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Coming Out

The Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center unveils new billboards.

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What do a former Marine, several peace activists, a handful of ministers, an interracial lesbian couple, and an average Joe have in common?

By week's end, their faces will grace five billboards posted throughout the city in conjunction with National Coming Out Day, an internationally observed event promoting discussion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) issues held on October 11th.

The billboards, paid for by the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center (MGLCC), also advertise the center's website.

"The community center needs to come out and say two things: We're not afraid of being honest about who we are, and we're not ashamed of who we are," said Will Batts, director of the MGLCC. "We are beyond the point where we're going to let other people tell us to be quiet or ashamed or fearful because they might fire us or kick us out of church."

One billboard — to be located near Poplar Avenue and High Street downtown — shows former Marine Tim Smith in uniform and reads, "I'm gay and I protected your freedom."

"That billboard is going to get a lot of reaction. There's a wow factor to it," Batts said. "That man was about 20 days away from being shipped to Iraq when he was kicked out under the military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. There's a constant battle for gay and lesbian people in the military. They're asked to be honest and honorable, but they have to be dishonest about who they are."

Near Whitten Road and I-40, a billboard displaying local ministers Cheryl Cornish and Sonya Walker of First Congregational Church, John Gilmore of Open Heart Spiritual Center, and Elaine Blanchard of Neshoba Unitarian Universalist Church will read, "Ministers in support of gay, lesbian, and transgender people."

"It's not a matter of ministers on one side and gay people on the other. There are a lot of people of faith who believe that gay people are fully equal, not sinful or immoral," Batts said. "That's the message we wanted to send, and we wanted it to be as far from Midtown as possible. There are some [gay-friendly] churches out east, but, for the most part, the more progressive churches are in Midtown or downtown and the more conservative churches are in the outlying areas."

A billboard in East Memphis will highlight a few straight supporters of gay rights, while a billboard featuring interracial lesbian couple Edie Love and Tamar Moten will be located in Cooper-Young. Another billboard in Midtown will feature a lone gay man.

"We want people to realize that these are your neighbors. That's why we chose all local people, rather than using stock photos," Batts said. "These are the people who go to your church. These are the people who you work with. These are the people in your community."

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