Northern Virginia gay activists, protesting what they call police harassment of homosexuals in Arlington County, have begun a series of informal meetings with County Board members and law enforcement officials there.
"The whole point is to create and raise a gay profile," said 36-year-old Tom DePriest of the Virginia Gay Alliance, an organization which is seeking to increase its political clout in much the same way gay groups have done in the District. "We are here, we vote. We're not just the funny-looking men you see in Dupont Circle holding hands on Saturdays . . . We're talking about people who pay taxes, vote, have decent salaries and know how to get things done."
DePriest and others in the two-year-old organization say Arlington undercover police have arrested between 10 and 15 homosexuals in a department store men's room over the past three months.
They maintain that those arrests, along with several Arlington arrests last year of men allegedly involved in outcall massage operations in the District, constitute a pattern of entrapment of members of the gay community.
County law enforcement officials do not dispute the organization's count of arrests, but say they are not trying to harass or entrap anyone. Said Lt. Arthur Christiansen, head of the police vice unit, "When we get a complaint, it's from the citizens and it's our job to look into it. We have to."
Christiansen acknowledges that county police last year regularly lured male and female prostitutes from Washington to Arlington, where they were arrested, and said the practice will be continued.
For DePriest and Michael Romanello, the lobbyist and president, respectively, of an organization that claims 240 members, the complaints about Arlington law enforcement mark only the first step on what may be a long journey toward acceptance in conservative Virginia.
They estimate that between 19,000 and 22,000 homosexuals live in Arlington, most of them along the Wilson Boulevard/Metro corridor, with approximately another 20,000 in other Northern Virginia jurisdictions.
Working with an annual budget of only $17,000, they say the alliance will strive to achieve the same kind of influence in Northern Virginia politics that gay activists have exerted over elections in Washington. There, city officials including Mayor Marion Barry, have actively courted the gay vote.
"We're just beginning," attorney DePriest said of the low-key, get-acquainted meetings the group is scheduling with county officials. "I don't expect we will have any impact next fall or for a while."
"They've indicated they hope to be a serious force," said County Board member Dorothy T. Grotos, one of two county board members who have met so far with Romanello and DePriest. "If their numbers are anywhere near correct, it could be a very vocal special interest group. But I don't know if it would be the dominant one."
"I don't know how influential they might be," said board member Mary Margaret Whipple, who also met with the two men. "I don't know the kind of organization they have or how it works in the District."
According to Romanello, a 35-year-old unemployed office designer, the Virginia Gay Alliance plans to send questionnaires on gay-rights issues to local candidates this year and publish their ratings in gay newspapers.
Both Romanello and DePriest concede that the biggest challenge their organization faces in conservative Virginia will come at the state level. They say they plan to work for the repeal of laws prohibiting sodomy and forbidding the sale of alcohol to homosexuals. They also want state legislators to support gay-rights bills, but have found some legislators to be skittish, claiming such support would be "political suicide."
"We are building an old-line, grass-roots political machine in Virginia," said Romanello. "And we're employing the money of established, socially prominent people who will never come out of the closet but are more than willing to use their wealth to support the efforts of those who can."