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The roots of our rainbow

Exploring the evolution of Whistler's gay ski week, 19 weeks later

Whistler is officially flying their LGBT flag this week. As you've probably noticed, rainbow banners are hung high throughout the Village, welcoming in legions of well-dressed visitors who are coming to town to take part in our annual WinterPride celebrations, which include aspects of sport, culture, wellness, and entertainment  - and parties, we can't forget the parties!

While this eight-day event may seem to be all about having a good time, the roots of WinterPride run quite deep in Whistler. This is actually the 19th year for the community's gay ski week, an event that is now produced by Dean Nelson and Ken Coolen of Alpenglow Productions.

"Aspen had been doing their gay ski week for a number of years and one of our Whistlerites, Brent Benaschak, had a bed and breakfast in Whistler that was sort of a gay bed and breakfast, and he had been going to Colorado for a number of years," Nelson explains.

"In 1992, Colorado passed legislation called Amendment 2, which actually gave employers and landlords the ability to openly discriminate against anybody who identified as being gay or lesbian, in that if you were in a relationship and your partner passed away, you would not receive any survivor benefits; employers had the right to fire you for being suspected of being gay or lesbian; your landlord had the right to evict you - just a whole bunch of things! It was really, really horrible."

Nelson takes a deep breath.

"So (Benaschak) said, 'why would we go to this state and contribute to their economy when they are actively discriminating against our community? Why don't you come to my home mountain in Whistler, Canada, where everybody treats us with the same amount of respect and dignity as any other human being?'"

So, in 1992, Whistler's very own gay ski week was born.

"That first year, there was maybe 50 or 70 people that showed up, and the first Snowball was actually held at Monk's Grill," Nelson recalls.

The event continued to grow from there, attracting more and more members of the lesbian, gay, bi- and transsexual (LGBT) community each and every year. This year, organizers are expecting around 2,000 attendees over the eight-day period.

But on New Years Eve 2003, Benaschak suddenly passed away. It was just weeks before Whistler's 13th annual gay ski week was set to take place (at that time, the event was known as Altitude) and his family was left scrambling to find someone to take over the popular festival. Lee Bergeron, a businessman based out of San Diego, stepped in to manage the event for the next two years, but eventually found that it was too much to handle, with all of the other properties and events he had on his hands back home in the States.

"He just couldn't deal with it, so he just cancelled the event outright and myself along with four other business partners, we said, 'We can't let Altitude die ... We need to be proactive and step up and we need to own it.'"

Together, the group pulled the event together in just 12 days - a nerve-wracking experience, to say the least - and managed to make it a success.

"It all went really smoothly and after that 12 days, we as a group came together and went, 'Wow, that actually was really quite fun!'"

So they decided to formalize their impromptu partnership and created Alpenglow Productions, eventually branding the event as it is known today: WinterPride. They've been the organizing force behind the event since 2006, and in 2008, Nelson bought out his partners and brought a new partner on board: Ken Coolen, the president of Vancouver Pride.


"Gay ski week" transforms


The new partners at Alpenglow saw a bigger opportunity in the future Whistler gay ski week, a chance to create a more well-rounded and inclusive environment.

"We need to look at the non-skiers as well, because there are a lot of people who are in a relationship where their partner may or may not ski and they won't come up to gay ski week because they think they have to ski, or they'll feel guilty out slicing it up on the mountain while their partner is at home bored in a chalet," Nelson points out, adding that the name "gay ski week" also excluded many of the women, who identify as "lesbians."

Taking over the popular annual event was a "life-changing" event for Nelson, who was touched by the stories he heard from guests, many of whom confided that, for the rest of the year, they had to be "in the closet" at their workplace and within their communities, for fear of discrimination or even violence. Gay Ski Week, they explained, was the one time each year that they really felt that they could be themselves in a safe and welcoming environment.

"Thank you for doing this! For one week out of the entire year, it gives me the strength to continue on for another year," was a comment Nelson often heard.

You see, Whistler's reputation is as a world-class ski resort - not a "gay mecca" - so it doesn't raise eyebrows or alarm bells when they come here for the annual trip.

"So when we hear those stories, it's like, 'wow, we have a bigger responsibility here,'" Nelson says, "WinterPride is a vehicle for us to get that message out there and create safe spaces for people to find each other!"

"Both Ken and I really are quite passionate about human rights and equality for the LGBT community, so we use this as an opportunity and a venue to not only have a great celebration and party, but it's also a venue for us to educate a wider audience."


WinterPride goes to the Games


2010 was a huge year for Nelson's other company,, which is a year-round promoter of Whistler to the LGBT community (the two companies actually work in partnership to produce and promote WinterPride). They were also responsible for creating the first ever Pride Houses at an Olympic and Paralympic Games, offering warm and welcoming venues where the LGBT community and their friends could feel safe.

"We created Pride House as a grassroots, local organization to engage our local community and have a safe space for everyone to come in and enjoy!" Nelson explains.

In total, the three Pride Houses (two of which were located in Vancouver) played host to over 20,000 visitors, while the Whistler Pride House welcomed over 5,000 visitors.

And there could be more Olympic opportunities on the horizon.

"We've had conversations with some of our friends in London and in Sochi, and we're just figuring out what our role will be over there," Nelson says, "For both London and Sochi and even in Rio, it really needs to be organized by the local group, because they have the relationships there. We're happy to go in and assist and consult and be a part that way."

While plans are in the works, Nelson isn't entirely sure what role, if any, his company will play. "Some people have suggested that we should just do it ourselves and I don't know if that's really the spirit of what we wanted to create at Pride House."

Instead, he is encouraging future Olympic host cities to adopt to a similar model or concept, providing organizers with copies of their Legacy Report, which shares insights, opportunities and knowledge gained in 2010.

"You need to have the local gay community being involved and being a part of it to make it successful," he pauses, "I think that's just the way it is, until we create the Rainbow Nation, officially! But I'm not sure if we're ready for that."

Of course, sandwiched in between the two mega sporting events and their respective Pride Houses, Alpenglow and also hosted their annual WinterPride festival. In spite of a number of challenges that came along with being book ended by the Games, like the perceived challenges in getting to and from Whistler, Nelson said they came out of the year "in a good space."

"So we knew going in that our numbers were going to be down. And obviously they were down, but we were actually right on budget as to where we thought we were going to be."


The future of the festival


Through it all, Nelson and his team seem to have created a popular and economically stable event.

"Even through all the economic woes that we've been weathering for the past couple of years, we've been able to not only grow, but just maintain stability and maintain a level of quality for the guest experience!" he says.

Which may be why they are still attracting new sponsors. This year, organizers have actually added a few impressive sponsors to their roster, including a new major corporate sponsor: BMW Canada.

"We've worked really hard with our sponsors in the past," Nelson points out, "Like Travelocity is a great example, where we've nurtured that relationship over the past five years and they have really cut back on some of their own Pride sponsorship, but we were one of the few Prides that they continued to sponsor."

Nelson says they are already in talks with some new sponsors who are interested in coming on-board for 2012, and this year, they're able to return to many of the larger venues, including the Whistler Conference Centre, which weren't available last year, because of the Games.

And the bigger the venue, the bigger the party, right?


Mapping out the action


So, obviously the evolved version of Whistler's gay ski week still features plenty of skiing and outdoor activities (ski guiding, snowmobile tours, dog sledding, snowshoeing, snowcat trips and more). But there are also culinary and entertainment options featured on the schedule.

"We have some really, really cool entertainers coming up this year," Nelson says, "...So, Michele Balan from Last Comic Standing is headlining our comedy show; she is such a scream! She is so much fun and I encourage everyone to come out to that show: you don't need to be gay to understand what she's talking about! She's just hilarious."

They're also welcoming the winner of RuPaul's "Drag Race" TV show, Tyra Sanchez, who will be hosting her own launch party during the WinterPride Saturday après session. Another well-known star, Zayra (a finalist from Rockstar Supernova, the show that was casting for a new lead singer for Supernova) is also making the trip to Whistler to perform for the WinterPride crowd, while Vancouver's own Destineak is also set to perform their hit song, "Calling Your Name" (which is also WinterPride's 2011 theme song).

As usual, the entertainment lineup features some incredible DJs, including Eddie Baez, Ted Eiel and Vancouver's own DJ Adam Dreaddy.

Kendra Doll and Buster Cherry will be making appearances at the Gender Bender party, while Vancouver's drag diva, Symone, is coming up to join in the festivities, as well!

This year, the annual massive dance party, Snowball, has been moved from the top of Whistler to the Conference Centre. Working with Showmax to put on a light show that Nelson says will "blow people away."

According to Nelson, a few of the "can't miss" parties and events at WinterPride 2011 are Snowball, Pearlesque and FURRocious are the must-attend events.

"Pearlesque is at the GLC, which we refer to as the Gay and Lesbian Club," Nelson laughed, "And FURRocious will be at the Conference Centre ... so we have Vancouver leathermen coming up and we have a couple of surprise performances."

But you can't forget the Gender Bender party, the comedy show, and the pool party, of course.

"Oh my God, there's just so much!" Nelson says.

"One of our big challenges is venue capacity, so until we have a larger venue to operate from, we're pretty much where we can be with some of our events. To give you an example, like with the apres skis, we have to do all of our apres skis now from Thursday, Friday, Saturday all at the Conference Centre because our venue capacities are just too small to do it anyplace else!"

He's excited to see how they can use new venues, like Whistler Olympic Plaza, in future years.

"For us, its just a matter of looking at other opportunities, like are there opportunities to start bringing some other gay conferences up that would draw a different type of clientele up for the festival, to try and draw more room nights that way. Just focusing on the party aspect of it, we're starting to be at the capacity that we can be."

And remember, WinterPride is about as inclusive as it gets, which means that you don't need to count yourself a member of the LGBT community to come out and play.

"We're really excited to be out there, and we're challenging the Whistler community to show their pride and show us your colours and just get out there and participate!"

For a full schedule of this year's WinterPride lineup, head to