by CATHERINE D. WILLIS & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he signs went up without explanation or fanfare May 1 - seven identical billboards featuring 14 Spokane-area residents sporting a simple, upbeat greeting: "Hi Spokane! We're your family, friends and neighbors!"
Two weeks later, a second line, "SOME of us are Gay ...," was added. And a final message appeared June 1: "All of us deserve equal rights!"
The six-week billboard campaign is an educational effort of the Vision Committee, a subgroup of OutSpokane, the local nonprofit that organizes the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, questioning and allied (GLBTQA) community's annual Pride Celebration, now under way.
"The timing is serendipitous," says Bonnie Aspen, Vision's chairwoman and a member of OutSpokane's board of directors. "We've been working on this project for almost two years. That it came together for Pride is a gift to the community."
The basic design was mapped out last fall. Final details were put in place when funding was assured. Private donations covered all costs, which came to approximately $5,000. Vision member Steve Rodenbough, owner of Northern Exposures Photography, contributed the photo work and Christopher Lawrence, chair of the OutSpokane board, did the graphic design and production work.
Lawrence first proposed the billboard idea after learning about Equality Georgia's "We Are Your Neighbors" campaign, an ambitious multi-billboard project launched in Atlanta in July 2005.
Lamar Advertising refused to run the Georgia billboards, calling them "too controversial." Clear Channel Media rented the space for the 2005 campaign.
Lamar in Spokane reviewed the billboard plan, as it does all prospective projects, and accepted OutSpokane's campaign without reservations.
Vision members braced for negative reactions, but they have heard mostly expressions of support, or curiosity.
Attorney Cam Zorrozua, one of the 14 whose likeness graces the skyline above the Spokane traffic, tells of a co-worker who saw the billboard while driving with her 13-year-old son. The boy recognized Zorrozua. "She said it made her son think about homosexuality in a completely different way. He could actually identify someone that he personally knew, ... someone that could be gay, and it put a face on homosexuality for him. He thought about it and I think that it helped him to understand and 'get over' the social stigma that exists in our society."
Zorrozua is a straight ally. Her husband, Joe Labish, also appears on the billboard. Once a chef, he now manages the bar at Dempsey's Brass Rail.
"We're here," says longtime mental health counselor and Vision activist Lorin Miller, summarizing the campaign goal.
"We're in every neighborhood in this whole city," adds another Vision member, real estate broker Marshall Fahland.
Miller, a billboard participant who is transgender, continues, "We want to help people become more familiar with the GLBT community. ... We're decent human beings. We pay our taxes. We mow our lawns on Saturday just like everybody else. We're part of the larger community."
Dr. Raymond Reyes, Gonzaga University's Vice President for Intercultural Relations, called his involvement in the project a "no-brainer." It's a sentiment expressed in one form or another by everyone who posed for the billboards.