Whistler’s big gay heart
Every one comes out for Altitude 99
By Oona Woods
Somebody get out the paintbrush, it’s that time of year when an anonymous person transforms Whistler Cay Heights into Whistler Gay Heights with a sweep of the brush.
That’s right people, it’s Altitude 99, Whistler’s Gay and Lesbian Ski Week. The season where Whistler gets queer and loves it. This is the seventh year in a row Whistler has had it going on and numbers keep swelling. Local businesses are always happy to see large common interest groups coming their way but when 2,500 people are bringing in their time and money with a serious party in their wake, it’s even more attractive.
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 attract people to the B&B he was running with his partner.
Years later it has built up into a gay ski week to match the calibre of the Aspen extravaganza, which has been going for 20 years.
"We never wanted to compete with Aspen, we didn't think we could," says Benaschak of the early days.
Circumstances conspired to give Whistler's reputation a turbo boost when anti-gay legislation in Colorado 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," Benaschak says. "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."
Despite all of this success Benaschak refuses to gloat at Aspen’s expense.
"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.
"Whistler has a different feel to it than Aspen. There’s a lot of glamour and glitz there. Whistler doesn’t have as much attitude."
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.
"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."
As a bar manager and social enigma Mike Varrin from the GLC says that Altitude clients are a dream come true.
"They’re fantastic, you couldn’t ask for a better clientele... They love to have fun, like to spend money and tip extremely well. It is the best week to be a restaurant or bar manager. People are really enjoying themselves. Living the dream."
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. There’s a huge amount of repeat business."
The entertainment pulling power of the gay group has also increased as the years go by. This year’s kick off event, Avalanche on Saturday, Jan. 30 at MARS in Vancouver, has the legendary diva Ce Ce Peniston appearing live. It’s not just Vancouver that benefits from the lure of willing crowds. The UK techno outfit Sunscreem will be providing the soundtrack to the fashion show which takes place during Altitude at the Whistler Conference Centre.
In publicity material for Altitude it is noted that local straight people often join in the fun, paying cash to get into the comedy evening, fashion show and the legendary Snowball.
Benaschak says he has no theories as to why gay nights are so popular with the straight crowds.
"Gay parties that are gay are fun parties, a mix is nice though. We don’t want to prevent other people coming along."
Carrie Waller, a founding member of the local Whistler gay, lesbian and bi-sexual group Queer in the Mountains (QUINTM), says that everybody has a different attitude towards straight people embracing queer events.
"A lot of people quite enjoy it on one hand, on the other it could be like going down to Celebrities (in Vancouver). You go out of your way, go all the way down to the city, it’s late at night and it’s full of straight people. The opinion varies totally depending on who you’re talking to."
(There was a recent surge of outrage, culminating in a number of letters to the Georgia Straight, against a heterosexual couple getting sexually carried away on the dancefloor at Celebrities.)
Fellow member of QUINTM and 15 year local resident Bob Cocarell agrees that this can be seen as an issue of contention.
"There was quite a debate about that (Celebrities). I guess people have a point. They sometimes feel more comfortable around other gay people. But in contrast, last year two of my straight male friends wanted to go to the fashion show. I think they had a really good time. I was really pleased. I guess we don’t want straight people taking over gay ski week or anything but if they’re curious and want to come along then that’s great."
Cocarell says Gay and Lesbian Ski Week is his favourite time of the year in Whistler.
"Basically I’m an older fellow. I came out in the last five years and I’ve found Whistler to be a pretty good place to reside. I feel comfortable in the community and with co-workers. I’m really glad Gay Ski Week has continued on here. Partly because it shows I don’t live in a red neck community. Friends come up and visit for the week specifically. It’s been so successful, bigger and better. I really look forward to it every year."
Members of QUINTM also look forward to this week because of the fund-raising for their organization.
"People are so generous," says Cocarell. "We‘ve been able to raise enough money to cover most of our expenses during the rest of the year. We use it to run the phone line, website, ads and meetings."
At every aprés ski party there is a 50/50 draw. The winner of the draw keeps 50 per cent of the money and the other half goes to QUINTM.
"We really appreciate their generosity at the aprés draws. Sometimes people won’t even accept their half of their winnings."
Waller says the phone line is an important contact point for gays and lesbians coming in to Whistler.
"Our phone line gets a lot of calls from people wanting to know what it’s like here. Whether they‘ll get harassed at different places or whether they can be comfortable being out and open. Sometimes people have had a few problems in their life and now they check before they come here... The only time I remember any trouble in Whistler was a few years ago someone was putting up posters (protesting against Gay Ski Week). I didn’t actually see any of them."
Waller says the only flash point is when people are lining up to get inside to events like the huge rave Snowball. But she doesn’t know if the people shouting stupid comments are tourists or locals.
"I can’t tell the difference any more. I kind of think it’s tourists doing the harassing. You used to be able to just look and tell. When I first got here (about 13 years ago) we used to sit up on top of Citta’s and say ‘That’s a local, That’s not a local.’"
Opinion’s vary around town about how accepting Whistler is. A representative of the high school says "some people do make comments but on the whole it is cool. I can’t stand discrimination of any kind so people can do what they want to do."
The other number one topic for phone calls to QUINTM comes from people visiting town looking for the local gay bar.
"If people come up in a group they want to go to a gay bar for aprés. If it’s just one or two people they want to maybe meet up with someone locally and go for a drink or a game of pool. We get most of our calls from (advertising on) cable. The word ‘Gay’ always catches your eye. Even to straight people. Fortunately there’s not been a lot of crank calls, No nut cases. Nothing but a lot of fabulous people."
So if Whistler is so friendly and accepting and all, why isn’t there a gay club-night here year round?
"I don’t think there’re that many people in town," says Jorge Alvarez, manager of Maxx Fish.
"I know that I have six gay guys that come in the club regularly but I don’t think there’s enough. If we had a night that was just gay and lesbian I don’t think there would be many people. I try not to be exclusive. The only time I have to be is when we have the ladies nights. Then I can’t let men in because the male strippers don’t want to dance in front of men. I did have a gay deejay come up one time. He came up with three transvestite go-go dancers but that’s the nearest we’ve gotten to officially saying this is a gay night."
This is a sentiment echoed by other bar managers in town. If the 10 per cent rule is true then Whistler’s gay population should have risen to 800. However, QUINTM has just 44 registered members.
"Of course it would be nice if there were more people," says Waller. "There should be lots more. There can never be enough. (For straight women) there can never be enough single men. We have a very pleasant group. Very good friends."
As well as bringing in bigger names and a larger crowd the ski week is evolving in other ways, too.
"At first it was a bunch of gay men," says Waller. "And that is fine, it was organized by gay men, what do you expect? But two years ago it was changed to Gay and Lesbian Ski Week. So it’s slowly changing. We find we can do it ourselves. It was always predominantly a man’s week. But there are women’s organizations all over Canada and the States. We have our own ski weeks but unless you’re a lesbian you wouldn’t hear about it."
This year’s celebrations will include a women only dance on Friday, Feb. 5 at the Crab Shack.
"A lot of the lesbians come up from the city. The men tend to come from further away for the whole week, but not so many women buy the week package. They tend to come up for the weekend. That’s why we’re waiting until the Saturday to have to dance. Hopefully we’ll have a blast."
Tickets for all events are available at Little Sisters Bookstore (1238 Davie Street), at the event office at the Whistler Conference Centre or at the door. Further event information may be found on the web at www.outontheslopes.com or by contacting 1-888-altitude (258-4883).