We're here. We're Queer
Whistler’s spirit, friendliness brings people Out On The Slopes
By Oona Woods
Altitude ’98, Whistler's Gay and Lesbian ski week, hits town from Feb. 1 to 8. Something in the region of 2,000-plus people from all over North America and as far away as Europe and Australia will be joining the scene. The estimated economic impact from Altitude on Whistler Resort is $15 million. Dinky (Double-income-no-kids) couples and groups will be coming into town with the "I'm on holiday attitude." Lots of skiing, boarding and races coupled with martini parties, fashion and comedy shows, aprés events, a silent auction and the mighty Snow Ball will be injecting a whole lot of life — as well as cash — into the town.
The community sector is well taken care of during this time as Altitude raises money for Whistler Community Services, the Western Canadian Pediatric AIDS Society and S.A.F.E. (Sexual Awareness for Everyone). All events are open to locals, whatever floats their boat, and everyone is invited to join in the festivities.
This will be Whistler's sixth year hosting the party (including the year where Gay Ski Week coincided with a convention from Texas, which is fondly remembered by organizers as Steers and Queers) and the numbers have increased from a couple hundred participants, to over 2,000.
Out On The Slopes is the company that organizes and promotes Altitude. Co-ordinator Brent Benaschak says the event was originally arranged to try and build up a gay ski week in Canada to match the calibre of the legendary Aspen extravaganza, which has been going for 20 years.
"We never wanted to compete with Aspen, we didn't think we could," says Benaschak.
Circumstances conspired to give Whistler's reputation a turbo boost when Colorado’s anti-gay legislation prompted a massive boycott of the state.
"In our second year the boycott happened. It didn't amount to much in numbers but we received tons of calls that year. The next year our numbers jumped from 200 to 1,200 and it has been growing steadily ever since. We struggled for four years but now we are finally making money. Aspen is a very liberal town and it's unfair that they should have suffered because of the state's actions, but people had to send a message. Gay people bring a lot of money into the state."
Since that time resorts world-wide have caught on to the benefits of making gays and lesbians welcome. There are two major gay ski events in France as well as happenings in Lake Tahoe, Park City, Quebec, Lake Placid and Montana. Aspen has recovered from the boycott blow and is back up and running. Their gay ski week takes place the week before Whistler's and Benaschak says that lots of people now attend both.
"They are as different as Aspen and Whistler are. In Aspen there's a lot of glitz and more attitude. We have to thank Whistler. It's really friendly with great skiing, it's a beautiful resort. When you're skiing on top of the world it's difficult not to have a good time that night."
Benaschak says Whistler has been a very warm and welcoming place.
"It's the same as any other interest group. You are not going to go somewhere that you feel uncomfortable whether you're on a college vacation or a Baptist convention. Snowboarders got hassled until people realized that they were a powerful economic force."
Benaschak doesn't think it's just the money inducing people here to be welcoming.
"There is a really good spirit in Whistler. I've gone to different gay events and I went to New Orleans for Halloween. It was definitely different from all the rest, it was very friendly. I can see people coming here and feeling the same as I did there."
The financial and social impact of this week buoys the town up in the February financial dip. La Rúa's manager Daniel Havens says it definitely benefits the community in more ways than one.
"Well, A, for the amount of dollars it brings in during our slow time. The destination skiers usually start arriving in mid-February. Gay Ski Week covers the in-between time. You've got the volume of people coming in and you've got the money. I think you see it everywhere, from clothing to retail and beverage outlets.
"Then, B, you have the increased profile. During the Aspen boycott a lot of the attention was focused here. It was just starting to get international renown. It's not just the concentrated week when you see all the people. I think the benefits last all year round. People from the States, Switzerland, Germany, Britain all go back and tell their friends. A lot of people that don't ski will come back in the summer to hike or bike. It's good advertising. The weather has been good every time, I think it has only rained one year. It's great when Mother Nature does your promo for you."
Perhaps more important than the obvious financial benefits, Altitude brings a lot of social benefits with it. Members of the Whistler Lesbian, Gay and Bi-sexual group QUINTM (Queer in the Mountain, if you hadn't guessed) have made Whistler their home year round. Dominic Auger mans the phone line in town and says there aren't usually many activities for gay people.
"About 60 per cent of the calls we get on that line are looking for a gay club. When we say there isn't one they hang up."
QUINTM was formed three years ago to provide support for gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals in the town. Since that time its mandate has evolved from a support group to an outlet for having fun.
"There is no where else to go unless we have our own pot-luck dinners. We also meet in a bar every Friday night with a secret code," explains Auger.
The code is not to hide the fact they're gay but rather to avoid stumbling around different tables questioning people's sexuality.
"It's good to get together in an environment where being gay is like 'Oh okay, no issue'. Everyone is out, comfortable with each other and living a gay lifestyle. And no, we're not dating each other and sleeping together."
Auger says that after coming from Montreal via Vancouver he finds Whistler a harder place to come out.
"I'm not sure what to do. Do I introduce myself and say 'Hi I'm Dominic and I'm gay? I don't know if it's my own homophobia but I'm not so comfortable being myself in a straight environment. I'm 31 and I grew up in an era where it was taboo, with Catholicism and all that."
A keen backcountry skier, Auger says that he has come across inadvertent discrimination when he is out trekking.
"There was five of us out for three days. When we were coming back up a really steep patch one of the guys was bitching and complaining. Another guy started calling him a 'f____in' faggot,' so I said 'All the faggots are not always the weak ones.' I think he got the message."
Last year's gay ski week came through town like a breath of fresh air for Auger.
"I worked as a liftee and I came out to about 50 per cent of the staff during the week. They were all pretty young and they were totally cool about it. I just felt so comfortable walking through the village hand in hand, being flamboyant, walking around at night. It was so different from any other time of year."
Fellow QUINTM member Glen McMillan feels that Altitude helps educate Whistler.
"I don't really like the over-gay scene of Vancouver. I want to live in the mountains and I like healthy people. Whistler is a beautiful place. I don't think just because you're gay you should have to be stuck in a city. But I do find myself intimidated by some of the men here."
Apparently the women are very open and McMillan says that 60 per cent of the girls he comes out to either come out back to him or are at least "bi-curious." He says that the boys are more likely to have a high school mentality.
"Men here are very unrelaxed that way. It's a young crowd so maybe they come out of high school to here and the peer pressure hits them again. My line to one guy was 'Will you do me a favour? Do you promise not to kick the shit out of me if I tell you you're attractive?' He immediately said he liked girls and I was fine with that. He kept showing his machoness and repeating it and I was like 'Yeah, you told me.' I swear he was a closet case because he was so against it. I pointed out that he was way bigger than me so he didn't have to worry."
Four years ago McMillan moved up to Whistler and was living in staff housing.
"It was a nightmare, I tore a ligament on my first day and was stuck inside with this meathead roommate and his friends. He ate all my food, left all the dishes and we had to talk about 'pussy' all the time. I ended up going to bed at 8 p.m. and getting up at 10 a.m. It was horrible. Then Gay Ski Week came along and it really opened me up. I changed roommates and got back to work."
Auger points out that there must be a lot more gay people out and about in Whistler than the group membership represents.
"We have 17 fee-paying members but if you follow the 10 per cent rule out of the 5,000 people in Whistler there should be at least 500 gays."
McMillan thinks that a more educated and accommodating night life in Whistler would help.
"I know there's a lot of denial. If at the start of a new season people had a contact point like a gay night and a place to go to meet other people you could make your friends there. I know one guy, I was the first gay person he spoke to here. He had already made his friends and now I can't convince him to come out. He left home to travel and come out but now he's here he doesn't feel like he can."
Altitude '98 could be just what he needs. Benaschak says one of the most rewarding aspects of organizing Gay Ski Week is making people happy with themselves as well as providing the party.
"It's great to put smiles on people’s faces. Last year a guy came up and thanked me. He is not out in his home town back near Milwaukee. He's a lawyer and the town's population is about 35,000. Coming to Gay Ski Week was a turning point in his life where he could just be himself."
McMillan says the very busy Gay Ski Week provides the community with a lift and he hopes it will help pave the way for more tolerance in the future.
"I like the fact that we're educating the town. This is my home base. This is where I want to live. It's a healthy environment with a lot of things to do outside of just clubbing and drinking. Even if I go away I want to be able to feel comfortable when I come home. There is a lot of power to be gained by not being intimidated and not being afraid."