January 28, 2011 Features & Images » Feature Story

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.

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