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How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor

"How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor" by Hannah Kruse | Blue Skies Mag i62, February 2015 | blueskiesmag.com
Another great tandem, coming right up!
Written by guest author

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Originally printed abridged in issue #62 (February 2015) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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Yeah, I belonged to the DZ staff! Sported my “STAFF” embroidered jacket with the DZ logo wherever I could. “I am a MAN,” it yelled. I thought at least.

by Hannah Kruse

Introduction: A SkyGoddess

It is my fourth skydive on Oct. 25, 2014. It is unusually warm for late autumn; the air is soft and the light is mellow. My student—who was so afraid before we took off—is now extremely excited. We land, I disconnect her from my rig, she hugs me and kisses my cheek. I am deeply moved, as always when my student and I have shared a fabulous experience. I want to get up but am sprinkled with loads of confetti, then hugged and congratulated. I fight hard to hold back tears. I had deliberately landed next to a group of a dozen fellow skydivers who had become friends in the last few months.

I told them they couldn’t throw me into the swoop pond. Not yet, not for my 500th tandem jump; I shall have to wait for this knighting until my 2,000th jump overall, which I hope to make in the spring. For then I shall be able to unzip my suit and be thrown into the water sporting just a bikini that will look fabulous on my 54-year-old body. Oh myyy, this calls for an explanation, I know. But not now. Because now I shall tell you why I am so happy I could celebrate 500 tandem jumps, a number so meager compared to so many other instructors’ and yet only six months earlier I had almost abandoned hope to get past this number.

"How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor" by Hannah Kruse | Blue Skies Mag i62, February 2015 | blueskiesmag.com

Another great tandem, coming right up!

Because I am a transgender person. I am a transwoman. A human being just like you, part of the spectrum of humankind. You know, nature likes diversity. Sometimes—about 1 to 3 in a thousand babies, it is estimated—the brain does not develop the way (most) other parts of the fetus’ body do. We do not choose to be transgender. We are born this way. The brain—in my case—is hardwired to be female, but a midwife or a physician decided otherwise, based on what they found between my legs. I wasn’t “born” a boy, I was “declared” a boy. Not that I blame the physician who did so when I was born in April 1961. I think, however, we should nowadays issue birth certificates stating “anatomical sex” (which still leaves problems for intersex persons but that’s something I am not competent enough to speak about) but leave a marker for “gender” for the person to fill in once they feel competent and sure enough. Which often enough is already at age 4 or 5. Think of Jazz Jennings, she should be no stranger to you, living in the U.S. and even if, you should so easily find her and dozens of similar biographies and stories on the Internet.

The Fault of the Freak

I was born in East Germany. Both parts of Germany must have been so depressing back then for all young and free-thinking people, but it was living hell on our side of the river Elbe, with Communists in power who shared the prudish and restrictive moral standards of their Russian comrades. So even if I had open-minded parents, the system would have put me through ordeals I don’t dare to think too vividly about.

But fate provided me with an alcoholic for a father who had his sadistic ways with me when I turned out to be a “failure.” So petite. So weak. So easily breaking into tears. So un-boyish. No wonder he tried to make me “tougher” by any means. Physically, and later with mean words that hurt even more. Add a cold and loveless mother and the “sissy boy” is doomed. A freak, a failure. And the freak soon learns it is his fault that dad teaches him lessons. That he scolds him. “You are only a tolerated guest in this house,” he told me several times. That his mother also calls him a weakling and tells him to “act like a boy” reinforces the self-picture the child develops.

No kids around to play with. No kindergarten. When I came to school at age 6, my social competences were next to nil and I was unprepared for how cruel kids can be. And again the freak, the sissy, the weakling learned it was his fault that he was chased home, that he was called “duckling” by the PE teacher, that he was the punching ball of the bullies. Some years later at high school I was still the freak, the misfit, the “homo.” The chaps turned to finer ways. Words, shoves from behind when walking downstairs, flat tires, pulled-out petrol tube on my moped, but mainly words or to be “forgotten” when on a field trip, desperately looking for my classmates. I still was weak, but at least excelled in languages and science. And the freak, so eager for any kind of positive feedback so willingly helped the same folks who had “forgotten” and belittled him shortly before to get their homework done.

It was my fault. I was weak, not a real boy. Failed in what was called “military education” that started as early as grade 8. Climbing up ropes, shooting range training with mini AK47 guns, storm track, kilometers and kilometers in “full chemical attack protective suits” including gas masks. I so failed. I so was afraid—scared to death, to be honest.

“Something like you was caught by a tiger back then,” I was shouted at, or “Something like you shall defend the Fatherland?” It was then that I ceased to be a human being. I was “something” and this something was a failure no matter how good the freak was at science or languages.

Even at grade 10 I wasn’t really aware what exactly made me different. I just knew I was different. Now that I recollected suppressed memories of my childhood and my youth I know I already then tried to engage in girl stuff. I read books, books, books as they allowed for escaping. And more and more “girl stuff” I read. I so often daydreamed to be a girl. To wear frilly, colorful clothes. To hang with other girls. But I was constantly told that I was a boy, so I thought it had to be right and I was just a sissy wishing to be a girl only to dodge military education, schoolyard scuffles, etc. So I had to prove I was a boy. Which normally is easy: Beat up a sissy, wait … OK, be good at PE, wait … Have a girlfriend. Again I so gloriously and continuously failed.

Puberty hit late in grade 10, but hard. I simply hated what happened to me. I was ugly, disgusting. And I was so ashamed and felt so guilty for what happened in my southern polar region. It wasn’t right, it felt so wrong, so yucky. No wonder, I thought, that no girl wants to be my sweetheart.

The final blow: I was declared unfit for military service due to my asthma, eczema and hay fever. The ultimate public withdrawal of the “man card.” The freaky sissy misfit now officially was a draft dodger, an “ungedientes Schwein:” a pig that had not served with the forces. This term was scornfully thrown at me so often, even when I worked as a teacher. Again I learned I was not a human being.

I was a misfit who, whatever I tried to do, remained a misfit. And I still didn’t know what was “wrong” with me exactly. I certainly was not a “homo” as I was called now and then. I was into girls. But I also wanted to be one. Be soft, caring, considering, be feminine. Be allowed to wear those soft, colorful and frilly clothes.

After graduation I left my hometown and moved as far away as possible. 185 miles (300 kilometers)—in East German times as far away as the moon. To study astronomy and physics.

The students I studied with (we were organized in “seminar groups” back then) were the first ones who didn’t bully me. They just took me for what I was: A strange, effeminate boy who was very good at science and additionally could entertain a whole ballroom with witty remarks. The years of reading finally paid off. But I even then felt to be an outsider. Who didn’t keep up with the chaps when it came to man stuff. Who didn’t find a girlfriend. Who knew he was a filthy pervert.

In my spare time I roamed the university’s libraries and finally found a book titled something like “Sexualpsychologie.” One chapter was about “fetishist transvestitism” which seemed to explain what I was. The description was clinically cold, in a recognizably disgusted tone. “A mentally disturbed male person that likes to wear female clothes. Stands before the mirror in ladies’ underwear and masturbates,” it read. Not that I had ever done this, but … The chapter was followed by one about pedophiles. OMG, such a pervert I was.

So at the age of 19, I had it. A party at a flat in a student hostel. Students I knew and who had invited me. Eighth story, with a balcony. It took two hours, then I mustered the will. I got all calm. Tried to have my life fast-forward in my mind but all I could call up was failure, pain, otherness. I wanted to live but not this way. “I hope it won’t hurt too much,” I thought when I sat on the banister of the balcony, but the moment I wanted to plunge, four hands grabbed me and pulled me back. I was so upset. I couldn’t tell them, so I simply cried and later played, “I was so drunk, sorry guys.”

I wanted to live, but … I made a secret deal with the old man up there. Love shall heal me. A girlfriend, a woman to live with and her love to heal me from that evil.

The Man Years

A few weeks later I was picked by a petite, beautiful young woman as her boyfriend. I have never understood what she has seen in me but heck, this was it. Suddenly, I was a man! Because I had a girl. Soon we had children. Settled in a nearby town. Not a single night for six or seven years did we go out because we didn’t want to leave the kids unattended (no baby-sitting services in those days nor any relatives nearby). Those filthy thoughts never really vanished but surfaced much less frequently and I felt strong enough to not give in. To be the man. The husband, the father, the one to repair things … erm, actually that I never was good at. I grew a beard. My hair got thinner and thinner. Oh how I hated it. How I wished to have full hair. But “that’s because I am so full of testo, you know!” I played cool and macho. And I was the cool teacher. Who cracked homophobic and misogynist jokes to show how much a man he was (and immediately after I was so ashamed and disgusted of myself).

When the Wall came down, there were new opportunities. Fresh air to breathe. Freedom. More time to spare (the kids now were no longer toddlers but primary-school children). So many supermarkets and stores where one could buy anonymously. Girl clothes on display! The filthy thoughts came back, with more and more force. Vicious circles of buying girl blouses and pullovers (oh how my heart beat!) secretly wearing them, standing before the mirror (the fact that I never was sexually aroused doing this, or even “choked the chicken” and thus couldn’t be a “fetishist transvestite” never dawned on me) and then feeling ashamed and disposing of the clothes (always into a charity container!) and swearing to “never ever do it again” and starting the next circle after a few months—soon after only a few weeks.

Apart from playing the cool teacher guy, I had become really good at teaching and dealing with students. So in 2000, my class—whose teacher I had been for six years—gave me a tandem jump as their farewell present. A whole lotta money! Oh, how moved I was (but didn’t show) and how scared I was. But came the day, I made the jump. And learned that even someone like me could become a skydiver.

A Skydiver for the Wrong Reasons

So I started my training to become a skydiver. A real man! By that time a beard and macho jokes no longer sufficed to “hide it.” I constantly feared someone would find out about me and my terrible secret. So becoming such a daredevil came in handy. I was told to please work out to build up muscles by several instructors at my DZ, especially the guy who was in charge of it. I wasn’t able to do more than 10 push-ups when I started training and folks made fun of me. And surprisingly enough (well, not really after decades of testosterone poisoning) my muscles soon started to bulge. Especially my arms (to show off and as I really needed them) and my pectoral muscles (guess why?).

Not that skydiving helped me in any way to suppress those filthy thoughts. But it helped to hide “it.” And, of course, needed to be intensified. So I became a freeflyer. They were the really cool boys and girls. Flatflying was boring, I thought.

And secretly, I followed my vicious girl-clothes circles. Stood before the mirror with a woolly hat on my head and a girl jumper on and my legs crossed to tuck the southern polar region.

In 2003, a freak accident almost killed me. A rig not really suitable for freeflying, so the bridle I had not checked before exiting got into the airstream at 165 mph (270 km/h) during a cartwheel. Premature opening, smashed scapula, multiple-fractured humerus. I survived. Recovered. Mustered the courage to jump again and became one of the boring flatfliers, huh huh. Took courses and courses. Finally was ready to join a 4-way team. Became a videographer. Yeah, I belonged to the DZ staff! Sported my “STAFF” embroidered jacket with the DZ logo wherever I could. “I am a MAN,” it yelled. I thought at least.

Tandem Wench

By 2010 I was almost completely burned out. No matter how often I told everyone what a man and skydiver I was, it wasn’t enough. My vicious girl-clothes circles had shrunk to periods of fortnights. The constant fear of being caught. The constant shame of lying to my beloved wife.

I had learned I am not a “transvestite” in 2005 or 2006 when I watched a documentary about transgender people in the U.S., but as “trannies” were still looked down upon in Germany and due to my bald head I didn’t consider myself “suitable” to successfully transition. A bald woman? No way! A wig? Doesn’t work, as it is too obvious, it may fall off, whatever. I also thought that I looked ugly due to my internalized self-loathing. But I mainly doubted I could successfully transition because of my baldness. Silly, huh? But I only realized much later.

A void remained that I tried to fill by the roles I played. My brain had never been able to tell me how a man works so I looked for role models provided by the media. And so I inevitably failed, of course. Again and again. The only field left to prove I was a “real man” demanded to be ploughed harder and harder. Following this logic, I had to become a tandem instructor. More than 1,200 jumps at least had provided me with enough skills. Oh, how scared I was. I passed the course and the cross-check and became one of the TIs at my DZ. A SkyGod. A real man.

I was only interested in making jumps, in breaking “records” such as, “Wow, 11 tandems in one day and I packed all of them!” to prove I am a true hero. I—of course—was so proud to jump a rig with an EZ 384. “A canopy only for real men,” as I wouldn’t get tired of saying. Not a Twin 372 that had much less toggle pressure and thus was considered “for sissies.” So not for me.

The students? Well, if they were not too heavy, not too anxious, not too … Only a few met my expectations. Not that I treated them badly. But only business style. They were just customers I didn’t really listen to and I only wanted to get back to the hangar without any incident. Next one please, here comes a real man!

I had gone eight years in the wrong direction without realizing. I had become a tandem wench who had made 200 tandem jumps in 2011. What a number, how male I was!

2012 brought some change, but not for the better. The tandem factory I lived only 5 minutes from stopped business and so I bought my own rig—13,500 euros (ca. $18,000), but I needed that rig to remain an übermale SkyGod , and jumped at other places in my state. Even more a tandem wench.

My gender dysphoria became almost unbearable. Not a single day I couldn’t think I’d rather be the woman I was meant to be. But my wife, my kids. My bald head. I’d be so ugly. So obvious. And it was all my fault. Childhood patterns are hard to overcome. I deserved to be punished. No more parents to spank, beat, choke or scold me. So I took to hurting myself, hitting myself hard but always in a way nobody would see. Punching walls, slamming doors.

By the end of 2012 I was almost out of control. So full of self-loathing, so run down on hope and confidence. Nothing had healed me. Nothing had helped. And I couldn’t get any higher in the ranks of SkyGods. I knew I’d never pass the course to become an AFF-I and anyway, that’s nothing to impress whuffos, to appear übermale.

To make it short: I needed to put an end to it but not at the DZ. You don’t do this to your fellow skydivers. But committing suicide in a fail-safe way so you don’t suffer too much and also don’t affect others is pretty complicated. Searching the net, I took a break and logged in to dropzone.com to accidentally find a post about a M2F (male-to-female) transition timeline. Impressive, but depressing. All these young transwomen. I’d never transition successfully. But wait, this small thumbnail right there … It was a transition timeline of a transwoman about my age. We shared all the same problems and yet she now looked so beautiful, so happy, so confident. Wow, it was possible!

And so I secretly started my transition. Preparation, preparation and preparation. You need to be patient and almost stubborn.

This simple act of admitting to my real self already changed the way I dealt with my tandem students. They became people who had interesting stories to tell. People who I wanted to have a unique experience. Of course, there were times I was feeling low and down due to the slow transition, for instance my voice seeming not to change despite all the training. But I never treated them like freight to be carried and brought back unscathed.

Oh and how the world changed once I could start hormone replacement therapy (HRT). After 3 or 4 weeks, the clouds parted, the sky was no longer leaden and dark but blue and bright and the birds were singing. Life was real. I felt right. So calm. So happy.

I asked my therapist and my HRT specialist and both told me that HRT does not affect my skydiving skills in any way—otherwise you’d have to ground any person with estrogen and testosterone levels typical in women. But I had to remain silent. Each month you can transition in boy mode buys you time to successfully start living full-time.

If you start to transition in girl mode i.e., things get unnecessarily hard for you. My way—and this is also the way most U.S. transwomen go—prevents you from dealing with beard shadow as you can undergo electrolysis (which takes about 18 months roughly and hurts like hell, about 100 to 150 hours) in boy mode. You can train your voice in boy mode and once you go full-time you can speak in a feminine voice. Nothing more irritating and annoying than a female appearance counteracted and belittled by a male voice. There are several other aspects. It has never been the question for me as things are different here in Germany, but the day you go full-time your employer may fire you (they will find other reasons, it’s never because of “it” of course). And transition is expensive, so every month you can bear it to play this role, will buy you more money to save and spare for HRT, electrolysis, building up a feminine wardrobe, etc.

Hannah in Heaven

My—and my wife’s—schedule for 2014 was to start the “24/7 real-life experience” at earliest in August, with the new school term. But life is what happens when you are busy making other plans. The many changes had not gone unnoticed. My bald head didn’t hide the obvious softening of my face, the progress my voice made, the way I dressed. To most folks, I was super gay and that was that.

So far so good, had there not been a colleague who added one and one and privately asked me. She promised to keep it secret. I should have known better. Four weeks or so later the word had spread. Money talks, especially among teachers. I was outed by a teacher (who still doesn’t realize what she had done to my wife and me) and driven into living full-time or being a pathetic liar nobody would believe “he” is “just bending gender rules.”

Which led to my coming back to the drop zone as Hannah. With a bandana on, as I didn’t want to see whether my expensive human-hair wig would survive freefall. Most skydivers didn’t really want to listen as I offered to explain, to tell them what it means to be transgender and that it isn’t dangerous. Not even after the last lift.

“It’s not about you, you know. It’s about safety. You’re mentally unstable now. You’re under the influence.”

They didn’t even want to accept assessments of my therapist and my HRT specialist that proved otherwise. “A shrink has no idea what’s important on a DZ and what’s going on there.”

When I still objected and tried to discuss matters things got heated and I was told I “am a man who swallows stuff,” and who would not be allowed to jump tandem. That German sentence is hard to translate. Translated word-by-word it would go “You’re a man who throws in stuff,” with”stuff” meaning any kind of drug (either legal or illegal) when used with “throw in” as in “throw it into your mouth.” The sentence itself was very offensive and meant that he considered me a man who consumes hormones that will make him even more effeminate and the tone left no doubt that he meant “That’s something a righteous person doesn’t do!”

It was almost the same story at two other DZs.

My transition in my family, at college and in my neighborhood had been surprisingly smooth. Almost everybody congratulated me, wished me all the best, accepted or at least tolerated me. Not so in skydiving? Well, so be it. I was too busy being happy. However, I didn’t want to sell my rig. Good decision, because I got a phone call in June from a DZ asking if I could help out.

“You haven’t been told?” I asked.

“Told what exactly?” the caller asked.

I explained.

“Erm, what’s the problem? Are you current? We really need you here. Please come.”

So I went there 4 days later. And was overwhelmed. Such a warm welcome. I was called Hannah, she, her. And seen so. We checked my logbook (I had made 15 jumps in this season so far), emergency-procedure training.

My first student was an athletic 165-pounder. Out we jumped and … everything went as always. Straight into the relative wind, stable, belly to earth. Tossing the drogue, handle checks. I am in the sky. I am in heaven.

I have made 66 tandem jumps since. Not one single incident. Not one student or one of their relatives asked questions or made any remarks or jokes. I asked my fellows to please tell me. Nil, naught. nada. Everyone sees a tall woman with pretty muscular arms and … well, AA cup boobs only. But a woman. All my preparations now pay off. Voice. Walking. Moving about. To be confident. I know I am a woman and so folks around me see a woman. Other women commend me now and then. A journalist described me as a tall, lean and beautiful woman. Wow.

I had to unlearn to toss the drogue Django-style: “Nobody shoots faster.” My transition has changed a lot but it did not change my skills. Neither for the better nor for the worse. I now manage to wait 2 or 3 seconds. Other TIs wait 5 seconds. Which means I still have aims to achieve.

I have made friends who respect me. I am so happy, so calm, so confident.

"How I Finally Became a Better Tandem Instructor" by Hannah Kruse | Blue Skies Mag i62, February 2015 | blueskiesmag.com

“Taken on 30 Sep, the day a judge granted my application for change of first names and gender marker.”

“This student is so nervous. We let them jump with Hannah, she calms down anybody,” was something manifest staff told me by the end of October.

We hang around after the last lift, chatting, going out for dinner. I no longer pretend I like beer. I happen to be one of the girls much more into Prosecco.

By the way: At home, my wife and I are both “the girl.” And my wife will add, “But you are the Barbie.”

I sold my tandem rig to my club. My commitment to them; “I belong to you and shall stay with you,” it meant. And it also meant money. Not that I need gender-affirming surgery (GAS) to become a “complete woman.” Gender is between your ears. But that southern polar region gets in the way sometimes. For example, I can’t wear a bikini, at least not without proper and painful “tucking” beforehand. You know, this swooping pond dunk I am looking forward to. So the money will be spent well for my out-of-the pocket gap, right? And I still can jump my former rig.

I am looking forward to what the future holds for me. Life is great. It is finally right and real.

Wanna jump with me?

About the author: Hannah Kruse is a tandem instructor at Skydive Leipzig in Germany. She enjoys her loving and powerful relationship with her wife. They have two grown-up children who left the nest more than 10 years ago. Their son has made both of them proud grannies 3 months ago. Skydiving has become less important in her life as she no longer needs to “prove” anything but she enjoys jumping with friends and students much more. She also likes sports such as cross-country skiing, working out in the gym or mountain hiking with her wife. Hannah earns her living at a college where she works as a teacher of English and computer science.

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