Aspen Times Weekly cover story: What it means to be gay in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly cover story: What it means to be gay in Aspen

Amanda Charles
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado

Cover by Afton Groepper

ASPEN – The table was situated in the back corner of the pub. It was the second Friday of the month, and so the staff knew to set out extra chairs. Members filed in slowly: real estate agents, bankers, music directors, marketing specialists, entrepreneurs, Web developers and other professionals from Aspen, all of whom took the time to get to Glenwood Springs. Some arrived with their partners; some arrived alone; others arrived for the first time.

Pitchers of beer were passed around as hosts Jason and Dave introduced themselves to the first-timers and thanked them for stopping by. The mood was light. Friends shook hands and updated one another on relationships, work and vacations, while others shared jokes over nachos and hot wings. It was the Roaring Fork Gay and Lesbian Community Fund’s second Friday at the Glenwood Springs BrewPub, and unlike the group’s typical nights of winding down over food and drink, my presence opened the door to a conversation, in light of recent issues being pressed at the state and federal levels, that appeared long overdue: What exactly does it mean to be gay in the Roaring Fork Valley?

Sitting to the right of me at the table was Jason Hodges, vice president of the board for the Gay and Lesbian Community Fund. Jason met his partner, Lou, through an online dating site while living in Charleston, S.C., 11 years ago. Officially together for nine years, the couple moved to Aspen with hopes of sharing a life together.

“Aspen is a special place that has been acknowledging gay rights for years,” Jason said. “Our organization takes credit for putting on the first Gay Ski Week in the world, and that was 35 years ago when most people didn’t even know what a gay person was.”

Jason, who did not come out to family and friends until his early 30s, feels the local Gay and Lesbian Community Fund is a great resource primarily because Aspen, compared to a city, is a secluded place with a small population of gay people. In its efforts, the organization strives to promote tolerance, understanding and diversity through education and service, most actively through school programs and support groups.

“I would hate to move here and not know anyone who shares the same preference,” he said. “It’s hard enough as it is, and our organization recognizes the importance of being available for people who may not feel comfortable in everyday life.”

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As Jason recalls, people often reach out to him and other group members for advice and mentoring before coming out to family and friends. The same holds true for family members who have trouble understanding a gay son or daughter.

But despite what Jason terms a “progressive community” that welcomes people of all walks, he and Lou still encounter difficulties when they travel outside the Valley or meet with family members.

“Straight people take for granted the liberties they have,” Jason said. “I wouldn’t dare hold Lou’s hand, give him a kiss or hug him in front of family members, especially children. When we travel together, it’s not even a question of whether … the risk is too great … being gay makes you painfully aware of other people.”

When it comes to the legal side of the issue, Jason dismisses the idea of going to a state that supports gay marriage just to tie the knot. To him, it would almost be a scam because he couldn’t enjoy any of the benefits in Colorado. Moreover, Jason is hopeful that Obama’s recent endorsement of gay marriage will bring legislation that will protect gays in their communities.

“It would be amazing if Lou and I could get married in state and live a life that allows us to be recognized as a family who supports one another. Whatever protection we can get, even if it’s a civil union, that would be a better change than what we currently deal with.”

At this point in the evening, guards were being let down and the majority of group members were laying their thoughts and experiences on the table. Coming out to family and friends, being able to visit a partner in the hospital, claiming mutual taxes, and getting married and raising children – nothing was off limits. But one individual stole most of my attention when it comes to living and working as a gay person in the community. He was Paul Dankers, music director at the Snowmass Village Chapel.

Originally from Wisconsin, Paul came to Aspen in 2004 to teach music and composition at Aspen High School. The following year, a member of the Snowmass Chapel approached Paul and asked if he would be willing to fill in on Sundays to play the piano during church sermons. Paul agreed, and after about six months playing periodically, the church offered him a full-time position as music director.

“It was definitely a scary spot for me because church people aren’t very supportive of gays, especially gays on staff. I had no intention of going back into the closet just to be a part of the church, but it was also easy for me to pass as a straight male, which helped.”

According to Paul, the Snow-mass Chapel, which takes a nondenominational stance and goes by the mantra, “live the adventure,” was fully accepting of his sexual preference and made no attempt to ostracize him from the congregation. The pastor even took the initiative of providing Paul employee housing within the chapel quarters.

But it wasn’t until 2009, when Paul met Michael, a member of the German-based music group “Vocaldente,” and fell in love, that the stance of the church and its members took him by complete surprise.

“I met Michael and knew I wanted to be with him around the same time Dr. Robert de Wetter became our new senior pastor. I made it a point to sit down with the reverend and be honest about my sexuality.”

Not only did Paul outwardly express his sexuality to Rev. de Wetter, he made it clear that if he or the church were not accepting of him or his relationship with Michael, he would willingly leave without stirring any conflict.

To his surprise, Rev. de Wetter assured Paul that being gay would never be an issue at the Snowmass Chapel, and to this day willingly welcomes his partner Michael to church every Sunday.

And despite nonsupport of gay marriage in Colorado, Paul and Michael decided out of pure love for each other to legally get married in Bellevue, Iowa, last September.

Today, Paul continues to work as music director for the Chapel, as he lives with Michael full time in an apartment in Snowmass.

To date, only one couple has left the congregation due to nonsupport of Paul and Michael’s relationship. According to Rev. de Wetter, this statistic proves to be a pretty good track record.

In Paul’s mind, Aspen is unlike any other small town in that people are extremely open and accepting. It doesn’t surprise him that the Valley would have a church that reflects the same.

“Most of the conversation today is based on fear,” he said. “If you watch the dialogue on the right, they are scared to death we are going to be out in public schools convincing kids to be gay … that we will have all these gay kids running around. In my perspective, you have a lot of kids running around with straight models and they are still gay; it doesn’t make them turn straight. It makes them feel alienated, and there is something fundamentally wrong that.”

Luckily for Paul, he feels confident living a lifestyle that is supported both in his community and workplace.

“I proposed to Michael in Campo de Fiori, and there were no comments or awkward stares. I wouldn’t hesitate to hold Michael’s hand down Main Street or give him a hug. I can’t speak for all of Aspen, the Chapel or all gays, but from my experience, Aspen is a place that is proud to be nonhomophobic.”