To ski or not to ski: that is the question: Phil Reeves visited Aspen, Colorado, to find out why a vote against gays is testing consciences among the stars

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The Independent Online
Terry White, a bus company worker, remembers election day only too well. He was in a gay bar when he heard the news. It said that, in the land of the free, he was no longer protected from discrimination. He started to cry.

Mr White, a soft-spoken man in his early forties, is one of a small group of homosexual men who live in the Rocky Mountain skiing town of Aspen, Colorado, one of the most glamorous resorts in the world. Until recently, they stayed outside the limelight, comfortably removed from the prejudice that afflicts so much of urban America.

Now, everything has altered. 'We are just not used to all this,' said Mr White, still smarting from a clash with another gay politico on a radio show. 'We have had to learn a lot about politics very quickly.' He and his friends find themselves at the fore of a campaign to overthrow the new law.

This upheaval was caused by one of America's more damaging incursions into homosexual rights, spearheaded by the religious right. Voters in Colorado passed a referendum which amended the state constitution by nullifying all laws banning discrimination against homosexuals. The so-called 'Amendment 2' - astonishingly, approved by a state which elected Bill Clinton - also prohibits any future anti-discriminatory laws for homosexuals. If a homosexual is evicted by a landlord on the grounds of sexual orientation, the courts offer no specific protection.

Mr White was not the only one to find his world turned upside down. It has caused total confusion in Hollywood, whose stars have long used Aspen as an exclusive retreat, and are preparing to jet in for their winter holidays. Its list of habitues reads like an Oscar night guest list: Jack Nicholson, Goldie Hawn, Ringo Starr, Rupert Murdoch, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, and others.

At issue is whether the world should boycott Colorado until it comes to its senses, and throws out the new law. The American Civil Liberties Union in southern California, which has hundreds of Hollywood members, and some (though, not all) gay groups, say yes. But the glitterati are divided. Should they be politically correct and stay away, or head for the slopes? Barbra Streisand has become the most prominent advocate of a boycott. Ms Navratilova has announced she will leave Colorado if the law is not overturned. But there has been an odd silence from many of the industry's other most strident voices.

Self-interest is, of course, a factor. But it should also be said that Aspen cannot be blamed for what has occurred. The amendment, put forward by the religious fundamentalist right, passed because of support from southern Colorado, especially Colorado Springs, a military centre, and the steel town of Pueblo. Aspen, and the cities of Boulder and Denver, had specific anti-discriminatory local laws, and voted strongly against the measure. So why should they suffer? It seemed even more unfair, given that Aspen's 11,000 residents have a tradition of intellectual tolerance. Each year, they host a Gay Ski Week, attended by some 4,000 homosexuals.

Hollywood's pro-boycott lobby has not pleased the townspeople, some of whom would far prefer the stars to find somewhere else for their winter frolics. These include Andy Stone, 47, an ex-hippy who edits the Aspen Times (daily circulation: 10,000), based in a scruffy wooden street-front building which dates back to Aspen's silver-mining days.

Over the years, Mr Stone has watched Aspen change from a mountain retreat, sitting discreetly in a high-altitude bowl in the Rockies, into a chic resort where the average house price is dollars 1.1m ( pounds 640,000). 'If the stars decided never to come here, that would be OK with me,' he said. 'They are part of a trend I have never been terribly fond of.'

This is not helped by a recent scandal over Peter Guber, chief executive of Sony Entertainment Pictures, and an Aspen property- owner. Mr Guber outraged locals by applying for planning permission for two barns in an area inhabited by elks. The barns turned out to have more in common with luxury chalets. The mogul should be 'taught that ours is not the sort of community of sycophants and whores with which he is so accustomed to dealing', fumed an Aspen Times editorial.

So far tourist operators report only a handful of cancellations, but these are early days and there is no doubting their concern. 'It's a serious threat,' said Killeen Russell, of the privately owned Aspen Skiing Company, which runs most of the skiing operations. 'It could really hurt us economically although that's not happening yet.' The threat hangs over the whole of Colorado's 3.3m population. In Denver, the business community is dreading that the mountain state is about to suffer the same fate as Arizona, when it refused to recognise Martin Luther King Day as a holiday. Voters only capitulated after Arizona lost some dollars 200m of business.

Already, several organisations have scrapped plans for conventions and a film company has announced that Colorado has been struck off its shortlist as a venue for a major production. Colorado has lost an estimated dollars 10m of potential business - and may soon lose much more. 'Something has to be done about this, and soon,' said one Denver restaurateur. 'Don't let anyone tell you this is not serious. It could kill us.'

Denver, Boulder, Aspen and other cities have taken out a lawsuit, challenging the amendment. The case will prove crucial: the three cities have 'home rule', a system that allows them considerable independence of state power. It remains to be seen whether this can be overridden by a referendum passed by the whole state.