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LGBT women in South Florida come out strong as Aqua Foundation honors allies Ros-Lehtinen, Ortuño

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Back when gay activists strategized during the 1970s Anita Bryant era, Joan Schaeffer usually was the only woman in the room.

“Women were not involved politically, to my recollection. One thing we had then, that we don’t have now is women’s bars. That’s where the women would go. The bars were very segregated. There were women’s bars and there were men’s bars and never the twain shall meet,” said Schaeffer, now 61, a mortgage broker and synagogue president. “I don’t remember seeing women publicly at all. There was always this question: What did women do when they discovered they were lesbians?”

More than 35 years later, South Florida’s lesbian community has come out politically and economically. Friday night, Aqua Foundation for Women, one of the region’s most-active LGBT organizations, celebrates its 10th anniversary with the annual Aqua Ally Awards, this year honoring U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, and C.J. Ortuño, past executive director of gay-rights group SAVE Dade.

Aqua Foundation Executive Director Robin Schwartz, 51, recalls how her organization got its start:

“When we got together, we saw that there was this void, that most of the LGBT organizations were run by guys and funded by guys. Everything was really male-oriented. That’s not the guys’ fault, that’s the women’s fault. We weren’t stepping up to the plate,” Schwartz said. “We felt if we had an organization run by women for the issues that matter to women, that we could get more women involved.”

Aqua Foundation has provided “an opportunity to coalesce all these really awesome women in one space with a common goal,” Schwartz said. “By doing that, other women followed and we’re creating a great community for women.”

This year, Aqua Foundation’s annual operating budget reached about $500,000. The group’s biggest yearly fundraiser is Aqua Girl, a five-day women’s party in South Beach.

“We live in Miami, South Florida, where it is OK [to be out]. We don’t have so many issues,” Schwartz said. “But women come from all over the United States, all over the world. I’ve met many Russians who come here. Imagine what it’s like to be in Russia right now and be gay. They can come to Aqua Girl and at least have five days where they can socialize, be who they are, and know that it’s OK and to feel good about it.”

Aqua Foundation spends much of its money on local programs, grants and scholarships. It sponsors the LBT Health Directory, an online database of “LBT friendly” medical professionals. Last year, Aqua donated $72,000 to LGBT groups and charities, including $33,333 for a LGBTQ Youth Homelessness Initiative in Miami-Dade.

In 2013, Aqua presented 12 school scholarships valued at a total of $60,000, including a $10,000 prize sponsored by Wells Fargo.

“A lot of the women who get our scholarships are young, but not all,” Schwartz said. “A lot of them are in that process of coming out to their parents, coming out in the world. To have someone who’s already been through that and feels great about themselves as a role model and a guide is invaluable.”

Bridget Pelaez, born and raised in Miami, is one of Aqua’s recent beneficiaries.

“For me this has been a very long journey,” said Pelaez, 29, a paramedic studying to become a nurse.

“Prior to middle school I went to a very conservative Catholic school in Miami and never felt I fit in,” she said. “In middle school, I faced adversity as the only female wrestler on the team. I went home and asked my parents if I could wrestle. I come from a family that’s taught me to always want to aspire to be a bigger, better Bridget. As long as I’m not hurting anybody, I should push boundaries and not be afraid to ask why.”

In high school, Pelaez said, she thrived as an out lesbian.

“For me it was being bold enough to be myself in any environment. I feel I lived my high school dream. I went to a school that was mix of different cultures and races. I mingled with everybody. I was class president, but I wasn’t the smartest. I just wanted to be a leader and I knew that,” she said. “I was homecoming queen and I’m the last person who wants to wear a dress. I joke that they only made me homecoming queen because they wanted to see me in a dress once a year. I played five sports in high school. My focus was being a good athlete, and meeting a lot of people and being the best young leader I could be.”

Pelaez graduated from South Miami High School in 2003 and got an EMS degree at Broward College three years later. She has received three Aqua Foundation scholarships, including the 2013 Wells Fargo prize.

“I’ve had mentors that have broadened my horizons. That cliche thing, ‘the sky’s the limit,’ is something they foster at Aqua,” she said. “Being in a room around so many successful older lesbians reminded me that I could have a life I always imagined as a kid, or my parents imagined for me. It’s because of their life stories and the lessons they’ve given to me.”

Schaeffer, president of Temple Israel of Greater Miami, finds it remarkable she has seen the societal sea change.

“I live my life kind of normal, I think. I’m out. Everybody knows what my story is. Financially I’m OK. ... I’m older and the world is different, too. That helps a lot,” she said. “I feel very grateful that I have witnessed this evolution. It’s wonderful to see. I feel like my life has been very full and I’m happy about that. To actually see the world change in your lifetime so dramatically, in such a small sphere of life, is incredible.”

If you go

The Aqua Ally Awards will be presented 6 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Bacardi Building, 2701 Le Jeune Rd., Coral Gables. $75 Aqua Foundation members, $85 advance, $95 at door. www.aquafoundation.org.

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