Joaquin Alvarez -- a 31-year-old Cuban native who has lived in Baltimore for two years and works as a consultant in early childhood education -- is proud of who he is.
Right up there in the forefront of what makes him proud is his sexual identity as a gay man.
"I'm able to express that pride publicly," he said, and he's probably never been quite so public as he was when he posed for photographs for billboards sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Community Center of Baltimore and the Baltimore Justice Campaign.
The billboards, which went up last week in six Baltimore-area locations and will be in 20 central Maryland sites within a month, proclaim a message that is simple, yet essential to emphasize, said Mr. Alvarez and the other five gay men and women who are pictured.
"You already know us!" read placards held by the group: Elizabeth Sanders, 35, who runs the art department for a printing company; Melissa Johnson, 29, who works in home maintenance and repairs; Mr. Alvarez; Leo Mitchem, 26, a Gulf War veteran recently honorably discharged from the Air Force; Darlene Garner, 43, a minister with Northern Virginia's Metropolitan Community Church; and Louis Hughes, 47, an administrator.
"Truly, you do know us," Mr. Alvarez said. "People need to know, we are in your church, on your baseball teams. We are your employees and your bosses. We're your friends."
"I'm not shy about who I am," said Ms. Sanders, who was also on the committee that worked for two years to plan and execute the billboards. "I think it's important to be an example for other people. If you're proud of who you are, then others will look at you in a much more respectful way and think twice about their preconceptions. If you're ashamed of who you are, it will make people think there's something to be ashamed of."
Ms. Johnson, 29, who "was out long before the billboard came along," said co-workers and acquaintances have reacted with "lots of surprise and compliments and congratulations."
Billboards "seemed the most cost-effective way to get our message across," said Barry Kessler, of the Baltimore Justice Campaign, a group that lobbies for gay rights. He chaired the committee that put the billboards together. The committee raised $6,000 in donations for production and display costs. Working with the public service program of Penn Advertising, it got the billboards on a space-available basis.
He added that "it wasn't terribly hard to get people to pose for the ads. A lot of people were very enthusiastic."
Mr. Mitchem, whose parents found out through the billboards that he is gay, said, "Hopefully this will open eyes that we're not this strange society, that we're everywhere." He tried telling his parents before the sign appeared but changed his mind when they voiced disapproval of the gay lifestyle, he said.
"But I'm sure that the fact that I'm holding a child will bring up some controversy."
On the billboards Mr. Mitchem is holding a year-old baby. Finding that model was a little more difficult than finding the adults, Mr. Kessler said.
"We felt that it was important to have a baby in the picture because gay people are part of families," he explained. "A lot of gay people today are caring for children and many more would like to."
But the young model -- whom Mr. Kessler identified only as Matthew -- is the son of straight parents, who are his close friends.
"When we met with gay and lesbian parents, we found they felt very private about their children," he said. "They know their children are likely to face an enormous amount of intolerance in school, and they didn't want to make it worse for them. So we felt it was reasonable to have a child of straight parents."
In choosing adult models, he said, the most important mission was "to make sure that the diversity of the gay and lesbian community was represented."
Not everyone in the gay community feels that effort succeeded.
"I don't find myself in that image," said Mark Shaw, media coordinator for ACT UP Baltimore, a radical coalition devoted to ending the AIDs crisis. He took part in the original photo session for the billboard but was not included in the final version.
"The image that's been created makes us appear safe, non-threatening, passive . . . palatable to the heterosexual community," he said. "Everyone is grinning. It's a minstrel image.
"But a large part of being a gay man today is about being angry: angry at government's inaction of AIDs; angry that my brothers and sisters are being killed every day in the street and no one particularly cares; angry that I work in the county and could be fired at any time and have no legal recourse. And the big topper, in Maryland if I have sex with the man I love I'm committing a felony."
Ms. Sanders said, "I'm getting a negative response from gays in the community who are saying we don't look gay enough."
Ms. Kessler said he has also received criticism from some gay people who feel the people in the billboard are not "straight-looking enough."