Members of Lake Tahoe Pride ride across the pride themed crosswalk in South Lake Tahoe. (Image: Lauren Lindley Photography)

While the South Shore of Lake Tahoe has a reputation for welcoming the greater gay community, proactive measures are still necessary because in other parts of El Dorado and Douglas counties acceptance, tolerance and inclusion are not always the norm.

“I don’t think we can ever fully relax and let our guard down. I think there is a big backlash against people who even identify as woke right now,” Janice Eastburn said. “That has become a dirty word. We need to remain vigilant so our rights and safety are protected as a people. I look forward to a day, someday, where I don’t feel like I need to say that anymore.”

Eastburn first moved to South Lake Tahoe 26 years ago from Sacramento. It was a welcome surprise to be accepted as a lesbian, to not feel harassed or treated differently.

The city of South Lake Tahoe became even more welcoming by passing a resolution in May to make June Pride Month in the city. (June is Pride Month throughout the United States and in several countries.) In the past city proclamations acknowledged Pride Month, but a resolution is almost like codifying it.

Eastburn is adamant the resolution is critical today “because of the growing division of hatred we see around the world right now.”

The number of hate crimes against the LGBT community is unknown because the South Lake Tahoe Police and Douglas County Sheriff’s departments didn’t return calls.

Even so, the world is not a safe place. The U.S. State Department issued a “worldwide caution” for U.S. citizens traveling overseas because of “the increased potential for foreign terrorist organization-inspired violence against LGBTQI+ persons and events.”

The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focusing on suicide prevention for young people in the LGBTQ+ community, conducted a survey last year that found nearly 40 percent of LGBTQ+ people between the ages of 13 and 24 seriously considered ending their lives.

The American Civil Liberties Union says there are more than 500 state bills attempting to quash LGBTQ+ rights.

The current state of unease is a reason South Lake Tahoe Mayor Cody Bass, who is openly gay, advocated for the city’s resolution even though he can only point to a couple instances locally of feeling backlash against his sexuality in the 27 years he’s been in town.

“We want to be as diverse of a city and accepting of a city as we can. The LGBT community has long been part of South Lake Tahoe,” Bass said.

His bigger vision is having Pride events in June (possibly as early as 2025) throughout the basin and in Truckee to welcome tourists and unite the region. Truckee had its inaugural Pride Week in early June.

This could be a lucrative move. After all, the LGBT global tourism market is expected to reach nearly $331 billion this year and is projected to be more than $552 billion in 2031.

Lake Tahoe Community College in April raises the Progress Pride Flag on campus. (Image: Lake Tahoe Pride)

Lake Tahoe Pride

One of the most visible gay groups on the South Shore is Lake Tahoe Pride, which was started by Gregory Cremeans in 2010 after he and some gay friends were told by a waiter to leave a South Lake Tahoe restaurant.

By then, the Stateline gay bar Faces had been closed for four years.

Cremeans wanted this group to be inclusive—not just men, not just women, not just those who identify as homosexual—but allies as well. In other words, friends, family and others who support the gay community.

“We were just a group having social mixers,” Cremeans said. “I wanted us to be visible in the community. We would take photos and put them on Facebook. There would be people who would step out (of the photo) who weren’t out, then 10 more allies would step in. We needed to let the community know we are here and we aren’t going anywhere and we have friends.”

The first iteration was known as Lake Tahoe LGBT and Friends. Through the years the group has welcomed the growing alphabet that includes LGBTQIA+ or lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and trans, queer and questioning, intersex, asexual or agender, and more. The name Lake Tahoe Pride covers the umbrella of sexual and gender identities.

Cremeans has seen a positive evolution from businesses in the last 14 years.

“Back in 2010 we had to call places and tell them we were coming. We had people who didn’t want us to show up,” Cremeans recalled. “Today, businesses call us and say they want to collaborate with us.”

The group has also been visible in the annual Fourth of July parade, where it has participated multiple years without negative consequences.

While Cremeans is still involved in the group, others have taken over in leadership roles.

Zephyr Kao’s goal with LTP is to build partnerships with other groups. They have done this by having trail building days with the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, working with the city to paint rainbow sidewalk crossings, and collaborating with chambers of commerce.

Politics and activism are not what LTP is about. It’s about eating, drinking, hiking, skiing—doing whatever everyone else in Tahoe does, but doing so with people who aren’t going to discriminate.

“Even when we have celebrations like the sidewalk commemoration they wanted to have police there,” Kao said. “I want to live in a world where I think I don’t need protection. When you have police there it changes the tone.”

The thing about a group like Lake Tahoe Pride is it’s a safe place—especially with the growing homophobic, anti-transgender agendas of some people and communities.

Allies at schools

Another super safe space is the Ally Club at South Tahoe High School, which has been overseen by adviser Bridey Heidel since its founding in 2006. In that time it has grown from a sexual identity safe place to include gender differences as well.

Anyone may join—one doesn’t have to be part of the LGBT+ team. Ally by definition is a person who is supportive of this group.

However, in the last few years Heidel has seen acceptance take a noticeable backslide on campus.

“To me, unfortunately, (Ally) is still relevant because just when we started feeling like it was safe to go back in the water, so to speak, we had some politics come up during Trump’s presidency that took us backward in a lot of ways,” Heidel said. “Homophobia became rampant on our campus. Things we thought we had resolved in terms of derogatory slurs and hate words all resurfaced when he was president.”

Then came the pandemic, which Heidel said took a toll on students’ mental health and was hard on LGBT+ students who were in unsupportive households or were alone as they came out or transitioned.

Ally can’t meet online because of privacy issues; you don’t know who else is listening. This meant some students suffered along without support.

In 2016, between 80 and 100 kids were part of STHS’ Ally Club, now it’s more like 10 to 30.

Heidel believes the difference in numbers is in part because some kids don’t believe they need such a group, which she loves, but on the flip side “I am absolutely positive kids are not coming out right now” because of fear.

“My hope has always been to not have the club (because it’s no longer needed),” Heidel said. “But I don’t see it going away soon because of legislation around the country, and the homophobic, anti-transgender agendas.”

South Tahoe Middle School now has an Ally Club as well.

Lauri Kemper, who is on the Lake Tahoe Unified School District board, first got involved in school issues with the Family Life Committee in the early 2000s when her son was at the high school. She was impressed then about the outreach for gay students, as well as what Tahoe Youth & Family Services was offering.

As someone who didn’t come out as a lesbian until she was 30, Kemper knows she had it easier than young people who already have a plethora of issues to contend with.

Still, she is an advocate for inclusion at all levels. Kemper highlights the focus on kindness and other behavioral issues at the elementary school to foster compassion. She believes it’s important to be “intentional about inclusion.”

Lake Tahoe Community College started an Ally Club a couple years after STHS. This spring it hosted its inaugural GAYpril event where the Pride flag was raised alongside the U.S. flag for the first time.

Kemper was a speaker at the LTCC event.

Lake Tahoe Pride is a visible presence on the college campus with its annual scholarship for students who best demonstrate what equality means to them. This year two $1,000 awards were given.

Even bigger is that in May the scholarship has been endowed with $50,000 in local donations.

What Douglas County schools offer is unknown because calls were not returned. However, the school board has a history of being less than inclusive.

Skiers are out on the slopes at Heavenly. (Image: Heavenly Mountain Resort)

On the slopes

Heavenly Mountain Resort has a long history of welcoming the gay community. Lake Tahoe WinterFest gay ski week ran for more than a decade starting in 1996. The now defunct Lake Tahoe Gay and Lesbian Foundation had a short run at hosting a ski week as well.

Today, the resort hosts its own events.

“As allies, our goal is to ensure we host a consistent, annual celebration on-mountain to support the LGBTQIA+ community. Heavenly launched the Here & Queer coffee hour and began working with Lake Tahoe Pride’s leadership to attempt to bridge the gap between LGBTQIA+ employees/guests, and the local South Lake Tahoe community,” explained spokesman Cole Zimmerman. “During the 2022-23 season, we hosted our first annual Tahoe Region Pride Day at Heavenly, which was a huge success. This season, we doubled our guest participation at Heavenly, and we are looking forward to riding the momentum hosting the event next year and into the future.”

Heidel was a speaker at this year’s event.

The Pride events have expanded to Kirkwood and Northstar, the other Vail Resorts’ owned properties in the greater Lake Tahoe area.

It’s a mixture of locals and out-of-towners who participate in the gay ski events.

Tommy Todd, a ski school instructor at Heavenly from 2004-15, remembers early on going to his director asking if he could wear his uniform while giving tours during gay ski week. Yes, was the answer. Todd believes he may have been the only gay employee at the resort then, or least the only one who was out.

“Ski school is traditionally a macho-man kind of place. It feels a little bit like a police or fire station where it would be difficult to be out,” Todd said. “But people knew me as me, not as a gay instructor or manager.”

Vail Resorts has adopted “be inclusive” as a core value to ensure all of its resorts are welcoming.

“We will continue to lend our voice to efforts that educate, inform, and grow our appreciation for the experiences of our LGBTQ+ teammates and allies. We do this by supporting impactful legislation, like the Respect for Marriage Act, and organizing events and activities annually that recognize the significance of LGBTQIA+ communities,” Zimmerman said. “Together, we must all do our part to enable everyone in the LGBTQ+ community to live and work safely and free of hate.”

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