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| AT Issue / VICKI TORRES

Gay, Lesbian Business Alliance Expands, Sets New Agenda

September 16, 1998|VICKI TORRES

The Valley Business Alliance, a 19-year-old gay and lesbian business association that has twice transformed itself, is going at it again.

The San Fernando Valley group has doubled its membership in 14 months, recast itself as the Business Alliance of Los Angeles and expanded "over the hill," as they say in the Valley.

BALA President Dori Marler says the nonprofit group decided to make the leap after examining its membership list and realizing that more than 40% of its members have a Westside business or home address. Also driving the move were repeated statements from other gay and lesbian business owners that they would join but for the group's Burbank meeting locale.

Marler says BALA will fill a need for an association of gay and lesbian business owners that is met now only by the Uptown Gay & Lesbians in Glendale and Community Business Networkers, a for-profit networking group based in Orange County.

"Our vision is to grow in numbers and become a driving force in the business community and a recognized force in the gay community," Marler said.

A lofty aspiration for a group that numbers just over 200, but BALA is on a roll. The group's inaugural non-Valley dinner meeting last week at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel featured state Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles) as guest speaker. Meanwhile, the group plans an Oct. 11 business expo.

The organization began in 1979 when gay bar and bathhouse owners, plus a porno film producer, banded together to put a stop to what they considered police harassment of their businesses and formed a police advisory committee, Marler said.

When AIDS struck in the 1980s, the association swung into action as a fund-raising group. VBA helped establish the first AIDS hospice in the Valley and raised huge sums every year at a Studio City street fair. But the business group was soon overshadowed by major AIDS fund-raising organizations such as AIDS Project Los Angeles and the American Foundation for AIDS Research, and VBA events began to lose steam.

"By the early '90s, it was obvious the organization was sputtering," Marler said. Many of VBA's early leaders had themselves died of AIDS and the constant fund-raising was driving away members who were beginning to feel pinched by the recession. Dinner meetings at the Beverly Garland Hotel were forlorn events with only four tables in a huge banquet room.

Marler and past president Charles Barrett decided to revamp and revive the group. They tossed out much of the fund-raising, focused on networking, encouraged members to do business with each other, prospected for new members and gave out "all the 'warm fuzzies,' " Marler said.

The result was a jump in membership, with women joining the previously male-dominated group. Women now comprise about a quarter of the members. Heterosexuals also have joined.

Betsy Haas, who runs BH & Associates, a Van Nuys-based personal coaching business, said she feels more comfortable in a gay and lesbian business group, plus her sales revenue has quadrupled since she joined four years ago.

"In the straight business world I was always having to leave a piece of me outside the door," she said.

Marler, an Encino real estate agent, is the first non-gay, woman president of the group. She said she joined in 1992 because she felt so welcomed when she spoke before VBA on gays in the military. Her son, Kirk Gebhart, had died that year of AIDS and Marler was something of a gay-rights activist.

"I've always been very proud of the fact that my son never spent a day in the closet," Marler said.

Her work to expand BALA is necessary, she said, because "gays and lesbians and gay-friendly people always have the fear their rights will be taken away from them because so many people are prejudiced.

"But within any community, an organization has power when it has numbers," she added.

Clarifying Contractors

Legislative update: While Assembly Speaker Villaraigosa was giving BALA members an update on bills before Gov. Pete Wilson that would benefit small businesses, two more small-business-related bills passed the Legislature. One may earn a veto and the other Wilson's signature.

* The veto may come for Assembly Bill 810, a measure that would create an advisory task force composed of business owners and labor leaders to examine the definition of an independent contractor and make it clearer. The current definition, based on federal case law, is fuzzy. Small-business owners often land in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service and state taxing authorities when they take on part-time or temporary workers as independent contractors.

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