Imagine you are flying with someone and you can’t say the letter e, because if it accidentally slips out in conversation, you might be ridiculed, ostracized by your peers, and it could potentially damage your career. Chances are you’d be so concerned about the things you say that you don’t put your full attention on flying.
According to Steve Walker, president of the National Gay Pilots Association, this scenario is similar to what gay pilots go through every day.
“Gays are an invisible minority,” said Walker, a retired captain from Alaska Airlines. “Aviation has a very military, very white, very male culture. It is still okay to make jokes about gay people, and without specific support from your immediate supervisor, be it the owner of the FBO or the chief pilot, gay pilots feel very alone and will shut down.”
This feeling of isolation led to the formation of the National Gay Pilots Association about 20 years ago when a couple of pilots on the East Coast discovered that the other one was gay. “They felt a strong camaraderie because they felt very much in the minority at that time,” he said.
Since then the organization has grown to about 600 members, with chapters all over the country.
Members range from 19-year-old student pilots to 75-year-old pilots who have their own Boeing 727s “and everything in between,” Walker said.
The organization has grown from a social group to a networking organization that also provides scholarships to men and women.
“The networking is critical,” said Walker, “We have a looming pilot shortage, so networking is key. You don’t have to be gay to be part of the organization, but you need to be supportive of the lesbian and gay community.”
The association has had a booth at AirVenture to provide information. For the most part, the reaction is positive, said Walker.
“Last year we had a Civil Air Patrol group that came by the booth. Their commander wanted to show the cadets diversity in aviation,” he said, adding there have also been some people who come to the booth and stand in judgment, making comments like “you people shouldn’t be here.”
Walker noted that the association is about education, not confrontation. The emphasis is on helping advance aviation and facilitating a cultural change where it is not okay to use gay slurs.
“The culture change is similar to the change that took place when women and people of color began to appear on flight decks,” he said, noting that members of these “visible” minorities, unlike gay pilots, are “protected by law.”
The anti-gay attitude can begin at the very start of someone’s aviation experience, he said. “For example, if you are my CFI and this is my first flight and you make a gesture or off-hand comment, and I am not comfortable being out, I am going to shut down and be in a defensive mode, so it will be about guarding myself and not really learning.”
In a worst case scenario, the student may get so offended that he or she decides not to become a pilot. “And we are potentially losing out on good people,” said Walker.
It gets better
Several members of the association, from corporate pilots to airline pilots to CFIs, recently participated in a video for It Gets Better, a project designed to let gay teens who feel isolated or are being bullied know that things will get better.
For more information: NGPA.org