang member from South Central Los Angeles, but he turned his life around is now helping people as a firefighter in San Diego, California. We spoke with the bisexual Latino about his experiences in both the gang world and as a firefighter.
Lalo says he was not the kind of kid you would think would grow up to become a firefighter. In fact, Lalo describes himself as being an awkward, nerdy, teenager who didnt really fit in.
He recalls, In my late junior high school years my self esteem wasnt all that. I considered myself a nerd. My hair was combed to the side and I was all skinny.
Lalo became self-conscious about his looks. He says, At the time, I wanted to find a pretty girlfriend, but that was one thing I had trouble with. I think thats because I was nerdy and wasnt very popular. That had an affect on me and the way I am because I never had a girl approach me and tell me they liked me. Some of my friends who werent all that good looking got all these beautiful girls, and I didnt know how they did it.
In addition to his nerdy side, Lalo was also starting to discover that his sexual orientation was different.
He explains, I used to see a good looking guy and say to myself, I want to look like him. In junior high school, in our PE class, they used make it mandatory that you had to take a showerthe coaches wouldnt let you out if you didnt have a wet towel in your hand. There was this big room with all these guys in there. Thats when I first started to glance (laughs). I didnt make it obvious, though.
To try to fit in better, Lalo ended up joining a gang. He says, Thats when I realized I really liked guys. I never did anything with them. I wished I could, but I couldnt.
While in the gang, Lalo had his share of negative experiences. He says, like with all gangs, there were drive-bys, beating people up, stealing cars, and stuff like that. I got jumped a few times. One of those times was by about 20 guys. I thought I was going to die, but fortunately, I didnt.
When Lalo was 20 years old, a great opportunity came to him that would dramatically change the direction of his life forever.
He joined a camp program called the California Conservation Corps. Lalo explains that this was a program for youth ages 18-23 in which the volunteers would go out and help put out brush fires. Lalo served on a hand crew for about a year and found that he really enjoyed the work and the excitement of helping put out fires.
Lalos interest in firefighting actually came as a real surprise to himself. It was never something he had ever thought of doingit just sort of happened.
He explains, I never planned on it. I went to the camp because it was a job and a good program. But I got exposed to different things, and I thought I wanted to be like that. After being there, I realized that I wanted to be a fire fighter.
Lalo says he was a good worker, and so his boss, who worked for the fire department, encouraged him to apply for a real firefighter job. He did and he was hired.
Because of his real-life experience as a hand crew firefighter, Lalo already had a lot of background training in the art of firefighting. However, he explains, Once you get on the job, your training is ongoing. Youre always learning more and more.
With his life now focused on firefighting, Lalo was able to retire from his gang. He explains, When I was in a gang, I didnt have my job at the fire department, yet. I went to San Diego for the youth program, and little by little, I started to leave the gang behind because Id only come home a few times a month since I didnt have a car at the time. I just sort of strayed away from it.
In his new job, Lalo found himself working in an all-purpose fire department, meaning his station responds to everything from brush fires to home and business fires.
Lalo says he really enjoys the work. He finds satisfaction in the thought that he could be an inspiration to others. He says, Ive been in the paper and in the news a couple of times, and that makes me feel importantmostly because of where I grew up in South Central, Los Angeles. I dont know anybody from there who is a lawyer or a doctor or a cop or anything like that. It makes me feel like Im somebody. I want the kids who are growing up now to kind of be like that. All of my friends at work come from long lines of families who have had firefighters. Their grandfather or brother was a firefighter. Im hoping that my job will affect my family and friends.
So whats a typical work day like for Lalo? He says its not quite as sensational as television and movies portray it with constant action and rescues. He explains, We train for rescue all the time, but it doesnt happen as often as you see in the news. When theres a fire, theres usually nobody inside. You might get a couple of calls in your lifetime where you do have to rescue someone in a house thats on fire.
In terms of how his sexual orientation has been a factor in his work, Lalo says he doesnt know if it has been a factor at all. However, he hasnt come out to his coworkers. He says, They dont know about me. I dont think they will unless they read this magazine.
He continues, There is a lot of playing around and joking where people will say, Oh, you homo, when you do something that might kind of seem QV. Some people are more homophobic than others.
Lalo says many of the comments probably wouldnt be said around him if they knew he was QV. He says, I heard one guy say, I would retire if I ever had to work with a faggot. It doesnt really bother me, but it lets me know where they stand. There are other people who dont care. You can joke around with them, and its cool. I often find all sorts of ways to throw in a question about how they would feel about working with a QV person.
He adds, A couple of the people I work with seem open because Ive asked them if they have QV friends, and theyve told me they do. Theyve said, I dont care if youre QV. I wouldnt think of you differently.
Lalo says the department itself encourages openness. He explains, You have to go through a class where they teach you that you shouldnt discriminate against people whether theyre QV or whatever. Theyre really good about that.
Because Lalo has chosen not to come out at work, he says that talking about private relationships with his coworkers often presents a challenge. He says, Im in a relationship right now, and I always have to pretend Im with a girl. Ill tell them stories about what I did over the weekend, Ill just change it to make it sound like Im with a girl.
He also hasnt been able to show his coworkers any pictures of his boyfriend. He says, Earlier this year I lost my wallet, so I used that as an excuse to some people. But I think theyre going to keep bugging me. Sometimes, the guys will bring their girlfriends to the station to visit and I havent done that.
Being a firefighter also throws a challenge into maintaining a healthy relationship due to the amount of time spent away from home. He says, Im in a relationship right now, and because I spend four days at work, its hard because of the separation.
He explains, I work several days at a time. Ill be at the station on, say, Monday morning. Ill stay there for four days, and then someone will come in on Friday morning to relieve me. Thats the way it works. Sometimes you work a little more because of overtime.
Another challenge about being a bisexual in the fire department is that there arent many openly QV people in the department. Nevertheless, Lalo is confident they are out there. He explains, There is an organization called the Golden State Peace Officers Association. Its mostly supposed to be for cops throughout the state of California. But they are starting to welcome firefighters now, too. I called them up and thought about joining that. I talked to the guy on the phone and he told me theyre getting more and more firefighters throughout the state who are joining. So I know they are out there.
Lalo also says hes had suspicions about a few coworkers. He notes, You work with the people at the station a lot. We spend a lot of time with each othersometimes more than with our own familiesand you get to know them very closely. Theres a lot of horseplay and butt-slapping. Sometimes it makes me wonder if theyre QV or not. I just keep that to myself, though. But the horseplay I sometimes see as their way of expressing their homosexuality or curiosity. I would never make a move, though.
Lalo says that he has come out to one of his coworkers, though it was inadvertently. He explains, I sometimes let coworkers use my laptop computer. One person in particular was always using it to check out porn, so I told him not to do it. But then I started to suspect that he might have run across one of my files that would have given away my sexuality. So I asked him one day, The other night, did you come across any of my top secret files? He was like, What kind of top secret files? I said, You know what kind. I want you to tell me. Then he said with kind of a giggle, You mean like your homie with the tattoo on his leg? That gave it all away! (laughs).
He continues ,I told him, Okay. Im bisexual. He told me it was cool, so I asked him, My secrets safe with you, right? And he said, Yes, it is. He was cool about it. Im more open to him now. He was the first straight person I ever told.
With all his experiences in the firefighting force, would Lalo recommend it to other QVs? Lalo gives a definite yes! He says, I encourage it. That way there will be less homophobia. If they want to come out, thats on them.
You can e-mail Lalo at firstname.lastname@example.org.