Founded in 1981, AGLA began as the Arlington chapter of the Virginia Gay Alliance, an organization formed to address equal rights issues for gays from a local and state perspective. Within a few years, the organization became the Northern Virginia Gay Alliance. After the Virginia Gay Alliance was discontinued, the group was renamed as the Arlington Gay Alliance. In the late 1980s, we changed our name to the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance.
Our early goals focused on the very basics of visibility and equal rights. Our first accomplishment was securing the support of then Arlington County Board Chairman Ellen Bozman to appoint openly gay men and lesbians to county advisory boards and commissions. At the time, around 1982, this generated some controversy.
Another area of focus during the 1980s was the organization of candidates’ forums. In the early years of the candidates’ forums, few people running for office would agree to speak to an openly gay audience and virtually all who did speak represented the Democratic Party. During this time, AGLA also worked on education efforts with the Arlington County Police in response to the arrests of gay men in sting operations at county public restrooms.
The Arlington County Board’s passage of the Arlington Human Rights Ordinance in 1990 galvanized AGLA and propelled it toward the mission it fulfills today. The County Board at that time believed it could not include sexual orientation as a protected category in the ordinance because the state “Dillion Rule” limits the county’s powers to those permitted by the state. Instead, the county included a non-enforceable form of sexual orientation protection in the ordinance and told AGLA that, if the organization could come up with a legal means, the board would add enforceable protections later.
AGLA sought help from the Lambda Legal Defense organization in drafting a legal opinion and then, in 1991, established the cornerstones on which the organization stands today. AGLA defined itself as a social, nonpartisan political, and community service organization and began performing and publicizing our community service work.
We specifically decided to perform regular community service projects in conjunction with straight, community-based organizations as a means of familiarizing the community with AGLA and educating straight Arlingtonians about gays and lesbians. Our efforts included joining the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and exhibiting positive images at the family-oriented Arlington County Fair. Additionally, AGLA used our community service approach to build political support among elected officials.
By November 1992, AGLA had become highly visible, had built public and political support, and had received a legal opinion that the county could provide enforceable human rights protections. As more than 100 gay men and lesbians cheered, the county board decreed that discrimination against gay men and lesbians in Arlington is illegal. To date, the legal opinion has never been challenged in court and the Human Rights Commission has investigated and won cases for gay men and lesbians who have been discriminated against.
Meanwhile, we continued our social and political activities, generating greater attendance and participation at candidate forums. With the initial county board election campaign by openly gay AGLA member Jay Fisette, Arlington gays and lesbians became even more visible. Although Fisette lost that election, the visibility propelled AGLA to greater political standing in the community.
By the mid 1990s, the organization began to focus on generating partner benefits for gay and lesbian county employees. Working with county board members, and securing another legal opinion, AGLA was successful in 1997 in securing this landmark benefit in Virginia. The community service approach, which had served AGLA well during the Human Rights Ordinance quest, also continued to build community support in the face of some citizen objection to the partner benefits. In spite of overwhelming support of Arlington residents and County Government, domestic partner benefits were taken away by legal action that cited the Dillon Rule which, though selectively applied, prevents cities and counties from exercising rights not specifically granted to them by the Commonwealth.
During these years, the organization also placed greater emphasis on increasing membership and participation among women and minorities. We have achieved success that continues to build. In 1997, Arlington gays and lesbians took pride in the election of Jay Fisette as the county’s first openly gay board member. AGLA itself, however, remained non-partisan as an organization during the election.
A new opportunity to provide meaningful support to the Arlington Public Schools emerged during school year 1999-2000, when student leaders at Yorktown, Washington-Lee, and Wakefield high schools formed local Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs). The Alliances are recognized student activities and are supported at each school by a faculty liaison.
In February 2000, the AGLA College Scholarship Fund was established with the Arlington Community Foundation (ACF). Within the first two months after establishing the fund, donations from AGLA members exceeded our initial goal of $5,000. This amount allowed the ACF to endow the Scholarship Fund. In both 2001 and 2002, ACF awarded two $500 Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance (AGLA) Scholarships to graduating Arlington high school seniors who were members of their Gay Straight Alliance and/or who have made an exceptional contribution to the Arlington Public Schools’ policies of openness, diversity, and safety. Donations continued to grow, allowing AGLA for the first time to offer up to three $1,000 scholarships in 2003.
In 2001, AGLA launched Words by Women, a literary program aimed at bringing writers and poets to the county. The first program featured lesbian author Minnie Bruce Pratt, and local poet Valerie Jean. With its focus on works about lesbian women and women of color, WbW branched out in 2003 as a stand-alone organization.
AGLA established itself even more firmly as a community organization in December 2001 when it was awarded 501(c)(3) “nonprofit” status with the Internal Revenue Service. Although this nonprofit status restricts AGLA from participating in political campaigns (including the endorsement of candidates), AGLA is unrestricted from providing voter education and awareness information to its members, who may contact their members of Congress or the Virginia General Assembly as they feel inclined to do so. AGLA is also free to generate support (both for and against) specific issues that are deemed to affect the livelihood of our membership and the community-at-large. With the c-3 status, AGLA made dues and other contributions tax deductible.
As a nonprofit organization, AGLA set an objective to help energize others to establish similar organizations to support other Virginians. In 2002, AGLA helped spawn FGLOP (Fairfax Gay & Lesbian Organizing Project), now known as Equality Fairfax. In 2003, AGLA and Equality Fairfax began helping Loudoun County LGBT leaders to form the Loudoun Equality Action Project, now known as Equality Loudoun.
From, 2002-2014, AGLA thrives with a wide variety of fun activities for members, including ice cream socials, annual library potlucks, scholarship receptions, pageants and brunches. It serves as a local go to resource for the media and local elected officials and candidates, particularly with regard to awareness information on workplace protections, the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and gay marriage. AGLA established an robust online presence to inform members, with a Facebook Page, Twitter feed, and e-newsletters. AGLA also serves as a conduit for cross-organizational collaboration with such nonprofits as the Imperial Court of Washington, DC, Epilepsy Foundation of Virginia, Gay Men’s Health Collaborative, PFLAG and Northern Virginia Pride.
In 2015 the AGLA Board of Directors unanimously voted to expand AGLA’s geographic outreach to include LGBTQ’s and Allies in Northern Virginia yet at the same time retained use of the legacy “AGLA” acronym in all promotional references. The core organizational structure, including bylaws, legal name, and tripartite mission, remained completely intact.
The landscape has changed significantly since 1981. Today, AGLA continues to serve as a strong beacon for EQUALITY. It’s an inclusive grassroots organization open to all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning or queer (LGBTQ) people and allies. It provides socials, nonpartisan political awareness, and works with civic groups on community service.