Friday 11 August 2023

Interview with Galen Kirkpatrick

Monika: Today I am taking you to the sky where my guest feels at home and where she is often visible. Galen Kirkpatrick is an American paraglider, former national champion, and world cup tour pilot. She is among the top ten women in the world and this year (for the second time) she will represent the United States in the world championships. She is also an instructor and guide and has had a variety of careers. Hello Galen!
Galen: Hi Monika, thanks for interviewing me. 
Monika: I guess most of us have heard about paragliding but I have not been aware that it is also a sport competition, and you are one of the best paragliding women in the world…
Galen: Many people confuse it with Parasailing or Hangliding. Parasailing is completely different because you are attached to a boat over water. It's great for tourists because it requires no skill. With Hang Gliding or Paragliding, you are using a relatively small lightweight wing that you foot launch from a mountain or a ridge. After launching we use naturally occurring lift, either convective or mechanical to stay in the air without the need for a motor. By using the convective lift (the natural updrafts of warm air the earth creates) it is possible to fly long distances. This discipline or art form is called Free Flying.
In recent years Paragliding has become much more popular than Hang Gliding because we use a lightweight fabric wing that is folded up into a backpack which means you can travel and even hike with it easily. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about the risks involved. But it's no more dangerous than mountain biking or in my opinion driving on the freeway.
Monika: You started paragliding relatively late at the age of 27. Is it possible to start it earlier as a teenager?
Galen: Yes, many people start much younger than I did, it helps to have family in the sport or to live in a place where the weather allows for a lot of flying opportunities. Some of the people I compete with learned as teenagers or even still are teenagers and show incredible talent. I have had the pleasure of teaching teenagers and they tend to excel.

"I find it (being in the sky) intoxicatingly alluring. There is
such a perspective that can only be gained from above."

Monika: It must be a fascinating experience to be in the sky.
Galen: I find it intoxicatingly alluring. There is such a perspective that can only be gained from above. Lots of people have experience with looking out the window of an airplane and it's similar to that except you are alone and unprotected. You can feel the air on your face and it's very quiet.
Monika: I guess you must travel all over the world. Do you have your favourite places? 
Galen: I truly love Colombia but have had my most special flights here in the United States. I recently took Third place overall in the US Open which is held in Chelan, Washington and it's probably my favorite place to fly in the world.
Monika: After you won the women's class of a beginner paragliding competition at 28, you were publicly outed against your own will.
Galen: Yes, I was only about a year and a half into transition and while I wasn't hiding my identity I also didn't expect to have my life and identity discussed in such reductive ways by people who are not educated or open to the idea that queer and trans people exist. Piloting communities are often predominantly male and have a reputation for allowing an antiquated sort of sexism. Most free flight pilots are incredibly forward-thinking but as with anything the old guard still exists and that's who had problems with my existence.
Monika: I try to follow the whole debate about the participation of transgender women in sports and what irritates me most is the assumption that transgender women transition because they would like to be more competitive...
Galen: It’s very insulting to individuals just trying to have fun and be included and at its core is an absurd allegation rooted in oppositional sexism and misogyny. There are some appropriate discussions to have regarding fairness depending on the sport and the level of competition on a situational basis but 99.9 percent of the arguments I’ve heard aren't made in good faith nor consider all the available science and opinion.
"Being outed and feeling so exposed
was really damaging for my mental
health and my transition."
Monika: What was the reaction of your female paragliding competitors?
Galen: They were very supportive. There are very few of us and we all suffer from the entrenched sexism and lack of representation in the sport. Since it's a small community we all do a lot to support each other and are thrilled at each other's successes. There are far fewer women competing than men, which is why it's important to support each other and foster community. And also, of course, beat the boys.
Monika: Did getting through all those frustrating moments make you stronger or leave some unhealed scars?
Galen: Being outed and feeling so exposed was really damaging for my mental health and my transition and it took a few years to recover. Having survived that and having healed I feel pretty ironclad in my ability to face social hardship and am super happy for other queer and trans people who fly and don't have to face the same situation. I still face frustrating moments sometimes but I remind myself that I can fly a paraglider better than whoever is harassing me.
Monika: Was your family surprised by your transition?
Galen: They were pretty surprised. I had been hiding myself for so long and I was good enough at it that they took a while to adjust. I also don't really think they were ever looking very closely because they are very open and accepting people. They also trust people and take things (like my performance of masculinity) at face value.
Monika: Galen is quite a unique name. How did you choose it?
Galen: Galen is my given name and so far I haven't felt the need to change it. Having the first syllable of my name be “Gay” and also behaving like a trans egg (not very masculine or consistent in my presentation) led to a lot of bullying throughout my teenage years. I didn't handle the bullying well and became obsessed with fitting into normative standards for boys/men for my own safety. I internalized a lot of the hate that I faced and getting through that and unpacking it all invariably shaped who I am today. Changing my name seemed like a wonderful concept but it also felt like an escape from something that I earned. Because it's a rare and beautiful name without a significant gender association, I decided to keep it. 
Monika: We are said to be prisoners of passing or non-passing syndrome. Although cosmetic surgeries help to overcome it, we will always be judged accordingly. As for my own experience, I will never be able to get rid of the fear of being clocked. How can we cope with this?
Galen: As trans people, we all have a special talent for understanding and a tortured relationship with how we are perceived by others. As central to our safety as this skill is, I think it's important not to take too much stock in our assumptions. I became obsessed with really looking at other people the way I looked at myself. I look at people and imagine how their bodies and faces might change if they were on hormones or at what features of theirs didn't most represent the average of their sex assigned at birth.
I always really like the idea that the target in transition is not to feel okay about yourself or your body or place in the world all the time but to reach a “Cis” level of managing that critical voice. I remember that almost all of the gender-affirming surgeries performed are on Cis people and that everyone is different.
Monika: Do you remember the first time you saw a transgender woman on TV or met anyone transgender in person?
Galen: Yes, I remember it was on a bus in the 90s when I was a little kid. And also from repeatedly watching Ace Ventura Pet Detective.
"As trans people, we all have a special
talent for understanding and a tortured
relationship with how we are
perceived by others."
Monika: Are there any transgender role models that you follow or followed?
Galen: I have a deep love for Kim Petras but I'm not sure she is a role model or at least not one I'm willing to admit to publicly, anyways I really look up to Kim Petras, and she is my number one role model. I have learned a lot from and really respect Natalie Wyn.
Monika: What do you think about the present situation of transgender women in your country? 
Galen: It’s really hard for so many of us as our identities are so politicized. But as someone with a lot of travel experience domestic and international, it's also better here than in many other places. I live a fairly unconventional lifestyle so I don't feel like I face as much hardship as people working in regular industries nor do I have the authority to speak on it.
Monika: Do you like fashion? What kind of outfits do you usually wear? Any special fashion designs, colors, or trends?
Galen: I am rather tall so I like outfits that highlight my body in flattering ways. I wear a lot of bright colors and excessive designs since I will often be stared at anyway. For a long time especially while I was early in transition I wore the least noticeable clothing possible to try and not get noticed. I still get stared at quite a bit but now it's usually for different reasons. I really like jumpers and rompers and crop top suits.
Monika: Are you involved in the life of the local LGBTQ community?
Galen: I've been pretty nomadic since starting transition so I have never really had a settled queer community. That being said I am out and proud in the paragliding/community and industry and have found a really lovely group of other queer and trans people who fly and am always getting messages from others who want to start.
Monika: Could you tell me about the importance of love in your life? I know that you found a street cat in Turkey and now she’s your travel buddy...
Galen: I have really struggled with the idea of being lovable because of the internalized transphobia. In the last few years, I have worked so hard to love and accept myself so that I can let someone else do that also. It's working and I feel like I have a really rich community of people who I share love with and who love me.
Monika: Many transgender ladies write their memoirs. Have you ever thought about writing such a book yourself?
Galen: No, I've never considered it, and the working title isn't “Sex Hormones in a Genderless Sky”. I didn't read memoirs by trailblazing and inspiring women like Janet Mock's “Redefining Realness” and Jennifer Finney Boylan's “A Life Across Two Genders”. I definitely do not think of certain milestones in my own life as eventual chapters and I refuse to answer this question ;-).
Monika: What is your next step in the present time and where do you see yourself within the next 5-7 years?
Galen: I would like to have a lot more ways to adventure outside besides paragliding. It's been a long time since I've been on a bike or gone skiing. I want to sail the world and surf with the wind. I would also like to be more involved with activism and advocating for others who don't have a voice and have more of a platform for spreading my love and ideas.

"I deal with fear a lot when I am paragliding and
the way I cope with it is by choosing curiosity."

Monika: What would you recommend to all transgender women who are afraid of transition?
Galen: I really think the hardest part is accepting that it is something that you might need to do. From then it’s all logistics… Like Congratulations, if you fear transition you have come sooooo far already. Now you can begin the process of seeking and exploring. I deal with fear a lot when I am paragliding and the way I cope with it is by choosing curiosity. Fear often paralyzes but curiosity energizes. Instead of the fear of wearing a dress the first time, be curious and just maintain emotional neutrality and see what it feels like.
Curiosity is naturally vulnerable but it's also fun. And when you are having fun you are much less likely to be afraid. Choosing curiosity over fear Is a lifelong pursuit and it's really important no matter who you are or what you do. Choosing to be curious about self-exploration will eventually lead to a healthy sense of self-belief and that's the greatest asset I think any trans person can find.
Monika: My pen-friend Gina Grahame wrote to me once that we should not limit our potential because of how we were born or by what we see other transgender people doing. Our dreams should not end on an operating table; that’s where they begin. Do you agree with this?
Galen: Yes I agree but I'm not sure the operating table is my favorite benchmark since I know that not everyone has access or the ability to afford such things. I hear the theme of self-belief loudest. No two people are the same either in self or circumstance. I very much want to believe that we create our reality. Although it's not completely true since we don't live in a vacuum and instead live in a world full of oppressive regimes and hateful people having faith in oneself frames everything in an empowering way. The only things we truly have control over are internal… beliefs, attitudes, and embracing our capacity for change. It's what we believe about ourselves and what we believe to be possible that end up determining who we will be and can become.
Monika: Galen, it was a pleasure to interview you. Thanks a lot!
Galen: Thanks Monika, it's an honor to be included in your project with so many other outstanding women.

All the photos: courtesy of Galen Kirkpatrick.
© 2023 - Monika Kowalska

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