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Fire Starter 

A defiant firefighter's antigay agitation has Madison up in arms.

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By Grant Pick

The appeal of his profession has always been irresistible to Ronnie Greer, a firefighter in Madison, Wisconsin. "If you're a dentist or lawyer, people hate you," he says. "But if you're a firefighter, you're a hero. You protect property and rescue folks in their greatest time of need. A camaraderie also develops among firemen, so even though there are disagreements, when push comes to shove you put your hand in theirs and theirs go in yours."

Yet recent events in Wisconsin's progressive capital suggest Greer would have been better off in dentistry. The fire department wants to fire him, in part because he's called the fire chief a lesbian and slammed her for it. Greer, a 42-year-old fundamentalist Christian, argues that he should be able to exercise free speech in the firehouse. "They are out to hang Ron because he presents views on moral subjects that Madison just doesn't like," says his attorney, Michael Dean.

Greer has alienated Madison's gays, against whom he's been singularly outspoken. "If I was in a car accident or my house was on fire, would Ronnie Greer treat me like any other citizen?" wonders Michael Verveer, a gay alderman who lives near Greer's firehouse. "I'm not confident he would, and that's a widespread feeling in the gay community."

Ronnie Greer came to God while a marine in 1976. He'd been court-martialed for assaulting a credit union officer and was serving an 18-month sentence in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He was 20, an angry and committed Black Muslim from Milwaukee, when a Christian crusade showed up at the stockade. "A young white man preached at me," Greer recalls. "He was nervous and sweating, and I talked to him so I wouldn't have to go back to my cell. A week or so later I was lazing away on my bunk when suddenly I framed a major prayer to God. If you're real, I prayed, change my head. I fell asleep on my bunk and woke up with a deep sense of commitment to the Lord."

Greer's ardor didn't fade when he left the marines (with a bad-conduct discharge) and became a fire cadet in Madison. In 1984 he took three mail-order courses from Columbia Bible College in South Carolina, though according to the school he never earned a diploma. He later signed on as associate pastor of Madison's Mount Zion Baptist Church. All the while he kept his slot on a hook and ladder. He had some run-ins with superiors but his job performance was considered worthy. "He always had a smile on his face, and he did a good job," says Joe Conway Jr., who was Greer's last lieutenant and is now president of the Madison firefighters union.

Greer believes a good Christian must be God's vessel. "I am to give a picture of God," he says, "as if God were working in and through me to make my character like His." He'd lived a wild life before turning fervently Christian--dealing drugs, procuring women for other men--but now he condemns such behavior. He calls homosexuality sinful, citing Leviticus as his authority, and calls not just the act but even the inclination reprehensible. "Gays should repent their gayness and commit to living according to the moral laws of God," says Greer, "the same way that an adulterer or a pedophile or a gossip should."

In the summer of 1995, says Greer, word spread through his firehouse that Madison's Board of Police and Fire Commissioners was considering hiring Debra Amesqua, the fire-training chief in Tallahassee, Florida, to head the city's 280-person department. Amesqua, who's of Hispanic and Native American descent, would become Wisconsin's first female fire chief. "Everybody was upset," says Greer. "She was an up-and-coming affirmative action star, and there was concern that she wasn't qualified. And the rumor was that she was homosexual." Amesqua does not discuss her sexuality, and when Greer confronted her at a station meeting in December 1995, Amesqua said her private life was her business. Yet Greer is sure Amesqua is a lesbian. "She looks like a man, she wears men's clothing, and she has a live-in woman who says she's her partner," he claims. "If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's a duck." And he explains, "My problem is when you make public policy and you have this lifestyle, it's a character flaw that will seep through what you do."

Greer had a lot to say about Amesqua inside the firehouse, where he distributed a pamphlet called Homosexuality: The Truth, written by the Reverend Ralph Ovadal, director of Wisconsin Christians United. The pamphlet asserts that "the bulk of all entritic [intestinal] disease in America is carried by homosexuals," that gays "account for at least one third of all child sexual molestation," and that "the top six mass murderers in America's history were all homosexual." Assistant Chief Fred Kinney, the department personnel director, ordered Greer to stop handing out the pamphlet, but he did so at least once more, in a firehouse parking lot.

Amesqua, who took office in February 1996, and other city officials maintained that distributing the pamphlet on fire department property violated workplace rules forbidding harassment based on sexual orientation. That March, when Greer called in sick yet attended an antigay speech the same night, his superiors asked him for a doctor's note. Greer told a reporter Kinney was "a phony" with a "vendetta" against him.

Amesqua cited Greer for insubordination, added these charges to others relating to the pamphlet, and asked the firefighter to submit to discipline--a three-month suspension coupled with diversity training. When Greer refused, Amesqua forwarded the matter to the police and fire board. She also informed Greer by letter that this was his last chance to mend his ways.

"This is all about free speech," Greer insists. "The First Amendment allows me to say things publicly that others disagree with. Free speech stops when I hurt someone or something." But the city contends there are limits on free speech that fouls the atmosphere of a public workplace. "There are certain constraints which bind all workers," says Paul Soglin, who was Madison's mayor when the Greer controversy began. "You can't assault or sexually abuse a coworker, and you can't advocate discriminatory practices." Rick Petri, the assistant city attorney responsible for police and fire discipline cases, says, "Greer's creating a hostile environment for homosexual employees, and in fact for any employee who believes in the rule of law. We're also not going to permit you to engage in insubordination or even a colloquy with your commanding officers when you're dealing with life and death."

The firefighters' union has supported Greer, helping to pay his legal bills. Union president Conway says the case against Greer, especially as it concerns handing out the pamphlet, goes against the nature of the firehouse. "They can say you should keep your opinions to yourself at work, but when there's downtime at a fire station everyone sits around the table and talks," he says. "You can't change that. Ron was out front with his beliefs on homosexuality, but he didn't preach about them--he'd engage in conversation mostly when he was asked. It's as if someone had a good round of golf one day, and the next day you asked him his score and he told you. When Ronnie went on call, he shut off his opinions."

Greer argues that plenty of material floating around the firehouse offended him, but no one ever said a peep about it. "At a station you can find Penthouse and Cheri, militia magazines and homosexual newspapers," he says. "All that's OK--and all of a sudden there's material that I can't pass out? Either you can have objectionable material or you can't." Conway agrees that Greer was the victim of a double standard, perhaps because he was a thorn in his superiors' side.

Madison, a city of 200,000, has had a gay rights ordinance on the books since the mid-1970s. A fair number of Madison's elected officials, including Mike Verveer, are open about their homosexuality. And at one time Madison had the Washington, an old railroad hotel that was converted by two developer brothers into a gay gathering place. It housed a 24-hour cafe, a leather bar, a live-music club, and a combination hair salon and ersatz speakeasy entered through a secret door. "This was Madison's unofficial gay-and-lesbian community center," says Verveer. "It was where folks like myself--who are out of the closet, or maybe not--could go and be with people like themselves."

On February 7, 1996, the Washington burned down. That afternoon a Methodist minister held an impromptu memorial service, and as it was breaking up Greer came by with his three young sons. "It's a tragic loss of a historical building," Greer commented to the press, "but I'm glad to see certain establishments in the place are gone. If it means the end to certain types of business, I don't have a problem with that."

Verveer, who'd been at the fire scene since 6 AM, heard what Greer said. "It was amazing that he had the nerve to say that, and with a big-ass grin on his face," says Verveer. "People were totally appalled."

In March Greer went by the house he was building in Fitchburg, a southwest suburb, and found it decorated. A rainbow flag had been strung across the two-car garage, pink-and-black triangles on sticks had been stuck in the ground, and stickers had been slapped on windows announcing "Born Again Bigot" and "Wisconsin Lesbians Against Greer."

"On the one hand, I felt disgusted," says Greer, "but I was amused and puzzled, too. This was overkill. I'm not the mayor or a city councilman. What's the big deal with me?" Greer blames the Lesbian Avengers, a national radical group, and the Ten Percent Society, the University of Wisconsin's on-campus gay and lesbian organization, for the action. Madison's Lesbian Avengers have since disbanded, and the Ten Percent Society didn't respond to a request for comment. "I personally would draw the line at defacing private property," says De Ette Tomlinson, the executive director of the United, Madison's umbrella gay and lesbian organization. "But the methods used were nonviolent and expressive of some of the outrage felt against Ronnie Greer by the community."

After four months of hearings, in June 1997 the police and fire board suspended Greer for two months for showing "disregard, disrespect, and disdain" for his bosses. By then he had other charges hanging over his head. In April he'd faxed out a "news release" that accused Amesqua of too lightly disciplining her training chief for the alleged abuse of a cadet. The reason, Greer suggested, was that both women are lesbians. (Like Amesqua, the training chief has never discussed her sexuality publicly.) Their relationship, Greer wrote, "goes back a ways, namely through their affiliation with an organization called 'Women in Fire,' an organization seen by most firefighters in this area as a predominantly homosexual organization. Is it possible that some favoritism has been shown here?" In response, Amesqua told Greer, "Your public distribution of the scurrilous document entitled 'news release' is the equivalent of spitting in the department's face." She charged him with harassment and with showing disrespect for a senior officer.

"As an African-American, he's been fighting discrimination his whole life, and you'd think he'd be a little more sensitive," says Verveer. Greer replies that homosexuality is a choice, while "being black is immutable to a person." Assistant city attorney Rick Petri is harsher than Verveer. "Ronnie Greer is a chronic malcontent. He hasn't changed from the day he hit that guy in the marines. Oh, he's found God, but that old part of him is alive and burning. He could have been the assistant fire chief, but he's continued to demonstrate an attitude that's made that impossible."

The American Civil Liberties Union, which you'd think might have come to Greer's defense on free-speech grounds, hasn't returned his phone calls, Greer says. "We don't keep track of our telephone calls," says Christopher Ahmuty, the executive director of the Wisconsin ACLU, who claims never to have heard of the much publicized Greer. "Even then, we ask that callers write to us. But we don't have the resources to get involved in every case that comes up in the state."

Greer's struggles have turned him into a martyr in the eyes of right-wing Christians. "Ronnie's case speaks to there being a fascism afoot in the country," says the Reverend Ralph Ovadal. "On one side is what seems appropriate, and on the other side is what's deemed inappropriate--and that's to utter what it says in the Bible. It's a chilling situation." Greer says a Virginia-based conservative group he won't name helped his wife Rosalyn, a school guidance counselor, craft a fund-raising letter. "Militant homosexuals are using the city government, with its unlimited funds and resources, to get at my husband," says the letter. "He can't possibly defend himself without your help." The dollars that have come back run well into six figures, according to Greer.

The firefighters local is now challenging Amesqua's training procedures, and a spokesman for the chief says she's in the process of revamping them. (Amesqua refused to be interviewed on either her administration or Greer.)

Greer has been suspended for a year with pay from his $45,000-a-year job as the five-member police and fire board weighs the outcome of his news-release case. "It's pretty hard to ignore that gauntlet," says Rick Petri. "If he'd have gotten away with that press release, there's nothing a municipal employee can't get away with. It may be old-fashioned, but you have to show some respect for your boss." Greer's lawyer, Michael Dean, says that even though Amesqua couldn't point to anyone who'd been harmed by the document, he and Greer assume that the board will rule against him; in that event, Greer promises to take his case to federal court. He can't find a new job, he says, because he's notorious. He's running for Congress as a Republican in a city where passersby either tell him they've seen him on TV or insult him.

Meanwhile, he gives speeches to Christian and conservative groups, ministers to prisoners, and acts as pastor of the tiny Trinity Evangelical Fellowship. The Sunday morning services, in a Madison grammar school, are followed by a coffee klatch minus the coffee. "Coffee's an addictive substance," Greer says.

He plans to stay in what he calls "Sodom by the lake." "I'm living in the right place at the right time," he says. "There's a purpose for me being here, in that I'm making a difference."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ronnie Greer photo by Kathy Richland.

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