Our America: Who I'm Meant To Be | Fresno Fire's 1st female chief on journey as lesbian, mom, wife

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ByTom Amico KGO logo
Tuesday, June 7, 2022
Fresno's 1st female fire chief shares journey as lesbian, mother, wife
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For Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis, being a mom and wife was easy -- finding her place as a gay woman in a male-dominated field was a challenge.

FRESNO, Calif. -- For Fresno Fire Chief Kerri Donis, being a mother and wife was the easy part. Finding her place as a gay woman in a male-dominated field in a more conservative community was a challenge.

"We have to constantly be proving our worthiness to be in this profession," Donis said. "It's sad, to do that as a woman. We have to do more than our counterparts to say, 'We deserve to be here too.'"

Born in the Midwest, Donis was recruited to be a softball player at Fresno State and worked as a personal trainer after college. A chance interaction with a client inspired her to test to be a firefighter.

"She started clicking off, 'You have to be a team player. You have to be disciplined, have a work ethic and be mentally and physically strong.' A lightbulb went on, and I thought, 'I've been doing that my whole life as a student-athlete," she said.

In her early firefighting career, Donis said she never felt the need to outwardly come out as a lesbian, though she didn't deny this part of her identity if someone asked.

That changed when she met her wife Laurie.

"I knew we were going to make a great life together. I was 100% all-in, which was different from where I was leading up to that in my professional career," she said. "I was very committed to saying, 'I need to be out and open about my sexuality to anybody, especially if I'm going to lead this fire department.'"

Donis also noted that she never wanted her two children to perceive feelings of embarrassment in her identity. Years later, when applying for the fire chief position, Donis shared this part of her life with former Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin, showing her a picture of her wife and kids.

"I said, 'This is what my family looks like, which is much different than most people. And a lot of people in this community will think I can't lead because of this' ... She slid it back to me and she said, 'I would like to see them try,'" Donis said.

"We need women, men and women of color, transgender [people] -- whatever it may be -- to make a good quilt for this department [so it] can serve our community in the same way that it is represented," she added.

The LGBTQIA+ community is not a monolith. It is multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith and multidimensional. This Pride Month, we're celebrating members of that diverse community as a part of a special series called Our America: Who I'm Meant to Be. Click here for more stories from your city and around the country.