A year of firsts for 42nd annual Aspen Gay Ski Week
The world's first gay ski week was conceived in the late 1970s in a colorful little ski town called Aspen.
Today, more than four decades later, the energy, momentum and support surrounding the internationally renowned event are as strong as ever.
While Aspen Gay Ski Week is 42 years old, the 2019 celebration is, in many senses, a year of firsts for the weeklong event.
From a global standpoint, this year marks the first in which a foreign government is participating in Gay Ski Week.
On a state level, Colorado made history this month welcoming into office Gov. Jared Polis, the first openly gay governor in the United States.
Locally, the largest employer in the Roaring Fork Valley, Aspen Skiing Co., is taking a firm stance for the first time on LGBTQ issues and policies, with a new campaign that promotes inclusion, love and diversity.
A newly launched local chapter of PFLAG — a national organization for families, friends and allies of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer — also is making its Aspen Gay Ski Week debut this week.
And of course, the passionate organizers behind Aspen Gay Ski Week are constantly devising ways to keep the party fresh; new to the 2019 calendar is a "Big Gay Ice Show."
With performances by gay Olympic skaters, same-sex skating pairs and "gliding drag queens," AspenOUT executive director Kevin McManamon said, "No one has ever really produced a show like this before."
AspenOUT, the nonprofit that's produced Aspen Gay Ski Week since 1996, donates 100 percent of the party's proceeds to LBTGQ causes — especially ones aimed at helping young people — locally and nationally.
Over the past few years, AspenOUT has focused more on the "mental health of the teenagers in our valley," McManamon said, noting the particularly high suicide rate among LGBTQ youth.
Counseling for children and teens and college scholarships are two major beneficiaries of the dollars raised during Aspen Gay Ski Week.
In 2018, AspenOUT awarded nearly $45,000 in grants, $18,00 of which funded scholarships for high school seniors.
"We ask the kids to write essays about what difficulties they have faced in the LGBTQ world," McManamon explained. "Then the (AspenOUT) board sits around a table, we read the essays, we cry, and then we give them money.
"And it's super rewarding."
PFLAG IS BORN
With the help of AspenOUT board member Vince Johnson, two parents of local transgender teens started the valley's PFLAG chapter in November 2017.
One of those mothers is Tracy Altmaier, whose son, a sophomore at Basalt High School, recently identified himself as transgender.
Struggling to find resources within the community, Altmaier said she realized, "The only way to go to a support group was to start one."
In the little more than a year since its inception, PFLAG has grown from its two founding families to between five and eight families, totaling up to 20 consistent members, the founders said.
PFLAG meets every third Wednesday at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Basalt, with an overwhelmingly supportive Fr. Will Fisher opening the doors and often sitting in on the meetings.
"I think PFLAG has brought some families together that wouldn't otherwise know each other … it's always going to help when you know somebody's going through the same types of struggles that you are," Altmaier said. "I'm hoping, more and more, we get more families who are willing to come. I think there's definitely sometimes a stigma with certain families who don't have extended family support."
At meetings, Altmaier said the teens will hang out together, "just kids being kids," while the parents will explore a relevant topic.
She describes PFLAG as a safe haven for the teens — "a place where there's not anybody whispering about them in the corner."
While still in its infancy, PFLAG is ramping up its efforts, Altmaier said, with plans in the works for bowling parties, ski days and group hikes.
On Saturday, PFLAG will play host to its inaugural event as part of Aspen Gay Ski Week. The party, also themed around ice skating, is slated at the ice rink outside CP Burger from 2 to 4 p.m.
SKICO PUSHES LGBTQ CAMPAIGN
An extension of its "The Aspen Way" and "Give A Flake" ad campaigns, Skico recently launched a series of rainbow-filled messaging aimed at shattering intolerance and spreading love.
While Skico always has been a supporter of Aspen Gay Ski Week, this is the first year the company is assuming a formal position and promoting LGBTQ rights and policies, Skico creative services senior manager Lindsy Fortier said.
The marketing team "made a shift starting in January to encompass more of this community, intolerance, inclusion messaging," Fortier said.
"Hosting (Gay Ski Week) is something we're really proud of. It's a community that we're excited to support, and we wanted our campaign to showcase that."
Along with sharp, colorful clips on its site and social channels, and glossy spreads in Snow, Freeskier and Powder magazines, Skico's landing page for the campaign outlines ways to get involved with or support LGBTQ organizations.
The http://www.giveaflake.com/love site also encourages businesses to sign an "Open to All" anti-discrimination pledge, and shares a glimpse of Aspen Gay Ski Week's history.
Inside the main ticket offices at the base of all four mountains, postcards addressed to representatives fighting for equality replaced notes advocating for climate change. A number of pop-ups, activations and giveaways also will pepper the slopes throughout the weekend, Fortier said.
While many are commending Skico for its inclusive message, the company also is seeing its share of haters.
"These topics are heavily criticized by people who disagree. As a business, we feel like it's more important for us to push out our values and what we believe in than to worry about people's disagreement," Fortier said, adding that, "It's worth the risk of turning some people off."
In the long run, however, "I think it's brought us more business … because it sets us apart from other businesses," Fortier said.
The love campaign is an evolution of Skico's recent wave of activism inspired largely by CEO and President Mike Kaplan's op-ed titled, "We're still here."
Fortier said Skico continues to revisit and "bounce ideas off" the piece, which first was published in the Wall Street Journal in September 2017.
"Our company is really proud of our values and we feel like it's a differentiator for us," Fortier said. "We're not afraid to stand up and speak about what we believe in."
FORMALLY, A FOREIGN AFFAIR
Aspen Gay Ski Week attracts roughly 3,000 visitors anually, McManamon estimated, from all over the world.
However, this is the first year that a foreign government is involved, as members of the British consulate camp out in Aspen this week. Aspen Gay Ski Week is among about a dozen pride events that the British government plans to partake in this year.
Fueled around its "Love is Great" campaign that promotes LGBTQ rights, in 2017, the U.K. was the first international bureaucracy to participate in Denver's Pride Parade, said Erin Kuhn, the British Consul for Colorado.
"We saw such a great reception at the Denver Pride Parade, we thought we could be doing so much more," Kuhn said. "We looked at other parts of Colorado and zoned in on Aspen Gay Ski Week."
The U.K. is consistently ranked as one the most progressive countries in the world with regard to LGBTQ rights, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
DIVERSITY AT THE STATE LEVEL
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, who was sworn into office last week, pushed his "Colorado for All" campaign because "we have a tradition of celebrating diversity in our state."
"I really believe that our diversity is our strength," Gov. Polis said in a recent phone interview.
Gov. Polis, his partner, Marlon Reis, and a few friends participated in Aspen Gay Ski Week sometime "more than a decade ago."
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"We enjoyed it," Gov. Polis said. "I think it's a great way to highlight Aspen and its positive, inclusive atmosphere, and market to people nationally and internationally."
A tad busy to swing by the event this year, Gov. Polis plans to issue a proclamation supporting Gay Ski Week and also "do whatever we can to highlight our ski economy and Aspen."
Part of Gov. Polis' legacy will always be his role as the first openly gay governor in the U.S.; however, his platform centers on issues that affect the vast majority of Coloradans, like the high cost of health care.
Asked if he thinks his policies will translate to any form of national movement or support, Gov. Polis said, "I certainly hope that we're able to innovate and provide some models that others can learn from in other states."
"I think in this point in time, we're not expecting anything good to come from Washington, and so we're going to have to figure out how to do it ourselves. And so if we do innovate and we succeed, we'd be honored if others could learn from our example."
Speaking to the significance of the 42-year-old Aspen Gay Ski Week, Gov. Polis said, "I think it means a lot to different communities to have a focal point and a social event that can attract additional money from out of state, tourists from out of state, and it's good for business in Colorado to highlight the fact that we celebrate diversity."