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 different 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 a diverse looking 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 released from the Air Force; Darlene Garner, 43, a minister; and Louis Hughes, 47, an administrator.
"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."
"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."
Barry Kessler, of the Baltimore Justice Campaign, a group that lobbies for gay rights, chaired the committee that put the billboards together. The committee raised $6,000 for production and display costs and working with the public service program of Penn Advertising, got the billboards on a space-available basis.
They decided on billboards, Mr. Kessler said, "because it seemed the most cost-effective way to get our message across." The donations came from individuals and groups.
In choosing models, Mr. Kessler said, the most important mission was "to make sure that the diversity of the gay and lesbian community was represented." He added that "it wasn't terribly hard to get people to pose for the ads. A lot of people were very enthusiastic."
On the billboards Mr. Mitchem is holding a year-old baby and finding that model was a little more difficult, 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. "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 stand in for this."
The billboards, which list the telephone number for the Gay and Lesbian Community Center's switchboard, had only been posted a day or two when the feedback started coming in. The switchboard was receiving nearly three times its usual number of calls, said Jennifer Landon, who coordinates phone volunteers.
Ms. Landon put a positive spin on the content of the calls. "They're at least one-third positive," she said. And neither she nor anyone else involved with the billboards is surprised that the negatives outweigh the positives.
"I have no misconceptions that this will convert the totally intolerant," Mr. Kessler said. "That is not in the cards. We see this as purely educational, for people who maybe don't have a clear concept about the gay and lesbian community."
"Bigots may use this as an excuse to behave inappropriately, or even violently," Ms. Garner said. "But I would not think this would incite a reasonable person to any kind of negative behavior."
"Hopefully this will open eyes that we're not this strange society, that we're everywhere," said Mr. Mitchem, whose parents found out through the billboards that he is gay. "But I'm sure that the fact that I'm holding a child will bring up some controversy."
And Ms. Sanders described another reaction: "I'm getting a negative response from gays in the community who are saying we don't look gay enough," she said.
Whatever the reaction, Mr. Kessler promises that this won't be the last message that Baltimore's gay and lesbian communities send to the people of Maryland.
"This is not our final statement," he said. "There are a lot more images and messages we are working to develop. These billboards are just a first step."