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WinterPride headliner funding falls through

But organizer promises successful gay ski week in Whistler

Ski guide Michael Muller is a 21-year veteran of Whistler’s gay ski week. When Xtra met him on the slopes last year, he said he keeps returning for that feeling of family — “that cohesion, that brotherhood.” Credit: Niko Bell

Whistler’s WinterPride has lost $37,000 in municipal funding over a deadline dispute.

City council had agreed to pitch in the money this season to fund a headlining entertainment act for the annual gay ski week; in previous years, it has vocally supported the festival but never opened its chequebook.

That changed, says WinterPride’s head organizer Dean Nelson, when an economic impact study commissioned by the city showed that the festival generated $9 million in economic activity for the province and $300,000 in tax revenue for the city of Whistler.

According to Nelson, however, the city missed WinterPride’s proposed deadline of Nov 15, leaving him not enough time to book a high-profile entertainer.

Whistler city hall says, in a statement to Xtra, that it met WinterPride’s deadlines and is “disappointed” that the funding went unused.

The city says WinterPride will have to reapply for funding if it wants to try again next year.

Nelson says he tried to find a headliner at the last minute but struck out: Joan Rivers could not escape her TV schedule, Kathy Griffin hates cold weather, and Lily Tomlin said yes and then backed out at the last minute. Nelson hopes the city will hold the money in trust so that the festival can afford a big name next year.

“In my opinion it’s a bad investment for the municipality to rush it that quick. We wanted to do it, but we didn’t want to sacrifice anything either,” Nelson says. “So when we saw it just wasn’t going to work, we decided we had to pull the plug now.”

Despite this hiccup, Nelson promises this year’s WinterPride will be bigger and better than ever. He has grown the festival every year since he quit his job and mortgaged his house to save Whistler’s gay ski week in 2006.

This year, Nelson brought on Vancouver entertainment company Big Roger Events, and with them DJs Ivan Gomez from Barcelona and Phil B from San Francisco.

In addition to parties with big-name DJs, Nelson promises more of what the festival has always been known for: days on the mountain with experienced ski and snowboarding guides and casual après-ski socials.

But Nelson hopes to build WinterPride into more than just a party. He sees significance in the festival’s near coincidence with the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and wants to shape the festival into a cultural symbol of gay people in sport — an echo of the first Olympic Pride House at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

Nelson helped found Pride House and sees it as a moment of gay history worth remembering.

“I tell you,” he says, “if it went from Salt Lake City to Sochi, this whole gay sport issue wouldn’t be on anyone’s radar. But in 2010, we made it on people’s radar. We got people talking about it.”

Just like summer Pride parades echo the Stonewall riots, he says, WinterPride should echo the 2010 Olympics.

Despite Nelson’s efforts, WinterPride has remained a less inclusive event than summer Pride festivals. The vast majority of attendees are male, and many of the women’s events from 2013 have fallen through this year. The entertainment, from Mr Gay World to the mostly male DJs, reflects the clientele.

But Nelson hopes to broaden his base in other ways. This year WinterPride will welcome its first youth group, a handful of students from Squamish and Howe Sound who will spend a day at Whistler’s inner-tube park, meet the contestants for Mr Gay Canada and discuss how young people can get more involved.

“The young people were lamenting how you can’t do anything unless you’re 19,” says Squamish gay-straight alliance organizer Margo Dent. She brought the idea to Nelson, and they planned a day on the mountain that did not involve alcohol or leather.

Dent wants to create more events at WinterPride that will be both safe for kids and interesting enough to get them involved.

“I think when we’re dealing with our youth we need to meet them where they’re at,” she says. “How do we create a party that’s youth-appropriate but still fun and exciting?”

This year’s WinterPride runs Jan 26 to Feb 2 in Whistler, BC, about two hours north of Vancouver.