Dean Nelson CEO of Whistler Pride and Ski Festival

I come from a family where prejudice towards the LGBT community does not exist. But I didn’t know this – that my family was considered “open-minded” on our opinions of LGBT individuals – until today when I read back over my interview with Dean Nelson, CEO of GayWhistler.

It’s easy (and naive) as a white, British female to assume that the experience I had growing up was standard to most other households. In fact, as I’m writing this, I’m having a profound moment of realization about how privileged I actually am to have a mother who takes me to gay bars as a preference to ‘regular’ bars and who introduced me to drag queens and transgender people from a very young age.

I never thought of my mother as “tolerant”, “open-minded”, or “accepting” because to notice tolerance, first, there must be intolerance.

In this special Whistler Pride and Ski Festival edition of “10 Questions”, Dean talks openly with me about why his initiatives like the Olympic Pride House are still such an important hub of safety and inclusively for the LGBT community, and why Whistler was the perfect place to kick-start what is now an Olympic mile-stone for social change.

1. Name
Dean Nelson

2. Age
Old enough to know better, but young enough to still do it… though I am in the 40+ group now!

3. Native Country
Canada – born in Banff… so I guess the mountains are part of my DNA

4. In your own words, who is Dean Nelson?
An accidental activist that loves the mountain culture and celebrating and defending equality and inclusively. Proud of my community and Super, Natural British Columbia.

5. Let’s jump right to it. The Whistler Pride and Ski Festival is kicking off in a few days – how did you first become involved with the annual Gay Lesbian Ski/Snowboard week and, 23 years ago, did you imagine it would be as big as it is today?

I was first introduced to Whistler’s gay ski week back in 1993 when I was brought up to Whistler to open up the Holiday Inn Sunspree.  In 1994 we became a hotel partner of gay ski week and continued to work with the organization through to 2006 when Altitude (the original name) was cancelled and myself with a couple other independent business people came together to save the annual event with just 12-days to plan.  After surviving that week, our group formalized an action plan and I have been running it since.  It has been exciting to see how the week has evolved from a grassroots social to the vibrant festival it is today.  For more on the history visit the festival’s EPK:

6. Although GayWhistler is not a charity or NGO, your mission and activities through the Whistler Pride and Ski Festival are certainly helping to create a positive social change. Would you consider yourself to be the CEO of a social enterprise?

I have had the privilege to visit many prides around the world and visit many countries where their citizens do not have the same freedom or safety we enjoy in Canada, in general.  It just gave me a better appreciation for what we have and the courage to use the festival as a vehicle to create social change and awareness.

Though Whistler Pride is a private company we feel it is important to weave in the ability to showcase local talent, create public performances that will create a dialogue and promote safer more inclusive environments for everyone.

7. Last year you were awarded the 2014 Vancouver Pride Sports Legacy Award for your role as Founder of the first ever Olympic Pride House – a feature that is now quickly becoming an Olympic tradition. What was your vision for the original Pride House and are you involved with the planning of future Pride Houses?

Pride House at the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games was without a question one of the milestone’s of my life. Having lived in Whistler since the 1993, and being part of the build up for the games I saw this as one of the best ways to ensure that these games would go down in history as something very special.

Whistler does not have a gay bar, so I knew that we needed a space the LGBT community could come together and share in that Olympic magic. Yes, the bars in Whistler are safe, however being gay you never feel 100% at ease when you are in the minority, it is just the years of growing up in a hetro dominated environment where you needed to blend-in or face the consequences of being beaten up or verbally abused. Having a space to be ourselves that was safe and inclusive just made our Olympic experience that much better.

The other opportunity that Pride House played, which was equally important, was that we were creating a vehicle of change. For the first time in Olympic history homosexuals and LGBT rights within sports were being discussed in main stream media. In the past it was always in the background but never really acknowledged. We were able to share with the media and the general public that being LGBT is a wide spectrum and that we are within every occupation, religion, race and when an athlete is able to embrace their gender and sexual identity, they are no longer expelling all this extra energy to hide who they are, they can put all that energy into Sport and be the best they can be.

It is so exciting to see how my spark was able to help unite the world in making sports safer and more inclusive.  I currently sit on an advisory role with Pride House International which is made up of past, current and future producers of Pride Houses to help keep this movement moving forward.  It was gratifying to see that the IOC will update Principle 6 to include sexual orientation under protection of discrimination at future games.

8. Dean, you’ve had an extensive career in the Whistler tourism, hotel and hospitality industries here, you’re moving the Whistler Pride and Ski Festival into it’s 23rd year and you founded the Olympic Pride House. What do you think it is about Whistler that helps to grow so many so successful and ambitious entrepreneurs?

Whistler is a unique environment in that there is a constant flow of people.  The interactions you have with these people bring new ideas, new possibilities where the Whistler Blackcomb mantra in the late ’90’s “Anything Is Possible” really is possible. I believe that it is the attitude of “work hard, play harder” really the helps us keeping our finger on the pulse and continually evolving to become better in all that we do.

9. What’s on the horizon for Whistler Pride and Ski Festival? Do you have any sneak peaks that you can share with us about future plans or events?

We do have some really exciting ideas, but we are focused on making this year a success so we can continue to make a difference for tomorrow.

10. If you could create/achieve anything else here in Whistler, what would it be?

I believe the next big opportunity is with the youth.  If we are able to empower the teachers so they can have open and honest conversations about sexuality, gender identity we will create a safer and more inclusive community for tomorrow. I do not think it is all rainbows and unicorns in the hallways. I think the administration maybe worried what parents may think.  I remember when I approached the high school principal about brining the Mr. Gay World delegates to speak to the students, the principal was not overly supportive and worried that there would be back lash with the parents.

If we are able to create a safe and inclusive spaces for our youth to grow up in and explore and figure out for themselves who they are, we will only build a healthier tomorrow.  I know so many people that are still recovering from their childhood thirty years later.

Dean Nelson in Antarctica waving pride flag

Dean waving his Pride flag in Antarctica

Buy your tickets for Whistler Pride and Ski Festival

GayWhistler’s WinterPRIDE has a fresh new name as we get ready to celebrate the 23rd annual Gay Lesbian Ski/Snowboard week at the award-winning Whistler Blackcomb mountains. Whistler Pride and Ski Festival, January 24 – 31, 2015 is a celebration of diversity both on and off the slopes at Whistler, British Columbia, Canada. The Whistler Pride and Ski Festival is more than just a gay ski week, it is an 8-day festival that combines Sports, Culinary, Wellness and spectacular Social and Cultural events.

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About the “10 Questions” series

Whistler is shaped by the amazing local people who live here. Everything from the Sniffle Stations at the chairlifts to the new Raven’s Nest vegan‬ restaurant was invented by a member of our community. We started the “10 Questions” series to introduce guest and visitors to the locals who make our home, and your experience, so special.

Interview by Victoria Farrand

Victoria Farrand

Mountain Girl // Creative // Guest blogger for the Summit Lodge and Whistler local.
Twitter: @VickyFarrand