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The coming-out process is difficult enough;
imagine doing it publicly, on a billboard, in a conservative southern
That's just what 24-year-old Jasma
Johnson is doing this week when two billboards featuring her and 17 other
members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community are
unveiled in Winston-Salem and Greensboro, N.C.
There was little hesitation on Johnson's part. "I knew my face would be
plastered on a billboard and I knew people who knew me would be driving
past it, but it honestly didn't bother me," said Johnson, who founded the
first GLBT group at North Carolina A&T State University in Greensboro. "If
I can go out there and put myself on a billboard, maybe it will empower
someone else to be who they are. People will see me, will see that I'm
out, that I'm African American and I'm proud of who I am."
Once the two billboards are unveiled, an estimated 80,000 people a day
will see the faces of Johnson and others above this simple but powerful
statement: "Lesbian and Gay People are Valued Members of This Community."
The billboard campaign is the third of its kind organized by
Greensboro-based Triad Equality Alliance (TEA). The group was formed 13
months ago by local activists inspired by a South Carolina organization
that took its pro-gay-rights message to the people through billboards.
It was difficult finding people who were willing to throw open the
closet door in such a public way, especially for the first campaign, said
Sean Cowart, co-chairperson of TEA. "Nothing like this had ever been
done," he said. "Things are changing, but … it's riskier to be openly gay
in our area."
By contacting organizations, sending messages to Listservs and talking up
their project, TEA rounded up 24 people to appear on seven billboards in
Winston-Salem, Greensboro and High Point, which make up the Triad.
The billboards' slogan: "We are your neighbors … and we are gay."
Unveiled in time for National Coming Out Day in October, the campaign was
the brainchild of TEA members and Greensboro photographer Dave Milstead.
The original idea to use billboards came from Charleston, S.C.–based
Alliance for Full Acceptance (AFFA), which joined the same-sex-marriage
push with a photo of the Constitution next to the text "Gay or Straight
Americans deserve protection under the law."
AFFA founder Linda Ketner spoke at a meeting of the Triad Business and
Professional Guild, the local GLBT networking group, in November 2003. At
the end of the talk, she issued a challenge: She would give the guild all
the materials she had if members agreed to launch a similar effort.
In the audience were Cowart and Judith Kobler, who oversaw the creation of
TEA four months later.
Things moved quickly. In mid-February 2004, Ketner sent the materials her
group used to create its Constitution billboard. By April 5, it was up. In
between, President Bush announced that he would seek a constitutional
amendment banning same-sex marriage.
It was a good start, but it wasn't enough. "Last year, it seemed that LGBT
people were more seen as issues than as people in the media," Cowart said.
"We wanted to put a face on our community."
So, abOUT Face, the October campaign, was born. Notice the double
entendre? Kobler explained, "If you see our faces and get to know us as
people you might do an about face in terms of your opinion of what the gay
and lesbian community is."
One of the most surprising things to come out of that campaign was
Kobler's invitation to appear on a local Christian radio station. A host
promised to play a radio spot TEA created, based on an AFFA ad, if a
member would appear on the show. With a promised audience of as many as 2
million people, Kobler jumped at the chance.
The build-up was scary, but the experience was "very positive," said
Kobler, who brought along her minister. He fielded questions from
listeners about the Bible while Kobler explained TEA's mission. "We didn't
feel any animosity at all during the hour," she said. "And we never would
have been able to raise money to have 2 million people listen to our
Getting that message out to those who wouldn't normally interact with GLBT
people is the point, Cowart said. "We want to start a dialogue with [a]
broader community—that's where change is going to happen," he said. "Even
if they have negative things to say, it gets views into the light."
Cowart, 38, always has been a bit of an activist, he said. "Being gay has
always been a part of my life. There's too much progress that needs to be
made to sit back and not do anything," he said.
Johnson, a graduate student concentrating on adult education, became
active when she realized there were few activities for GLBT students at
the historically black universities she attended, A&T and Shaw University.
The native of Brooklyn, N.Y., hopes the billboard and her student group
will spur people to be more accepting of themselves. "The more comfortable
you are, the better off you'll be," she said.
Forty-four years Johnson's senior, 68-year-old Kobler has seen the
country's attitudes toward the GLBT community change dramatically. "I
certainly saw what the world was like when I arrived in [Greenwich]
Village in 1959, when they were still locking people up for being gay,"
It's hard to stand out in New York City, she said, "but here in North
Carolina, I felt I could make a difference."
And she—along with Cowart, Johnson and the dozens of volunteers who put
their personal lives on display—certainly has.