Huffpost Gay Voices
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Robin Schwartz Headshot

What It Takes to Be an Aqua Girl

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

After 13 years of success, one question I've been asked many times is: What defines an Aqua Girl?

To me an Aqua Girl can be any age and from any background. She can be a trans woman, a lesbian, a bisexual woman; the one thing all Aqua Girls have in common is that they like to have fun! Most importantly, though, an Aqua Girl cares. That's the defining quality. She cares about other women, about the struggles for equality and dignity that we all face. That's why she shows up, and lives it up... all to further a great cause.

Every year, thousands of LBT women from across the globe flock to Miami's South Beach and join a huge crowd of local ladies for five days of pool parties, dance parties, comedy shows, film screenings, and receptions. At Aqua Girl there really is something for every woman. Whether you're young and looking to party for days in your bikini or a bit more mature and seeking a rich cultural experience, we've got you covered.

The feedback we've gotten from our guests is unanimous: Aqua Girl is an absolute blast. There's no denying that! But this event is about so much more.

It's incredibly exciting for me to see so many LBT women together having a great time in a safe, supportive environment, all the more because every time they buy a ticket to an event, they are contributing directly to the empowerment and wellness of South Florida's LBT individuals and the region's LBT community as a whole.

Every dollar raised through ticket sales at Aqua Girl goes to fund Aqua Foundation for Women, a nonprofit I co-founded along with a group of community-minded women in 2004. The foundation provides grants, scholarships, and mentors for LBT women and organizations in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

In August 2010 I left a successful job as District Sales Manager of a Xerox company to become Executive Director of Aqua Foundation for Women. It's one of the best decisions I've ever made. Funding groups that provide vital services to LBT women and knowing that our programs are helping women grow, get involved in community work, and really get that what they're doing is much bigger than themselves is incredibly rewarding.

The story of the foundation is inextricably linked to the even longer story of the fundraiser. It's rare to have the fundraiser precede the nonprofit, but that's the case with Aqua Girl and Aqua Foundation for Women. Back in 1999 event planner Alison Burgos, a friend of mine who felt we needed to have more events like this in the LBT community, put together a one-night benefit, dubbed Sweet Charity, to raise funds for the battle against breast cancer. It went so well that she and a group of friends immediately began planning one for the following year. Alison and her collaborators changed its name to Aqua Girl as a nod to Miami-Dade County's famous beaches.

In 2004 Alicia Apfel put together a group of LBT women to discuss starting a foundation, one run by women for women, to channel the funds raised through the festival. That's how Aqua Foundation for Women was born.

Our work in the community is ongoing.

Though women have made great strides since the post-war baby boom, we still find ourselves fighting for equality. Women who are also lesbian, bisexual, or transgender often struggle with the even more complex issues that can result from living in a society in which many still reinforce the false message that gay is not OK.

For example, a lot of LBT women don't go to see doctors proactively, mostly due to fear of discrimination and mistreatment. Our foundation just gave a grant to the Wilton Manors-based Pride Center, which provides a wide variety of services to the LGBTQ community, for the creation of an online directory of health care providers who have gone through a vetting process. We are confident that women who may not have gone to see a doctor for a regular check up will do so when they have access to physicians they know will treat LBT women with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Bullying, as we've seen from recent, heartbreaking headlines about gay teens committing suicide, and a frequent lack of understanding and acceptance from relatives can take a serious toll on the self-esteem of any young LGBTQ man or woman.

To ease the journey of young LBT women toward self-discovery and self-acceptance, our foundation teams them up with caring mentors who provide positive role models of success and community engagement. I can't think of a better example of the power of having a great mentor than Enbar Cohen, one of my favorite Aqua success stories.

Enbar had to endure the bullying of her peers in high school, which took a serious emotional toll, and the disapproval of her parents, who refused her financial help for college. Through our mentor and scholarship programs, she has blossomed into a confident woman who is involved with Safe Schools South Florida, another of our youth-services grantees, and is headed to law school. Like many of our other scholarship recipients, including those who have a supportive family, she decided to be part of another family: Aqua Foundation for Women.

And it doesn't end there. Enbar is also running for a city commission seat in her home municipality of Aventura. She is a perfect example of how our work supports women to be all they can be.

At this point I see Aqua Girl continuing to grow every year (we expect more attendees than ever during this, our 13th outing) thanks not just to our guests but also to the amazing support we get from the City of Miami Beach and the city of Greater Miami and all our sponsors and partners.

For the foundation, Aqua Girl's growth equals more incoming funds, which results in more programs and more women reached. I'm excited to keep finding new ways to continue Leading, Building, and Transforming South Florida so that the future is bright for all LBT women who live here.