Giving Thought: Leveraging tourism for community good

Allison Alexander
Giving Thought
Allison Alexander
Courtesy photo

Kicking off with Food & Wine just a few short weeks ago, Aspen launched fully into its robust and colorful summer season. Town is now full of energy, activities, and cultural events. The Aspen Music Festival and School (AMFS) is adding to that color with its inaugural Pride Picnic on the David Karetsky Music Lawn on Thursday to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community, friends, and families.

The social and event scene that emerges in Aspen each summer underscores the truth that our region’s economy is primarily driven by tourism. As such, one local non-profit, AspenOUT, has found a way to leverage tourism to foster belonging, inclusivity, and celebrate diversity. Established in 1977, AspenOUT, also known as the Roaring Fork Gay & Lesbian Community Fund, provides support and services for the diverse LGBTQIA+ population of the valley in a variety of ways.

It’s largest fundraiser, Aspen Gay Ski Week (AGSW) celebrated its 46th anniversary this year and has proven to be a vital part of our local economy.

According to Kevin McManamon, executive director of AspenOUT, “AGSW has capitalized on the Aspen market to create the largest and only non-profit gay ski week in the world. AGSW is the standard by which all other gay ski weeks are measured. The participation and support for AGSW is broad. We have full support from Aspen Snowmass, the city of Aspen, Aspen Chamber Resort Association, retailers, and restaurants. A chart of tax revenue shows that AGSW is second only to the December holidays.”

Under his leadership, the organization leverages the tourism revenue brought in through AGSW and re-invests it into the community, as well as with national LGBTQIA+ organizations. “We have spent over $100,000 in the last year right here in the Roaring Fork Valley in the form of mental health services, educational opportunities, and scholarships,” he said.

A significant portion of their funding support goes toward providing mental-health services for members of the LGBTQIA+ community in our region which are critically needed. McManamon said, “in our valley, the general population suffers from depression and suicidal ideation greater than in other parts of the country. That number can double or even triple in the LGBTQIA+ community.” In 2022, AspenOUT’s Mental Health Program provided over 400 hours of one-on-one mental-health counseling.

Additionally, after recognizing the shortage of local mental health professionals trained in supporting LGBTQIA+ issues, AspenOUT created and underwrote an opportunity for local therapists and counselors to gain continuing education credits and insight into the issues associated with the mental health of the LGBTQIA+ community.

In addition to supporting direct mental-health services, AspenOUT provides funding to all of the local Gender and Sexualities Alliances (GSA) in our region’s schools. “Statistics have shown over and over again that affirming support for LGBTQIA+ youth saves lives. The support of the local GSAs is vital to the mental well-being of individuals struggling with their sexual or gender identities. Simply put: GSA’s save lives,” said McManamon.

Creating spaces and opportunities for members of this community to both see themselves and to feel a sense of belonging is critical for thriving. In recent years, our region has seen an increase in Pride events, many (if not all) have been underwritten or sponsored by AspenOUT.

He said, “I am thrilled to see so many new Pride events in our valley. Being seen, represented, and affirmed in so many venues up and down the valley gives our community a sense of belonging. That ‘belonging’ fosters a positive mental-health framework that saves lives.”

Community and connection through opportunities, like the community Pride Picnic, providespaces for allies to come to show their support, which is essential when nationally there has been an uptick in anti-gay legislation and hateful rhetoric.

As a community, we welcome all visitors to our region and understand why so many flock to our mountain home each summer and winter. AspenOUT is a model of what supporting the community that lives here year round can look like through leveraging tourism to create better outcomes for some of the most vulnerable members of our population.

When we come together as visitors, locals, allies and members of the LGBTQIA+ community, we are stronger together.

Allison Alexander is the director of strategic partnerships and communicationsfor the Aspen Community Foundation, which with the support of its donors, works with non-profits in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.