Coming Out Aloft
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."
Grisak, however, maintains that a contingency from the team will land in Yankee Stadium. He says the group's as-yet-unqualified members will shoot a video in Houston at Spaceland, and that video will be displayed on the stadium's monitor.
Three other members of the team have now reached level eight, but remain several dives away from graduation. The team's triangle formation consists solely of Grisak and White, who are receiving an intensive course in mid-air choreography. After White's recent graduation, the two performed the group's first dual dive.
The results were less than encouraging. Grisak's nickname in the group is "Led Zeppelin." ("He'd kill me for telling you that," reveals a teammate.) Because of his weight, he has the fastest drop rate (140 mph). It's a dubious honor, considering that most divers strive to stay in free-fall for as long as possible. In order to maintain the same fall rate, the divers' weights can differ by no more than 15 pounds. To equalize the weight difference, White says, Grisak has been on a strict diet, and the team's lighter divers will wear vests filled with BB-like pellets.
Grisak and White also arduously work the local social scene -- Rich's, the Brazos River Bottom, J.R.'s, the Ranch -- spreading the word about the team. "We've been really just working the streets to find members," Grisak explains. "This isn't like getting people to join a softball team. It's a completely different mindset. I consider it a good night if I find one person. And I might pass out 300 to 500 fliers."
The Tri-Angels are a very tight, very dedicated group. Grisak claims that if he can just get a skydiver wannabe out to the airfield, he or she will no doubt burst through a plane's door.
"It changed my life, that first jump," confirms one team member, a level two.
"We gotta keep working," responds a level five. "Ours is not a perfect sport."
"[Spaceland management] says the retention rate that they have here is like one in 20," says Grisak. "They told us if we wanted a 20-person team, we would need at least 200 people to come out and jump. It just hasn't happened. We have shattered all of their expectations.
"With our group, there hasn't been one single person who comes out and makes just one dive, and then we never see them again. These are all people who are going straight through."
"I don't even want to work anymore," says White, a former hairdresser and now an antique-shop owner. "I owned eight hairdressing salons. I mean, I was big into hairdressing." In Tennessee, White adds, he was declared "Hairdresser of the Year."
"But all the [hairdressing] trophies, the awards and all that, they're in a box up in the attic. I get something out of [skydiving] that I never got out of that."
White is perhaps the most gung-ho Tri-Angel. He plans to take his camper to Spaceland next month, and for two weeks "just stay here and do nothing but jump to get certified."
"A lady was in the shop the other day, telling me how crazy, how stupid I was for doing this," White continues. "Then she said she was going across the street to get something to eat. I said, 'Do you realize how crazy that is? You're gonna walk across four lanes of traffic on Main Street.'
"When I'm up there," he says, pointing to a clear blue sky, "I have a ripcord, a reserve, a life-preserver, everything I need.
"At least I have protection..."
The word is an inside joke in the fraternity of skydivers. It's what jumpmasters label people like me -- chickens who have never been skydiving, who have no desire to maneuver through the three levels of air stream, who don't need a ripcord to be a security blanket, who didn't drool over the movie Point Break.
Wuffo you want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?
"Without getting too technical," says a team member, explaining something called the Gaia theory, "some people play in the water. We play in the air. Not many people experience the air. Skydiving is one of the only sports where you can feel physical sensation all over your body at the same time. It's the closest thing you can get to weightlessness."
"We tell people that even if they come out here and do only one jump, it's worth it," says another. "It's just such a high, such a feeling of accomplishment. It makes you feel like, if I can jump out of an airplane, I can deal with anything, be it family or work."
There has been relatively little homophobia at Spaceland. Grisak can remember only one incident, when Spaceland manifest director Rosie Burke asked a jumper if he had a preference of jumpmasters.
"I don't care," replied the jumper, with several team members standing within earshot, "as long as it's not one of those homos."
Burke told the jumper (who turned out to be from Vidor -- "Doesn't that say it all?" quips Grisak) to keep his opinions to himself. The jumper hasn't been back since.
"First of all," explains Burke, "skydivers are all pretty open. We have to be. To us, the team is like anybody else. They love a sport that we love. It's a melting pot up in that airplane."
"In the beginning it was something to get used to," says jumpmaster C.J. Parker. "There were some comments made.... But that happens any time you have a large group of people who enter a new group. It's been a learning experience for everyone."
"Spaceland has been really great," explains Grisak. "We've been having membership drives to get more people involved. We had a table set up at Rich's. Rosie and one of her friends came out and partied with us to help out."
"One guy and his wife from one of the straight teams [at Spaceland] said they want to be a part of our group," adds Larry White. "Hey, we're not discriminating. That's one of our main goals -- not to discriminate against color, religion, sex, nothing. We want everybody to be involved.
"We want to let people know that we are normal people, and normal people can skydive and go to dinner and have relationships just like everybody else.
"As far as the other groups," White continues, "there hasn't been one person to say or do anything -- and they all know we're gay. In fact, there's another guy here named Larry. And they were calling for a Larry over the loudspeaker."
Both Larrys came running.
"And then they announced over the thing, 'The gay one.' It didn't offend me, it didn't offend anybody else. Everybody has welcomed us with open arms.
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