Aspen Gay Ski Week is an annual event that brings the queer community together in the tiny, gorgeous mountain town of Aspen, Colorado. At first glance this event may appear to just be one big party, but if one looks closely, a rich history of contribution to LGBTQ rights is revealed.
Aspen Gay Ski Week was started by a few Aspen locals and some of their out-of-town friends in the 1970s. These guys began getting together in Aspen each winter to spend time with other gay men. They quickly turned political and in 1979 they secured queer rights in Aspen, which set the precedent for all of Colorado.
In the 1990s, this organization was instrumental in the fight against Amendment 2, which revoked all previously enacted state and municipal queer rights legislation. Amendment 2 was brought down in 1996, which was the same year that Aspen Gay Ski Week became incorporated as the Aspen Gay and Lesbian Community Fund, a nonprofit. Today, this organization is called AspenOUT, and Aspen Gay Ski Week remains a cornerstone of their programming.
To learn more about what Aspen Gay Ski Week looks like today, I spoke with Jim Guttau. He is the public relations director and spokesperson for Aspen Gay Ski Week, and has been working with this event for 11 years, which has given him the opportunity to see it grow at an astounding rate.
How has Aspen Gay Ski Week changed over the years you’ve been there?
The first year I went—in 2007—it was so much smaller than it is now. It’s always been an amazing event, but now the awareness of Aspen Gay Ski Week has really grown. Every time I go to a major city around the U.S. and I mention it, people know about it. What really hit it home was at Market Days in Chicago, one of the Midwest’s largest festivals, we had an Aspen Gay Ski Week booth. More people knew about it than I thought would, people from all over the place, too. It was really cool to see that.
With my group of friends, it started with just me coming. Then I brought one friend the next year, and he had such a great time that the year after that we had five, and the one after that, eight. And now all of us have kind of spread out all over the nation, moved away from Colorado and things like that, so we come back and meet every year in Aspen.
This mirrors other people’s experience, too. And now we’re looking at probably 5,000 attendees this year. I remember the first year I went, the après-ski parties they have at the Limelight Hotel probably had 100, maybe 300 people, and now those parties are almost 1,000 people—so that’s increased tenfold.
Is there a cap on how many people can attend?
No, the only thing is that we’re selling out like wildfire. People usually delay [buying their tickets], especially the people that live in Denver. Now we don’t have very many passes left. There are the Black Diamond Passes; those are sold out, and those get you into all the events. If you can’t buy a pass then you have to buy the event-specific tickets, which can cost more. It’s crazy that they are selling out so quickly. I created a “Denver goes to Aspen Gay Ski Week” page on Facebook just to encourage Denverites to book earlier.
This event has existed in some capacity since the 70s. When would you say it really took the shape it currently has?
I would say that a turning point was three years ago, when Logo TV sponsored us. That really helped step up our game and increase our presence. I had friends in New York City messaging me and saying that they saw advertisements in taxi cabs for Aspen Gay Ski Week.
And then it was cool that they brought RuPaul’s Drag Race drag queens in for the event, and they filmed New Now Next Door with Margaret Cho. But even before that, I would say that we really came into our stride in the past ten years, after hitting that 30-year mark.
I think looking beyond the U.S. helped with this. Aspen and Colorado are international; people from all over the world come here especially for skiing. Aspen itself sees a lot of people from the UK, Germany, Australia, Mexico, and Brazil. One thing we started doing about ten years ago was partnering with Aspen in getting key writers and media people involved. We started getting articles in those markets ahead of time or after the fact. I would see the attendee list, and you could see what countries were trending, and it was definitely those that we were working on with the resort. So I would say definitely in the past ten years, we’ve gotten this great stride.
I’ve read over the history of Aspen Gay Ski Week and was impressed by how politically involved the story is. Are there any parts of that history that you find particularly important or poignant?
Some of those historical moments, like when the founder was kicked out of an Aspen bar for dancing with his boyfriend. Oh, and there was a year Colorado passed Amendment 2 and people were not coming here—it was an international response. The international response was called “Boycott Colorado,” so it caused people in Aspen and Colorado to get busy and try to fight Amendment 2. I wasn’t living in Colorado at the time, but I remember hearing about that. We have come a long way.
I think another big milestone was in 1996, when they incorporated Aspen Gay Ski Week [as a non-profit]. That is a big marker for us because most, or probably all, gay ski weeks, are not [incorporated]. AspenOut is the non-profit; Aspen Gay Ski Week is the event, but we raise money for LGBTQ non-profits and causes and scholarships and things like that.
It’s fabulous that this fun event has this really important history. what kind of work does AspenOUT do?
They do so much in the community. One of the big things is grants. They fund quite a few organizations. I think they funded 15 organizations in 2017 and four scholarships, and the total amount they gave was about $55,000. And now it’s great to see all these organizations sending in applications to AspenOUT.
And here’s the thing, too, they’re not just doing LGBTQ things, because they realize awareness needs to be on a bigger scale than that. They’ve also got some projects they do in schools, like anti-bullying programming, especially in the Roaring Fork Valley and Western Colorado. What happens is that Denver and the Front Range get a lot of these services, whereas Western Colorado and the mountains don’t get as much attention.
They have given grants to the Western Colorado AIDS Project, Basalt High School’s peace garden, PFLAG, and a domestic violence response program in the Roaring Fork Valley. So again, they really try to keep the money as local as possible, but they are also going national, up to the Point Foundation and the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Foundation.
How is Aspen Gay Ski Week a continuation of the work that AspenOUT does?
I think the best example is in, it was like 2008 or 2010, a guy came up to me at an event at Aspen Gay Ski Week. He told me that he was from the Aspen area and had struggled in high school with coming out. He was from a conservative family in a small town nearby, I think Carbondale. He said Aspen Gay Ski Week helped him with coming out, especially with all these gay people coming to the valley. He saw this when he was a teenager and it really gave him hope. Stories like that and the scholarships that they are giving to high school students in the area, these are definitely a reflection.
The unity too. People from all over the nation are flying in for this. The biggest cities that we see are D.C., New York, Chicago, Miami, and San Francisco. And then the countries that I mentioned before. It’s really cool to see that unity and everyone having fun together, and just like, we’re all here.
What are your hopes for Aspen Gay Ski Week in the years to come?
I really hope that Aspen Gay Ski Week can reach all our communities and not just the tier-one cities. We’re working on smaller markets now, too. Some of those cities or areas that maybe don’t hear about it, and maybe have more people struggling with coming out. I would love to see those people coming in and saying, “Oh, I’m from a small town in the Midwest and I wanted to go.”
The other thing, just on the fun side, is I would just love to see even the non-skiers coming too. There are quite a few already, but I feel like this is a message I just keep on having to put out there. You know from living in the mountains too, there are so many other things to do.
So many people are like, “I’m not going; I don’t like to ski,” and I’m like “Oh my God!” You know, there’s just so much—dog sledding, snowshoeing, or you don’t have to do any outdoor things if you don’t want to.
Yeah, shopping and there are great restaurants. Aspen is a great town.
But here’s the thing: we are so lucky to have Aspen as such a liberal, progressive place. It’s shocking to some people when I tell them that this tiny town in Colorado hosts this huge event, the nation’s largest gay ski week. It’s because Aspen, if you read up on its history, set out to be kind of a place for thought leaders and think tanks, and that really set the stage for it being such a liberal place.
The best thing, especially when I lived in Aspen, was that they hung rainbow flags on every flagpole in the city. That says something. Even living in Denver for Pride they don’t do that all over the city. So it’s really cool to see. One year I was out of town, and I flew in, and the first thing I see are the rainbow flags lining the street.
And the other great thing is to know that the Aspen locals love it. It is bringing money to their businesses. [Everyone enjoys the] Downhill Costume Contest, and it’s not just Aspen Gay Ski Week attendees. Basically, the whole city shuts down; everyone who is working comes out to watch this because it’s so fun and funny.