OUTstanding Virginians 2019

Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance

Grassroots Community, Nonpartisan Political Education, Community Service

Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance

What’s in a name? In the case of the Arlington Gay and Lesbian Alliance (AGLA), the answer is “more than meets the eye.”  First of all, the organization’s geographic outreach extends beyond Arlington to include all of Northern Virginia. Second, AGLA today is an inclusive, grassroots organization open to all LGBTQ people and allies, providing social events, nonpartisan political education, and community service in partnership with civic groups and local governments.

Yet AGLA is the same name the alliance has had since the 1990s. Holding onto the name – as well as keeping the original organizational structure and core mission – is an act of homage. To honor the group’s past while expanding its reach is to celebrate four decades of progress in the struggle for equality.

The social and political landscape has changed significantly since 1981 when the organization began as the Arlington chapter of the Virginia Gay Alliance, one of the pioneering state-level gay rights groups. At that time, it was focused on the very basics of visibility and equal rights, such as getting openly gay men and lesbians appointed to county advisory boards and ending the arrest of gay men in sting operations at county public restrooms.  At the same time, AGLA began to host candidate forums in an attempt to acquaint candidates with the gay and lesbian community’s concerns while showing the community where the candidates stood on the issues.  Few people running for office would agree to speak to an openly gay audience and virtually all who did speak represented the Democratic Party.

Cut to today. As a non-profit organization engaged in voter education, AGLA is conscious of the need to fairly represent all political viewpoints. “We make sure all parties are invited,” says President Bruce Hightower. That care is reciprocated by participation and respect from candidates of all political persuasions.

AGLA’s path from the limited advocacy of the early days to today’s broad scope of influence and inclusion includes many important milestones.

In 1992, AGLA succeeded in getting an enforcement provision added to the Arlington Human Rights Ordinance, which included sexual orientation as a protected category, but lacked penalties for non-compliance. Since then, the Human Rights Commission has investigated and won cases for gay men and lesbians who have been discriminated against and the county’s power to outlaw discrimination against gay men and lesbians has not been challenged in court.

Similarly, in the early nineties, AGLA began making efforts to launch community service projects in conjunction with straight, community based organizations. These have included joining the Arlington Chamber of Commerce, exhibiting at the family-oriented Arlington County Fair, and fundraising for charities like the Epileptic Foundation of Virginia and the Arlington Food Bank.   This community service approach builds political support for AGLA and educates straight Arlingtonians about gays and lesbians while also helping the entire community.

Working with Arlington County board members, AGLA was successful in 1997 in securing partner benefits for gay and lesbian county employees, a first in Virginia. The policy was ultimately voided by legal action, yet the effectiveness of AGLA’s community service approach was demonstrated by overwhelming support for the measure by Arlington residents and the county government.

In 2000, AGLA established the AGLA College Scholarship Fund which awards annually to graduating Arlington high school seniors who are members of their Gay Straight Alliance and/or made an exceptional contribution to the school system’s policies of openness, diversity, and safety.

AGLA would expand its work by energizing and fostering other non-profit organizations. In 2002, AGLA helped spawn Fairfax Gay and Lesbian Organizing Project (FGLOP), now known as Equality Fairfax. In 2003, AGLA and Equality Fairfax began helping Loudoun County LGBT leaders form the Loudoun Equality Action Project, now known as Equality Loudoun.

Today, AGLA thrives with a wide variety of activities for members. It serves as a local go-to resource for the media, local elected officials, and candidates in areas like workplace protections and marriage rights. AGLA also serves as a conduit for collaboration with such nonprofits as the Imperial Court of Washington, DC, Gay Men’s Health Collaborative, PFLAG, and Northern Virginia Pride.

Since becoming president in 2016, Bruce Hightower has focused on balancing and integrating the three parts of AGLA’s mission: celebration, education, and advocacy. Notable recent celebrations include a 35th anniversary party in 2016 with transgender student activist Gavin Grimm as the keynote speaker and a diversity awards program in 2018. In the area of education, AGLA has launched seminars on LGBTQ senior issues and transgender issues at community centers in Arlington and Alexandria. Meanwhile, the organization is ramping up programs in large metropolitan areas like Falls Church and Fairfax. “We’re spreading our wings,” Bruce says. His ultimate aim is for AGLA “to be the first group policy makers go to when they want to know how the LGBTQ community can best be served.”