Ski clubs are scattered throughout the country as a way to bring shredders together in cities and towns and transport them to the mountains. And they're a great excuse for people to get together and drink beer. Chris French, 39, is the founder of Ski Bums, the self-proclaimed largest LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) ski club in the world. Based in New York City, French has planned trips all over the world and had a damn good time doing it along the way. Via Skype, he chatted with POWDER.com about running a ski club, ripping pow in Japan, and yesterday's Supreme Court ruling that entitled gay married couples to the same federal benefits as straight couples.
POWDER: Let's start with the basics of your club.
Chris French: Ski Bums is the world's largest club for LGBT skiers and snowboarders. We got started as a local club in New York City in 2004, but then we grew pretty rapidly to become a regional club. Then a national club. Today we have more than 1,000 members from 40 U.S. states and roughly 20 foreign countries.
When did you first go on trips?
Our first trips were in January 2005. And that first year, we only took local trips to East Coast places in the Catskills and Vermont. We got excited pretty quickly and things took off rapidly. We started the very next year going out West. We went to Zermatt, Switzerland. Last year we had 20 trips. And we're going to Argentina later this summer.
Is running the club your full-time job?
It is. During the ski season it's my full-time job. In the summer I do freelance work—graphic design and writing.
So why a gay ski club? Skiing is a predominantly white sport, but there's an African American ski club, Jewish ski clubs, and others. I find it interesting there's clubs devoted to particular races, religions, and sexual preferences.
The question that I hear from some of my straight friends is this: "Well why do you only want to ski with other gay people? Why don't you want to ski with us? Why don't you want to be around us?" And that's not the case at all. On the contrary, I don't hear that question so much from LGBT people because…we have to do something to find each other. We either have to go to a bar, or go to a club. We can't just like walk out onto the street and be like, "Hey everyone, if you're gay, raise your hand right now." (laughs) The ultimate purpose of Ski Bums is to connect with other LGBT people and make new friends.
What else makes Ski Bums unique from other ski clubs?
One thing that's distinct about Ski Bums is we host trips to the world's best ski resorts; we don't limit ourselves to the gay ski weeks that have become popular at places like Whistler and Aspen. We took a trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. To my knowledge, it was the first LGBT ski-specific event that had ever been hosted at Sun Valley Resort. We go to Jackson Hole, we go to Bariloche… we went to Niseko, Japan, this last winter. These are not places that are known for being LGBT travel destinations. We believe in getting out, exploring and enjoying the world that's out there and not being limited to gay enclaves.
What was your favorite place you've been with the club?
The best ski day of my life was in Niseko. It was insane. I was there with some members who were very good skiers and snowboarders. There were people who had been lifties, patrollers, instructors, and many of them had kind of had dreams for years of going to Japan. We certainly had very high hopes and expectations. It was just dumping every single day we were there. I've never had a surface that was so consistently soft and had so much give to it, such a consistent amount of powder on it. The powder was deep. You could bounce on it, have fun…it was amazing. And as for my favorite resort in the States, I always go back and forth between Alta and Jackson Hole.
How many trips do you guys do a year? Do you go on all of them?
Last year we did 20. There's obviously only so many weeks in the season. We're at a point where we have co-leaders who lead trips from different chapters in the country.
You're a skier. So have to ask, what goes through your head when someone says, "skiing is gay." Snowboarders love to say it all the time.
One thing you should know is all skiers and snowboarders continue to throw shade at one another, even when they all happen to be gay. (laughs) The percentage of skiers to boarders on our trips is roughly the same as it is in skiing and snowboarding in general: about two-thirds are skiers and one-third are snowboarders. I have very good friends who board, and I think the rivalry between skiers and snowboarders is part of the fun of the sport. Anyone who seriously skis or boards knows that they're both fantastic activities.
In terms of the phrase, "skiing is gay," actually nobody says that to me. (laughs) My straight friends are all pretty cool about how they talk about stuff.
Any thoughts on yesterday's Supreme Court ruling?
Yeah. Sure. Ski Bums believes in exploring the world that we're in and getting out of your immediate day-to-day routine. So with additional legal protections that we've just gained, it just gives us that much more protection to go out and explore the world, to live and work in even more places. That's a great thing.
I know a number of gay couples who would love to live in a state like Wyoming, or Utah. Or Idaho. They love being outdoors. They'd love to be able to hop in their car and be skiing within a short drive. But because there are limitations on the legal protections in those states, it could be more financially and personally risky for them to do so. In a state like California, though, yesterday's rulings will make it dramatically different for gay married couples who would like to live there and pursue their outdoor passions. Now they'll have all the same state and federal legal protections that are afforded to other married couples.
I never thought of that. With the state issue, it sort of limits your options where you can live and be legally protected.
Exactly. I know couples who enjoy New York City, but it wouldn't be their first choice for a place to live. They've met someone, they've gotten married in New York but now they would consider living someplace else. There are very serious considerations. In Utah, and in dozens of other states, you can be legally fired for being gay. There are no federal protections against that. There are any number of places where it's just riskier to settle down or raise a family. About twenty percent of LGBT couples in America are raising children, including some members of our club. So when these laws are not just affecting your life, but affecting the lives of your children too, then these become really important considerations. These Supreme Court decisions were a great incremental step, but we've got more work to do.
As far as membership goes, how does one sign up?
Membership is free, and it's all through our website. You get some really cool perks. We host social events around the country and we started hosting them in London last year as well. Our social events are open to anybody; they're designed for people to meet other members.
Do you allow straight people to join?
Of course. We have straight people come on probably half the trips we host. We have people that bring straight friends, siblings, we've had people bring their parents.
Tell me more about this trip down south this summer.
We've been before. We've been to Valle Nevado, Portillo, and New Zealand, but Argentina is extra fun. I think everyone knows that Buenos Aires is such a great travel destination with amazing food and wine, but it also has incredible gay culture and some of the world's most progressive attitudes toward LGBT rights. We're including a three-day weekend at Buenos Aires followed by five nights in Bariloche. We booked an entire boutique hotel for the week. And it's got a delicious restaurant. I know we'll be eating a lot of mouth-watering steak, drinking a lot of great Malbec.
When did you start skiing?
I started skiing when I was seven. In Illinois. On those little, super, super small trash heaps that got converted into ski resorts.
If you're such a skier, why do you choose to live in New York City?
I love New York. There's a density of intelligent and talented people here that's unlike anywhere else. I skied a lot growing up, then I skied in college and the years right after college, but after moving to New York and then after coming out, I skied a lot less. My skiing buddies were straight and they were starting to settle down with wives and kids and they weren't as able to do the kinds of things like quick ski trips. One of the reasons why I started Ski Bums is because I didn't know any gay people who skied or boarded in New York City. And I had no idea there would be so many. I love so many of the people that I've met through the club, and I love that we can get out of the city to explore some of the world's most spectacular places. Together.