More than a party: Aspen Gay Ski Week helps raise funds, awareness for LGBTQ+ community
For the past 43 years, Aspen-Snowmass has hosted the oldest gay ski week celebration and fundraiser in the nation.
As hundreds take part in the renowned list of festivities this week, most locals and visitors will talk of and remember the daily group skiing and snowboarding sessions, late-night apres ski parties, downhill costume contest and flamingo pool party.
But for many longtime Aspen Gay Ski Week attendees like Reed Strathdee-Lewis, owner of the Daly Bottle Shop in Snowmass Village, the week is more than just a celebration. It’s a way to raise money and support for the LGBTQ+ community.
“You can’t not hear about Aspen Gay Ski Week. It’s one of the biggest winter events,” Lewis said. “Yes, it’s a party, but it’s a party that raises money for a lot of good causes. That’s why I’ve stuck with it.”
Lewis, who’s lived in Snowmass for nearly 25 years, has been on the board of directors for AspenOUT, the LGBTQ+ advocacy nonprofit behind Aspen Gay Ski Week, for more than a decade.
Through the annual Gay Ski Week celebration, Lewis said AspenOUT is able to raise funds that both support national LGBTQ+ initiatives and local efforts to engage, educate and empower LGBTQ+ youth and their families up and down the valley.
“The fundraising indirectly saves lives,” Lewis said. “There’s still discrimination and there’s still work to be done to ensure equal and fair treatment for everyone.”
Although AspenOUT has existed for roughly two decades, it has ramped up its efforts to support local LGBTQ+ youth and allies over the past five years through its high school senior scholarship program; free mental health and counseling; Gender and Sexualities Alliance (GSA) support in high schools and middle schools; LGBTQ+ affirming film series; and WORD, an alternative prom for students uncomfortable with their school’s conventional prom held each spring.
On the first morning of Aspen Gay Ski Week, Kevin McManamon, executive director of AspenOUT, and Janet Gordon, a licensed professional counselor trained to support LGBTQ+ youth and who works with AspenOUT, talked about the impact of these year-round support programs on students from Aspen to Glenwood Springs.
In 2019 alone, the nonprofit awarded over $18,000 to LGBTQ+ seniors and their allies, and offered over 40 hours of free individual and family counseling.
“It’s easy; we do this so kids don’t kill themselves,” McManamon said. “If we don’t do this, kids may not feel supported in being who they are.”
“We often believe we are more accepting than we are,” Gordon added. “There’s a big difference between saying you are accepting and actually showing it.”
According to the most recent Regional Health Study conducted across Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties, more LGBTQ+ and Hispanic kids reported experiencing bullying and attempting suicide than their straight and white peers.
Over 63% of kids who reported experiencing depression and 33.8% of kids who said they planned a suicide identified as LGBTQ+, according to the study data.
For Gordon, AspenOUT has been huge in helping facilitate more safe spaces and events for LGBTQ+ youth in the valley through its financial and board member support.
The nonprofit helped her attend the Gender Odyssey conference in San Diego and gain training on LGBTQ+ specific counseling, which she feels has made her a better ally and resource for students and their families.
“All any of us want is recognition,” Gordon said. “If you’re LGBTQ+ and you live in an environment that doesn’t accept or recognize you, that’s tough. Here, the fact that we are able to show kids they are a valued part of the community and that someone does see them. That’s big.”
Chamberlain Peacock and Aiden Krause, both seniors at Aspen High School and co-presidents of its GSA, or LGBTQ+ Club, said they recognize Gordon and AspenOUT as rare and important resources for the valley.
Through their club, which meets weekly during the lunch hour, the two seniors have tried to help empower their LGBTQ+ peers, educate students and teachers on how to respond to slurs and discrimination, and ensure the high school is a safe space for everyone.
“Even though gay marriage was accepted back in 2015, there’s still a lot of misinformation, there’s some harassment and miscommunication,” Peacock said. “That can be really hard when you’re trying to figure this out yourself and you’re stigmatized as the gay kid. Having an area where you don’t have to worry about all of that is nice.”
“It’s nice knowing that you’re not the only one as well,” Krause added. “We strive to educate people about what it means to be LGBT and how to be a decent ally so by the time they go into the real world and you’re out of that bubble that everyone calls Aspen, you aren’t close-minded and don’t live a life of toxicity.”
After they graduate, Peacock and Krause hope to see the high school’s club continue to advocate for LGBTQ+ students and branch out into the middle school to help create a more accepting environment.
They also said even though they don’t get to take part in much of Aspen Gay Ski Week, there will be a youth event at the CP Burger ice rink on Saturday in Aspen and that the public support for LGBTQ+ over the week is reassuring.
“People don’t understand the power of just hanging a pride flag and the comfort that comes from that,” Krause said.
“One day we hope we won’t even need a club; we hope that all people will just know how to act and everyone will feel accepted,” Peacock added. In Snowmass, town tourism staff is working to ensure the LGBTQ+ community feels welcomed and accepted over Aspen Gay Ski Week and beyond with the addition of pride stickers in merchant windows and flags hung up around the village.
Rose Abello, director of Snowmass Tourism, said the village has been working to partner more with Aspen Gay Ski Week, evident with this year’s inaugral LGBTQ+ family weekend in Snowmass.
“We’re really excited about the family weekend and our whole team is behind Gay Ski Week,” Abello said, noting that Snowmass Tourism is the defending downhill costume contest champion.
“All of the things that make the village wonderful for a traditional family make us wonderful for LGBTQ+ families, too, and we want every family to feel welcome here.”
Lewis said he congratulates Snowmass on recognizing the value of parentering with the LGBTQ+ community, and for showing its support of both Aspen Gay Ski Week and AspenOUT, which he hopes continues to grow for years to come.
“I think weeks like this are important because they give people in the community the chance to feel like themselves with no judgment. You can be unapologetically you,” Lewis said.
“I think it’s pretty awesome for the younger community to see this, to see there’s nothing wrong with being (LGBTQ+). It’s OK to be you.”