After 10 years of trying, Stephen Kloster joined the Fire Department in 2001. But five years into what the San Francisco native hoped would be a long career, he fell extremely sick.
Constantly lethargic and losing an enormous amount of weight — he dropped from 240 pounds to 140 — tests revealed the reason: Kloster was HIV-positive.
His health and T-cell count recovered well enough for him to return to duty in 2007. That's when the other trouble began. His positive status became common knowledge with his fellow firefighters, some of whom heaped abuse on him for having HIV, he said.
“They wouldn't allow me to cook, they'd ostracize me,” Kloster said of his co-workers. “They'd make jokes, they'd say I was gay, that my girlfriend was a man.”
What Kloster describes as a steady stream of discrimination — some of it observed by and perpetuated by officers in the department — culminated last summer when he was not assigned to a new firehouse after a period of light duty.
He filed a wide-ranging claim against The City on March 3. The precursor to a lawsuit, the claim alleges harassment, discrimination, and a host of other ills that all began when fellow firefighters learned their co-worker had HIV.
Since then, his career and his life have unraveled. He believes that some of the trouble has been by design.
“This department doesn't want to deal with it. I believe I've been targeted … someone has got to be telling these officers to [mess] with me,” he said.
Positive on the job
How Kloster, 40, contracted the virus is still a bit of a mystery. He led a rough-and-tumble childhood and adolescence running the streets of Lower Nob Hill and the Tenderloin, but he said he never touched intravenous drugs. And none of his sexual relationships — all with women, Kloster said — were with HIV-positive partners.
He now believes he was exposed while working on an ambulance in 2003. While loading a patient with an open head wound onto a stretcher, he was splashed with blood.
“It got onto my face, it got onto my arms. It got into my eyes,” he said. “I didn't think anything about it at the time. We get exposed to all kinds of things.”
In 2012, The City's Department of Human Resources declared that his HIV-positive status was work-related. By that time, he had been cleared to return to work after a tumultuous and trying five years.
After Kloster informed department brass of his HIV-positive status, it quickly became known at Fire Department headquarters and at his firehouse, Station 19, near the Stonestown Galleria.
As soon as the word got out, he told The San Francisco Examiner, he was subjected to repeated harassment and discrimination.
Removal a mystery
Kloster is no longer working as a firefighter for reasons he cannot explain. After earning more than $110,000 in 2013, he said he last worked as a firefighter on light duty in August. Following a vacation, he returned and was not assigned to another firehouse. He has not been reassigned since.
The City is prohibited by law from revealing employee information. Neither the Fire Department nor the City Attorney's Office can comment on Kloster's claims of how he contracted HIV.
A spokeswoman for the Fire Department confirmed that Kloster “remains an employee of the department” and that “the department has not discriminated against FF [firefighter] Kloster.”
Kloster said the discrimination began in 2006, shortly after he discovered he was HIV-positive and revealed the diagnosis to Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White.
In addition to harassment, cold shoulders and homophobic taunts from fellow firefighters, Kloster also claims superiors threatened him and at one point “laid hands on me.”
His record is not perfect: he was disciplined twice for disputes with superiors, suspensions that began during “confrontations” fueled by HIV-related discrimination, he said.
Kloster has paperwork to back up his claims, including the 2012 letter from the Department of Human Resources declaring his infection work-related. There's also an incident report from the 2003 encounter with the patient's blood, and letters clearing him to return to work from doctors and psychologists — the latter of which he said he was seeing for stress related to his problems with co-workers.
Culture of trouble
Witnesses to specific incidents of harassment against Kloster could not be found. But other firefighters contacted by The Examiner describe a macho atmosphere at the department with little to no training on HIV/AIDS, how the disease is contracted and how to work with an HIV-positive colleague.
“We have had no substantive training on HIV in my 18 years here,” said veteran firefighter Keith Baraka, the only firefighter willing to go on record about the Fire Department's intolerance problems.
Baraka, an openly gay black man, has had his own troubles with co-workers. He told The Examiner that he endured a decade of ostracization and harassment during his tenure at Fire Station 6 in the Castro.
Baraka knows of no other HIV-positive firefighters among the more than 1,500 members of the department. There may be, he said, but few would risk the consequences of outing themselves.
“Who would want want to come out [as HIV-positive] in the department when there's no training and LGBTQ people are ostracized?” he said.
Kloster wants to return to work as a firefighter, a job he has coveted since high school. Since his duties vanished last year, he has been working as a security guard for $15 an hour, in part to support his 80-year old mother, with whom he shares a basement apartment on Post Street.
Still, Kloster is not sure he would ever be treated fairly no matter where he's stationed.
“They're just trying to get rid of me,” he said.