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Meet my daughter Lilly: bright, beautiful, brimming with dreams and confidence, a little moody, sarcastically funny. She throws herself at life with an admirable recklessness that worries a parent sometimes. Her long blond hair is often messy, like her room at home always was. Her singing voice is beautiful … got that from her mom. She’s a ripping skier; or was when she was little and could be again if she weren’t trapped in D.C., where she just graduated from college. And always there were boys hanging around. There still are. Poor boys. Lilly is gay.
I confess that I remember being annoyed when I found that out. Not because I disapproved of the gay lifestyle, or because it dimmed my hopes of having grandbabies any time soon. (OK, that was part of it. The sooner I have grandbabies to dandle on my knee the better.) Mostly I was annoyed because I finally had to admit that her mom, who’d had her suspicions about the gay thing ever since Lilly was a tomboy tot, was right.
There are especially good parts to having a gay daughter. I get free swag from the Human Rights Campaign, where Lilly interned. And there are new avenues of inappropriate humor (our favorite kind), not all having to do with turkey basters.
Best of all, having a lesbian daughter is my entrée (not that you need one) to Gay Ski Week at Aspen. My brilliant idea: meet my two girls, Lilly and her annoying twin sister Grace (straight), along with Lilly’s friend Ale (un-straight) at the Denver airport, and drive up for a few days of skiing at Aspen, where the girls, poor babies, have never been.
Why am I so excited? Because, let’s just go ahead, despite the obvious perils, and stereotype a segment of the gay population for a minute, using my impoverished pre–Gay Ski Week hetero brain. Is it not true that partying and skiing and celebrating with hundreds, if not thousands, of gay folks looking to let loose in the Colorado mountains certainly will have its entertaining moments? Certainly have a lot of entertaining moments?
And all of this in the world’s coolest ski town? Sign me up. Throw in time on the hill with my darling daughters? Best assignment ever.
The Early Days of Aspen Gay Ski Week
Aspen’s is the original gay ski week, dating back to circa 1976, which makes it nearly a 50-year tradition. Emphasis on “circa”: One of its founders, Jon Busch, says its origins were informal, so it’s hard to nail down an exact first year. “We kind of had to pick a year,” he says.
Even in the 1970s, a still-dark (Anita Bryant) but transcendent (Stonewall riots) time for gays, Aspen was an unusually gay-friendly town, recalls Busch, who moved there in 1969, ran the local radio station, KSPN, and later managed the Aspen Film Series. As was so often the case back then (see Stonewall Inn), the local gay scene got started in a bar, Jerry’s Place.
It’s a funny story. “We decided Aspen needed a gay bar,” says Busch, “so we looked around for the worst business in town, and it was Jerry’s. We went to Jerry and told him we could make a go of it as a gay bar—turn his place into a popular dance club, because, you know, the gays know the best dance music. And sure enough it was very successful, because the straights want the best dance music too.”
Jerry’s Place was short-lived, but a scene was born. Around that time, gay ski clubs from Los Angeles and San Diego were organizing trips to Aspen. “They started inviting us to their condos for parties,” Busch says, “and then we decided we should coordinate so that all the gay ski clubs knew which weekend was the one to come. First thing we knew, we had a club from Texas, another from Chicago, and all the clubs started growing.”
If there was a defining event, Busch thinks it was a party thrown by the local gay community at the Aspen Art Museum. (“Maybe that was in 1976,” Busch ventures.) Hosting a rowdy group of here-to-party gay guys may have been more than the museum’s distinguished board members bargained for. “We packed the place,” says Busch. “It was wall to wall. And I suspect it may have given some of the Art Museum people some gray hair because there we were, with free-flowing beer, rubbing up against their precious artworks, having a great time. I guess that was really the start.”
The Modern-Day Ski Week
Today’s Gay Ski Week is a massive affair, with a weeklong calendar of events and social gatherings leading up to its signature spectacle, the Costume Downhill (Paris Is Burning meets Hot Dog). It draws thousands, packing the town during the otherwise slow week following MLK weekend. Many resorts have copied the format (some still using code names). And Gay Ski Week is unquestionably a boon for business in Aspen. But its organizers are intensely proud of the fact that it’s a nonprofit event, the primary fundraiser for Aspen Out.
Officially known as the Roaring Fork Gay and Lesbian Community Fund, Aspen Out donates GSW proceeds to numerous organizations locally and nationally, including nearby schools, One Colorado, The Trevor Project, and the Human Rights Campaign. This year’s GSW included an event to benefit the Tyler Clementi Foundation, named for the Rutgers student who committed suicide after being outed via livestream.
Serious stuff. But while it’s all for a great cause, GSW is “just a great party,” says Aspen Out executive director Kevin McManamon. “It’s fun to be here, it’s great to be in Aspen, and you’re always with a group of friends—people who share a common experience.”
McManamon, an interior designer who relocated from Michigan to Aspen five years ago, thinks this is his 22nd Gay Ski Week—“I’ve only missed one year since I started coming.” He grew up in Detroit, deeply closeted, the only skier in a family of golfers, making his turns at places like Mount Holly, Crystal, and Boyne.
There’s a sexy, fun-loving, anything-goes quality to Gay Ski Week—plenty of sculpted, shirtless bods and rowdy hot-tub sessions. “But it’s not a circuit party,” says McManamon. (He has to explain to me what that means: a risqué all-night gay rave fueled by drugs and alcohol.) “We’re kind of the opposite of that. That’s part of big-city gay life, but we’re not that, and we don’t want to be that.” It’s more about the camaraderie and support, he says. And, of course, the skiing.
McManamon says it’s hard to pin down exact attendance figures for Gay Ski Week, but both he and Busch are certain it’s been growing steadily for a number of years. Busch remembers a sudden drop in attendance in the early ’90s, after Colorado voters passed Amendment 2, which prohibited municipalities from passing gay-rights ordinances (like the one that pioneering Aspen passed way back in 1978). “There was a boycott of Colorado by the gay community after Amendment 2,” Busch says. “That hurt us. And other resorts, like Whistler, saw an opportunity to capitalize on Colorado’s problems. A lot of competing gay ski weeks sprang up around then.”
Challenges to Amendment 2 went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled it unconstitutional in 1996. Since then, attendance has steadily risen, perhaps 15 percent each year. And with LGBTQ+-friendly Logo TV on hand to add extra hype this year, attendance was “off the charts,” McManamon says.
Aside from a shared love of skiing, McManamon and I have something in common: We’re both dads. He and his ex-partner are parents of two children—his oldest, Sophia, is now 20 years old. And when I ask him if he has a favorite or defining memory of Gay Ski Week, he’s quick to offer one—a life-affirming moment at the Aspen airport baggage claim.
“My ex and I had just adopted Sophia. And we really knew no one else that had adopted. She was six months old and we’d left her at home. Our flight had been canceled and we’d been bused in and had to go to the airport to get our luggage, and sure enough, there’s two guys standing there at the baggage claim with a little girl between their legs, about a year old. They didn’t know anyone who had adopted either, and it was nice for all of us to finally meet someone with that shared experience. We’ve been friends ever since.”
Like me, McManamon cherishes time on the slopes with his kids—they’re both snowboarders, which is probably no reflection on his parenting. And as it turns out, my own father-daughter trip to GSW was just a year ahead of its time. In 2017, organizers, who are already working to attract more women, plan to host events for gay-friendly families the weekend before (on MLK weekend, a natural opportunity for families).
If I had my choice, my little girls would be permanently six years old. We’d still be snuggling with Harry Potter every night, making Mickey Mouse pancakes every morning, racing for lollipops at Cochran’s every Sunday. But now that they’re adults, there’s this new thing called hanging out in bars with them, and it’s wicked fun, especially in a place like Aspen.
We do Gay Ski Week right, hitting all the hot spots—drinks at The Little Nell and Red Onion, dinners at the Jerome and Justice Snow’s. A good friend turns us on to the coolest place in town for morning coffee, the top of the newly relocated Aspen Art Museum, with its killer views. We go clubbing—me, clubbing—at the new Rec Room. I’m a little out of my element—throbbing electronic dance music, voluptuous waitresses stuffed into retro cocktail dresses, outrageous prices—but the girls seem like pros.
The Limelight Hotel serves as headquarters for Gay Ski Week. On our first night in town we check in there and get our official welcome bag, which is hilarious—condoms donated by Wood River Distillery (“It’s the wood that makes it good!”), among other things. There’s a man-thong (jockstrap?) from RounderBuns Underwear, which is great, because I didn’t have one of those.
The skiing, of course, is also great. I have to go easy on the girls—they’re city-soft—but that’s fine. For instance, at Highlands, on day one, we opt not to hike to top of the Bowl. Instead we do laps in steep fluffy bumps on Deep Temerity and some fast cruising on the groomers, but the highlight is mid-mountain lunch at Cloud Nine, which is fabulous even when it’s not Gay Ski Week, famous for its raclette and Maroon Bell views. The place is jamming—10 men for every woman, tunes blaring, and what a set list. I assume it’s a special mix just for GSW, compiled by an Actual Gay Man, but later learn it’s always that awesome. (Just me stereotypin’.)
As the beats reach a climax, I’m tempted to tear off my shirt, jump on a table, and suggestively spray the room with Veuve Clicquot. But a couple other dudes beat me to it.
We spend the rest of our days at Ajax. I know the locals love Highlands, but I’ve always preferred Ajax—is that wrong?
We meet some really cool people. There’s Dan Wetzel, a China energy-economy analyst at the Rocky Mountain Institute. He’s on AT gear, and though he’s a backcountry neophyte his goal is to compete in the famous Grand Traverse race, the 40-mile overnight tour from Crested Butte to Aspen. He studied dance growing up, and we run into him on the dance floor at the Rec Room later in the week. The girls agree his moves are even more devastating than mine.
We meet Damien Williamson, who earned a degree in molecular something-or-other from Harvard, then chucked it all and moved here to become editor of Aspen Peak Magazine. We meet Reed Lewis, a town councilman and Snowmass business owner (The Daly Bottle Shop) who’s been coming to GSW forever. We meet a guy in front of the Rec Room who can’t believe a dad would bring his daughters to GSW. His dad? Threw him out of the house when he was 17.
Focus on the Family, GSW-style
How times have changed since Aspen’s Gay Ski Week got started in the party-hearty ’70s. Plenty of once-rowdy regulars have kids of their own now. To welcome them, Gay Ski Week expanded in 2019 to include a first-ever mini-GSW for families the weekend before adult GSW, Martin Luther King weekend.
So what did I expect, Nathan Lane on every lift ride?Costume Downhill aside (like, way aside), Gay Ski Week looks for the most part like any other week in Aspen. Maybe even a few more dudes than usual, but most of them are just … skiers—guys who rip, guys who don’t, guys drinking beer in smelly baselayers. Is it a little disappointing?
Not in the least. And seriously, on behalf of all daddies who love their daughters more than anything, and want them to be happy more than anything, thank you, from the bottom of our big soft daddy hearts, to the brave men and women who blazed the trail for gay rights.
Even in a chill place like Aspen, it had to take courage to be out in the early days. Busch remembers being chased down the street, being ordered to leave a bar for daring to dance with another man. McManamon, who didn’t dare come out until his mid-30s, was denied access to his kids by an angry ex and laws that failed to recognize his rights as a father.
There’s been progress, Busch says. “I’m optimistic. I’m very happy with the acceptance these days of gays and lesbians and transgender people, both in the U.S. and really in most of the Western world. Things have really changed a lot.”
And sometimes, of course, it feels like there’s been a lack of progress. No, it shouldn’t take having a gay daughter to be more appreciative of LGBTQ+ issues and challenges, but I confess it brings it home for me.
To be an adolescent is hard enough. I can only imagine what it was like for my kid, never mind for Busch in his day. (“I was one of those original closeted kids who knew he was gay in high school and nobody else knew.”) I can thank guys like him for fighting the fights that have made coming out a little easier for today’s LGBTQ+ youth.
One last stereotype. The gay community, it seems to me, has responded to persecution and judgment not only with a push for change, but also with courage, patience, and wonderful humor. They never forget that it’s their right to party and ski and celebrate life in whatever manner they choose in beautiful places like Aspen.
So pop the cork. Let spray the Cloud Nine champagne. And God bless the Costume Downhill.
Originally published in the November 2016 issue of SKI Magazine.