Long touted as the New York City of mountain towns, Whistler has made its mark on the international gay and lesbian scene. Each year in early February thousands of revellers fly in for a week of parties, luxury and skiing, otherwise known as Altitude or Gay Ski Week. The week-long celebration culminates with the hugely popular Snowball.
Last year, more than 3,500 guests flocked to Whistler during Altitude and the village was awash with rainbow paraphernalia. In the wake of the exodus, however, I was left to wonder: Where did all the gay people go?
In a town of almost 10,000 you'd imagine that we would have a fairly significant gay community, but I couldn't find a soul. It occurred to me that, amidst the big air comps and Red Bull and testosterone, perhaps this wasn't the haven that we supposed.
My search for answers led me to some interesting questions. As I passed the high school each morning, I pondered what it must be like to grow up in a place where so many people value the same things. In tightly knit communities there is often a prevalent language that most people speak. Here it is the language of athletics; in small town Ontario it's farming. The differences are both slim and extreme. The work ethic that is applied to athletics in this town can be translated into long hours on the farm somewhere else. I was left with a nagging thought: In spite of our worldly savoir fair, were we really as sophisticated as we seemed?
I began my search for answers with Blair Hirtle, the Whistler co-ordinator for Altitude and an employee of Tourism Whistler. Hirtle moved up here in the spring of 2002. While he was familiar with the area, he took his time before relocating from the city.
"You can get nervous with the idea of a rural place, you feel more protected in an urban environment, with a larger community. Although Whistler has a lot of things that the city doesn't, isolation is always a problem, especially in the winter months.
"But," he grins cheerfully, "thank God for the Internet!"
There are several gay and lesbian resources on the Internet, such as Outboard (outboard.org), a homepage for gay skiers and snowboarders. People can sign up and connect with other winter sport enthusiasts and arrange transportation and accommodation in a safe, gay-friendly setting.
"These really are a godsend for a lot of people," says Hirtle.
In a mountain town, where isolation is a fact of life, this proves to be no small thing.