Coming Out Aloft

A new Houston skydiving team finds liberation in free-fall

You might say I have cow phobia," explains Rob Miller, a member of the Tri-Angels, a Houston-based gay and lesbian skydiving team. "Call it 'moo phobia,' if you will."

Floating about 4,000 feet above the earth -- on just his second free-fall jump -- Miller found himself in a real jam. After what he describes as a "beautiful free-fall," Miller had pulled his parachute's ripcord at about 5,500 feet. A hefty wind quickly put about two miles between Miller and his jumpmasters -- the instructors who accompany novice divers during the eight-level certification process.

To make matters worse, a cord in the upper reaches of Miller's chute became entangled with the steering cable. He kicked free of the line twist, but in the process severed his radio communication with the ground.

Miller was now a wind-aided four miles from the designated landing area. Reality set in. "The situation really sucked," says Miller. "But once the parachute opens, it's just like, 'This is what has to be done.' I tried to focus on a field."

A field, after all, would be a much nicer place to land than the targets chosen by some of his more unfortunate student predecessors. The week prior, one had landed in a forest. Another ended up on a helicopter blade -- luckily not in motion at the time. A third touched down on top of an airplane.

But Miller landed in a place that, because of his particular aversion, was worse than all others: a cow pasture.

At least, he tells me later, the field was relatively manure-free.
Three months ago, Rob Miller would never have considered skydiving. Immersed in a serious but confining eight-year relationship, Miller thought he was leading the good life -- tending bar in a ritzy Galleria hotel, club-hopping most every night of the week.

But then came the split with his lover, and Miller found himself hitting the bottle harder than before. "At the time I needed something," he explains, "anything to keep me busy."

One night, while exiting the Boy Bar club, Miller spotted a flier announcing a newly formed sports organization: the first-ever gay and lesbian skydiving team. By no means an adrenaline freak -- his closest encounter with adventure had been some weekend hover-crafting and scuba diving -- Miller had always wanted to skydive, but never believed he would get the opportunity.

Three jumps later, he is one of the team's more diligent members. At a recent team party, Miller was excited. "Tomorrow, I'll be a level four.

"I used to go out every night drinking," he continues. "Now, with every penny I save, it's like, 'Cool! Here's one more jump.'"

"For gay and lesbian people, skydiving is like coming out again," explains Jana Birchum, an Austin-based filmmaker currently working on a documentary about the Tri-Angels. "They are not the same after jumping. They face fear, and see themselves through. It's just so powerful."

Team founder John Grisak agrees: "Our goal is to break down some of the stereotypes. Gay people can be anything they want to be."

Unlike Miller, Grisak has always been an adventurer -- he runs a gay and lesbian scuba club and is a weekend polo player. Grisak's team, just three months old, has been featured in such publications as the Advocate -- the largest national gay and lesbian magazine -- and the Houston Voice. The team is scheduled to jump into a string of gay and lesbian rodeos and to provide a demonstration at Stonewall 25, the quarter-century commemoration of the first gay-rights protest. According to Grisak, sponsorship talks with Benetton and Miller Beer have been encouraging.

Team members are most proud, though, that they have been invited to jump into Yankee Stadium for the opening ceremonies of the Gay Games, an international 18,000-athlete competition expected to draw 1 million spectators to New York City this June 18-25.

"We're planning to go down in a giant triangle formation," says Grisak. "I think we'll try to get rainbow-striped canopies [to stand for the gay and lesbian flag]. I don't think we're gonna be dressed in pink. [Laughs.] I'm hoping we're not gonna be dressed in pink."

Though the team's membership has swelled to almost 40, so far only two divers, Grisak and co-chairman Larry White, have graduated from the program. At the team's training ground -- Spaceland Air Corporation in League City -- the eight-level skydiving certification program can cost more than $1,200. The more advanced the skydiver, the cheaper the dive. Level one, for instance, costs $290; a level-eight jump costs $70; graduates pay only $15.

Though the team wants desperately to accept the invitation to jump into Yankee Stadium, a few logistical snags still need smoothing. To jump into a public stadium, each team member must have dived at least 350 times. Since learning of that requirement, the team is considering an alternative -- jumping into an open meadow in Central Park, with its more reachable 200-jump minimum.

"We thought jumping into the opening ceremonies might be a little dangerous," explains a team member who, citing concerns about job security, prefers to remain unidentified. "They have a freeway on one side, tall buildings on another, and Harlem on the other."

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