IN THE BEGINNING
You might have noticed them around the village, snugly attached to lampposts: the annual presentation of rainbow flags and banners, signaling the time of year Whistler gets its week long closeup on the gay calendar.
And come Sunday, the Whistler Pride & Ski Festival will kick off its 25th rendition. Dean Nelson, the event's executive producer, has a message for locals and visitors alike: "Come in, have fun with us. Everybody is welcome!"
With a performance lineup this year including Canadian musician Kim Kuzma, Italian house DJs The Cube Guys and Australian comedienne Pam Ann (Caroline Reid), the festival looks set to deliver on its promise of entertainment. But the event's beginnings — in 1992 — were inconspicuous. Birthed in a time where AIDS-related deaths were still occasionally met with little public sympathy, the need for a forum for gay and lesbian people in Whistler was identified and acted upon by the late local hotelier Brent Benaschak. A discreet bar meeting led to a small group of gay skiers carving up the slopes for a day. Fast forward 25 years, and we now have one of the biggest annual gay ski weeks in the world.
In that time, the event has rotated through a gaggle of names: from Altitude to Gay Ski Week to WinterPRIDE, before settling on its current iteration. In that time also, gay and lesbian rights have progressed in Canada. Same-sex marriage was made legal in B.C. in 2003. Two years later, it was legal nationally. Locally, gay travel organizations regularly name Whistler Blackcomb (WB) as a top ski resort, and Whistler an ideal destination for LGBTI visitors — with Whistler Pride a huge attraction.
Event organizer Nelson took up the reins 11 years ago, when the festival faced cancellation. "When we took over in 2006, we really sat down with our stakeholders WB, the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) and Tourism Whistler," he tells Pique. "One of the first things we requested is the need to have dedicated LGBTI pages on their corporate websites — so it signals to visitors, and to potential employees, that Whistler is a safe and inclusive destination."
WB Public Relations and Communications Manager Lauren Everest says the Whistler community has a longstanding reputation for diversity and acceptance. "WB's Gay Welcoming page on our website was launched over 10 years ago to highlight Whistler's inclusive and gay-positive attitude. The page is about showcasing that fact and highlighting Whistler as an ideal LGBTI vacation destination." Everest says WB's enforcement of non-discriminatory policies means "LGBTI staff, visitors and locals are treated the same as everybody else".
But it is also difficult to measure what makes a ski-resort, or a holiday destination, particularly welcoming for LGBTI people. The message on WB's page, beyond mention of Whistler Pride, does not list anything distinct from the gamut of activities available for any visitor to Whistler, from après to "breathtaking scenery." Perhaps unqualified inclusion is the point, for LGBTI people to be "treated the same as everybody else." However, Whistler Pride is also not immune from the occasional less-than-stellar local reception.
THE POWER OF THE"PINK DOLLAR"
The festival in its infant years, then known as Altitude, was not exactly showered with unanimous local support. One of the first organizers, Brent Neave, has spoken about the refusal of local businesses to support the event. In a 2014 article published in academic journal BC Studies, Neave said particularly difficult was securing space for marquee events, like the now-iconic dance party, Snowball. He recalled some proprietors explicitly said they didn't want to be associated with the festival. "Some were more subtle than that, they just said: 'Oh no, we don't have the space, blah blah,'" Neave said.
According to the BC Studies research, it wasn't until Whistler businesses recognized the power of the "pink dollar" — the expenditure attributed to members of the gay and lesbian community — that support for Whistler Pride began to grow. In 2015, research from analytics company Nielsen stated seven per cent of B.C. households identifies as LGBT: the report also describes LGBT spenders as "powerful consumers." And a 2012 study found that year's pride event had contributed $2.4 million to Whistler's economy. Powerful consumers indeed.
The LGBTI community has also driven their own initiatives to assess whether a holiday destination, or ski resort for that matter, is welcoming. One metric is TAG approval, a stamp granted by the San Francisco-based Travel Alternatives Group (TAG), launched in 1997. To qualify, businesses must provide diversity and sensitivity training for staff and employ personnel who reflect the community's natural heterogeneity. In Whistler, more than a dozen hotels, including the Delta Whistler Village Suites, Fairmont Chateau and Sundial Boutique are TAG-approved.
Despite Whistler's reputation as a progressive and liberal destination, the festival occasionally has been the focal point of a homophobic attack. In 2010, Nelson told Pique he was aware of at least four incidents where local Whistler employees made "negative comments" to event patrons. Some rainbow flags were also vandalized. But 2010 was a unique year, for an entirely different reason: Whistler was thrust onto the world stage as a winter Olympics and Paralympics host, alongside Vancouver. During this time, Nelson and his team managed to transform a public incident of casual, broadcast homophobia into a force for good.
Competing U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir unwittingly became the subject of homophobic slurs perpetrated by television sports commentators in Canada and Australia. In response, Nelson and his team organized a pride march through the village. "We held a press conference. We marched from Pride House in the Pan Pacific to the Whistler Media House, over at the Olympic Plaza. We came with rainbow flags, we marched with human rights activists, and we were broadcast in 120 countries live on the Olympic Broadcast Network. It was an amazing experience," Nelson says.
Those Olympics also saw the establishment of the first ever Pride House, a dedicated, temporary location for Olympic LGBTI athletes, volunteers and visitors. "Our point was, when you have newscasters in that position saying really horrible language, it signals to a young person in a locker room that it's OK to say that, that it must be acceptable," Nelson says. "And we're seeing that again, with the (Donald) Trump campaign — such hateful language has been spoken there, and mainstream media is allowing it to continue. It only takes a few individuals that are close-minded and are scared of their own sexuality to cause harm for millions of people around the world." While the pride walk in response to the comments about Weir was not held during that year's pride week — which was hosted in March after the games — the festival incorporated a pride walk into its 2012 program.
HOMOPHOBIA IN WINTER SPORTS – WHERE TO FROM HERE?
The first athlete to compete in the 2010 games was Canadian ski jumper Eric Mitchell, who soared across the Ski Jumping Stadium in Whistler's Olympic Park. Now 24 and retired from competition, the Calgary native grew up in professional sporting environments where homophobic language from "sadly, pretty much everyone" — including coaches and fellow athletes — was the norm. Mitchell knew he was gay from a young age, but felt unable to express his sexuality.
"Words sliding off their tongues as casual homophobia were sticking to me like glue," Mitchell tells Pique over the phone. "I was every day bombarded by comments such as 'that's so gay' or 'you need to man up' — and those comments were supposed to be motivating me, and motivating my straight teammates. But they were constantly reminding me that I wasn't like them. Everything that was wrong was 'gay' so I assumed that who I was, was wrong. I always felt like I could either stay in skiing and pursue my Olympic dreams, or I could walk away from the sport and be myself. I never really had a chance to bring those two worlds together when I was a young athlete."
Mitchell represented Canada internationally from 2008 until 2013. In 2014, he publicly came out when he was announced as the founding ambassador of One Team, the Canadian Olympic Team's initiative to promote LGBTI inclusion in sports and schools. Mitchell says this kind of leadership is crucial, and needs to be demonstrated by those inhabiting the executive tiers of ski resorts, in order for an inclusive and diverse culture to trickle down.
"When you look at a ski resort, the tone at the top really matters. Because if nobody has set that tone at the top, then who else needs to follow it? So there are always going to be people who aren't as open and welcoming, and will resist inclusion. But they'll resist it less if they see top leaders in an organization they like standing behind it. Give people permission to be accepting, as well as to feel included."
Mitchell says while he believes acceptance of LGBTI people has improved in Canada "dramatically" over the past few years, there remains an ongoing need for education, awareness and celebration of difference, in order to reduce homophobia and stigma. Mitchell, who now works as an LGBTI advocate with Canadian students and athletes, says it is vital to give vulnerable people space as well as support. "It's important not to impose on anyone. I talk to a lot of people who have been in my situation, and often it's somebody who is not ready to come out, who has been approached by someone offering support. They might automatically go back even further into the closet because they don't want to be outed."
Mitchell recommends shying away from using hetero-normative language: for example, using the word "partner" rather than "boyfriend" or "girlfriend."
"Quite frankly, I'm considering there is an LGBTI person in the room at all times," he says. "They might be out, they might be not, but I'm going to correct offensive language when I see it, and use gender-neutral language. Those cues are critical in letting people feel you are an ally."
THE EMBRACE OF DIFFERENCE
Similarly, Nelson says Whistler Pride is about embracing difference — it's not about obliging people to identify with or disclose any sexuality or gender expression. "I think Whistler really gets the concept of gender and sexual fluidity. You don't need to identify as being X, Y or Z — it's that fluidity that allows people to come to a mountain destination and experiment, and know that it's safe to do so. The pride festival is all about celebrating fluidity. Everybody is welcome."
The effort to be more inclusive is reflected in the widening scope of activities now on offer at the festival. In its infancy, the event was about gathering local and visiting LGBTI people to ski or snowboard together. Organizer Neave said the first two years of the event were "grassroots affairs — just a group of gay skiers getting together on a particular date, on a particular weekend." But while time on the slopes remains an enticing hook for many attendees, a cursory glance at this year's lineup reveals a diverse offering aimed at delivering something for everyone.
Fancy some cheeky hilarity? Then go along to a group game of Cards Against Humanity, hosted by comedian and actor Ryan Steele. Prefer to indulge and mesmerize your palette? Attend the wine pairing dinner at The Cellar, hosted by Araxi and Blasted Church Vineyards. Feel like floating in the Meadow Park Sports Centre pool with some inflatable animals? The Splash Pool Party is back. Or if you just want a movie night, then head to the library for a screening of 2012 film, White Frog. These are a handful of activities on offer this year, alongside the usual slew of themed party opportunities, skiing events and touring acts.
Nelson realized the festival needed to be broadened as soon as he joined the leadership team in 2006. "When we took over, the first year was purely a rescue year — we had 12 days to put it together. We surveyed a lot of people, and asked what we could do differently. A comment from several people was that some of their friends weren't coming anymore because they were in relationships with people who don't ski. We knew we had to diversify." But, with an expanded lineup, comes an increased demand for help front of house and behind the scenes.
Volunteer Co-ordinator and Event Manager Karen McCormick says the festival's strength is in the team who put the week together. McCormick, who is in her eighth year with the festival and third as a manager, says she has never had a scheduled volunteer not show up for a shift. She estimates the volunteer hours required to run the week total around 400, and says between 50 and 75 volunteers do the work, with many of them accepting four to five shifts across the week.
"It's all about the attitude. They're outgoing and willing to work, I mean what they do is not hard work, but they are the face of the festival — they're the first person somebody sees when they come to an event. Every one of them has a smile on their face, and they're happy to be there, and that makes my job so much easier." Volunteer tasks oscillate from blowing up pool toys for the Splash party, to guiding skiing and snowboarding tours, to answering ticket-enquiry calls in the office.
Peter Diniz began volunteering with the festival in 2006, when Nelson and others took over. Diniz, who lives in Vancouver but owns a property in Whistler and is in town regularly, has been co-ordinating the activities of gay and lesbian ski group SKIOUT for 18 years.
For this year's festival, Diniz has helped to organize SASHAY, a dance party event raising money for the Vancouver-based LGBTI charities Foundation of Hope and Rainbow Refugee. The goal of the latter is to raise at least $12,000 to help an LGBT refugee settle in Canada.
And if that is not a good enough reason for attendance, Diniz encourages anyone fatigued by the rave scene to check out SASHAY: "It will be the most fun," he laughs. "My favourite thing is to get on a dance floor and sing the songs. It will be a lot of fun, and it's a great fundraiser."
As longtime festival volunteers and periodic Whistler residents, Diniz and McCormick both say they've never experienced any local discrimination. "Let's face it, Whistler Pride is a huge private event in Whistler, it's one of the biggest events all year," Diniz says. "I love just going for a walk, and I hold my partner's hand every time I walk down the village stroll. There's never been an issue, occasionally you get a look, but it's no big deal."
McCormick believes Whistler does not necessarily cater to LGBTI people, but doesn't exclude them either. There is no permanent gay bar in Whistler, for example. McCormick doesn't believe one is needed. "When I lived in Whistler between 2008 and 2010, we did go to clubs, and kiss a girl on the dance floor and hey, nobody cares," she says. "I don't feel like there's a need for a designated gay bar, because people don't have a problem at the clubs they go to."
Despite these positive experiences, there remain some significant limitations posed by Whistler Pride. Like basically everything in Whistler, the festival is expensive to attend and is, by default, therefore a somewhat exclusive event, which only a privileged few can enjoy. While this is applicable to Whistler on the whole, Diniz says it's a "real shame" the cost prevents vulnerable people from attending who would get a lot out of the experience. "It's not a cheap place to be, winter or summer," he says. "We get a lot of people who want to come, but just can't afford the hotels, or passes or a $100 ticket. But it's not just Whistler Pride — it's every private event. It's a real shame I think."
Nelson agrees it is problematic, and acknowledges how the lack of available and affordable housing and accommodation makes it impossible for some. "We're a destination pride," Nelson says. "People coming here pay a premium to be here. I certainly know of people who couldn't make it because they had nowhere to stay." Nelson says the festival's growth is wonderful, but poses new challenges. "We're victims of our own success. We're now super popular, with both gay and straight people, so accessibility is becoming harder, because everything is in high demand." While the organizers have attempted to reduce costs with ticket packages, the expense remains a significant barrier.
But for Nelson, who has been involved with the festival since the early 1990s, the worth is in the hope and support the week provides for people in search of belonging. "We've changed so many lives around the world. We've inspired people to live another year because they've made connections up in Whistler, and when they go back to their home, in the southern U.S. for example, they know they're not alone".
His parting words may just be the nudge you need to go: "I encourage everybody to come and check it out. Check the drama at the door — that's all I request. Come in, have fun with us, no means no, and just have fun."