Pioneering trans firefighter and tireless equality advocate leads LGBT+ heroes in New Year Honours list

Vic Parsons
·3-min read

A pioneering transgender firefighter in Northern Ireland has been honoured with an MBE for her services to the LGBT+ community in the 2021 New Year Honours list.

Karen McDowell, a fire station commander, transitioned while working as a firefighter 10 years ago and has since spearheaded efforts to promote acceptance of trans people within the NI Fire and Rescue Service.

Northern Ireland Fire & Rescue Service Chief Fire & Rescue Officer Michael Graham congratulated McDowell in a statement.

“Karen is a strong, empathetic and admired role model in NIFRS and I would like to congratulate her on this distinguished and well deserved honour,” he said.

“Karen has brought great insight to the fire service family both locally and nationally in enhancing diversity and equality. She has been instrumental in helping us to build an inclusive and diverse organisation.

“Karen’s tenacious desire for equality and inclusion is an example to us all and we are proud of the positive difference she continues to make to her colleagues, our organisation and people she helps to keep safe in our community.”

McDowell said she was “shocked and humbled” to be awarded an MBE.

She told the Belfast Telegraph: “Attitudes now are very different from what they were 10 years ago. There would have been a lot more open prejudice and it (gender transition) wasn’t in the mainstream media the way it is now.

“People would have been afraid to express how that felt and that would have (been) prevalent.”

She added that “people now realise that those who transition are the same people they once were”.

Others awarded in the 2021 New Year Honours list include Jonathan McMillen, a civil servant who since 2015 has helped 1,815 Syrian refugees resettle in Northern Ireland; and community worker Michael Briggs, executive director of the East Belfast Community Development Agency, for his work over the last four decades.

And Joanne Monck, another trans woman, also received an honour for her services to the trans community.

“So proud to be a recipient of an OBE for Services to Transgender Equality,” Monck, who is an independent adviser to the Sussex Police on hate crime, wrote on Twitter.

Four per cent of the 1,239 people honoured are LGBT+, according to the Cabinet Office.

McDowell works at the Dromore Fire Station in County Down. Her inclusion on the New Year Honours list come after 27 years of working in the fire service.

After transitioning, she used her experience to carry out further research into how workplaces can support LGBT+ employees.

“I was able to put mechanisms in place and I set up an LGBTQ section in the union in Northern Ireland,” she told News Letter.

“That offered support and help in the LGBTQ community, both operationally and also for those that needed it in the service.

“There is no doubt that attitudes have changed. The problem was that people didn’t know about it and were going on what they believed, making pre-judgements and had developed stereotypes from TV and journalists.”

McDowell said that some around her took some time to adapt to the changes.

“Some people will never come around but I would never encounter any problems. There’s not the same fear,” she added.

“(A) workplace should be a place of safety and we have equality laws to protect us so we shouldn’t face prejudice.

“I had the support in work and that influenced how things turned out.”