By Eduardo Morales, Ph.D.
AGUILAS is an acronym that stands for Asemblea Gay Unida Impactando Latinos A Superarse (Gay Assembly United Impacting Latinxs to Surpass or rise above). Founded in 1991 by members of the Latinx LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco, AGUILAS has a mission that states: “AGUILAS is dedicated to creating a supportive, culturally sensitive environment for gay/bisexual Latinos. We strive to foster knowledge and pride of the diversity of our language, culture, history, and spirituality. AGUILAS is committed to developing programs that promote health, well-being, and community building that foster positive self-identities, healthy relationships, and leadership skills.” Its organic evolvement is rooted in a history of past events that led to its founding and the formalizing of an organization with corporate bylaws that eventually obtained 501 C-3 nonprofit status from the Internal Revenue Service in August of 1999.
Many have pointed to the 1969 Stonewall uprising in NYC on the night of June 28 as the turning point in the LGBT movement. These riots were started by African American and Latinx LGBT drag queens in reaction to the constant harassment and raids by NYC police of LGBTQ+ persons who frequented the Stonewall Bar in the Greenwich Village neighborhood in Manhattan. Interestingly, this uprising coincided with the funeral of Judy Garland. This uprising movement generated a formal change and removal of homosexuality as a mental illness in 1974 by the American Psychiatric Association and
in 1975 by the American Psychological Association. As a result, several organizations were formed throughout the U.S. with the focus of providing support and advocacy for LGBTQ+ rights. For the Latinx LGBTQ+ community in San Francisco, various informal social groups emerged—most notably GALA and El Grupo Sociocultural that offered events for socializing with safety and pride. CURAS was formed in the late 1980s to provide HIV/AIDS services to Latinx gays and bisexuals in San Francisco.
During the 1987 National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights in Washington, D.C., a gathering of Latinx LGBTQ individuals was called through an ad placed in the march materials entitled: el Primer Encuentro de Gais y Lesbianas Latinas. A meeting was held in a building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., and the attendees decided to have a gathering in UCLA to establish a national organization as a nonprofit corporation with bylaws that was then named LLEGO National (Latino/a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Organizers-National). This generated interest among Latinx LGBTQ+ persons in San Francisco to formally create a new organization in order to address the needs of the community locally. During 1991, numerous meetings were held in the basement of the St. Francis Lutheran Church on Church Street in San Francisco. Then, AGUILAS was created with its own bylaws and with the intent to serve and advocate for the community, and AGUILAS as mentioned would
eventually become a 501 C-3 nonprofit organization During 1994, CURAS found itself in difficulty and AGUILAS was provided a small grant by the San Francisco Department of Public Health AIDS Office to conduct a randomized trial to examine two different HIV strategies for HIV prevention designed and implemented by five Latinx gay psychologists. A standard psychoeducational instructional strategy was compared with a novel one based on Paulo Freire’s theory of empowerment involving discussion and
engagement of attendees. The qualitative data collected showed each participant’s preference for the more engaging empowerment strategy over the traditional psychoeducational approach. This resulted in the start of the ongoing HIV prevention services AGUILAS is now known to provide. In early 2002, AGUILAS received direct funding for five years from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to expand its services and to include yearly overnight retreats by providing a more intensive intervention experience in a safe and protected environment. During the spring seasons when summer camps were available for rental, AGUILAS expanded its reach to Latinx LGBTQ+ persons throughout Northern California.
Throughout the years the staff at AGUILAS have published articles about its approach in peer-reviewed journal articles and have presented its strategies nationally and internationally at numerous professional conferences. Later, local leaders and governmental agencies advocated for consolidation of smaller organizations. However, such integration presented challenges through competing organizational priorities. Many Latinx LGBTQ+ workers in these consolidated agencies expressed their frustration, noting the lack of attention and focus for Latinx LGBTQ+ concerns. Consequently, the Board of AGUILAS decided to maintain its independence and move forward seeking additional sources of funding, developing fundraising activities, and partnering with other agencies for the delivery of services to the Latinx LGBTQ+ community.
For example, AGUILAS led the way to the formation of Purple Star, a marijuana dispensary in the Mission District of San Francisco whose profits are shared with nonprofits that include AGUILAS, Shanti, the SF LGBT Center, and the San Francisco Breast Cancer Emergency Fund. With the recent funding by ViiV Foundation, AGUILAS will now revive La Academia de AGUILAS for Latinx LGBTQ+ leadership development previously funded in 2011 and 2012 by the Levi Straus Foundation. Plans for leadership training and a certificate program are now being created with a calendar of events to be posted on the AGUILAS website very soon. The solid foundation of AGUILAS is a tribute to AGUILAS’ Board of Directors and dedicated staff who offer all of the provided services in English, Spanish, and Portuguese.
Our website contains more specific information as well as a monthly calendar of activities that includes individual and group sessions for Latinx gay bisexual men, social events, and outreach activities to provide HIV, Sexually Transmitted Infection (SDI), and hepatitis C testing in collaboration with the UCSF Alliance Health: https://www.sfaguilas.org/