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From the living room to the courtroom, gay culture and issues have moved to the forefront. Not only has the mainstream embrace of gay-themed shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Queer as Folk laid the groundwork for broader acceptance of queer lifestyles, it could help coax marketers who target the desirable gay demographic out of the closet, too. But first they'll need some suitable stock images. After all, substituting a photo of platonic girlfriends when the creative calls for an honest-to-goodness lesbian couple doesn't always cut it. Nothing was more apparent to Loly Carrillo and Sharon Dodge while working to develop an American Airlines campaign aimed at the gay community. "I realized fairly quickly that there was very little imagery available to work with to represent our community," recalls Carrillo, creative director, partner and director of Seattle's Queerstock (www.queerstock.com), provider of gay- and lesbian-centric stock photography and illustrations.

Carrillo, along with agency veteran and Queerstock president Dodge, took action to form the niche company three years ago. Dodge compares today's societal atmosphere to that of 20 years back, when "social consciousness required that ads include nonwhite faces." At the time, however, the stock photo industry had yet to catch up with progressive attitudes. "There were mostly white faces, and everyone was fairly bland looking," Dodge adds.

When it comes to representing the gay community, Queerstock aims to affect the same transformation that's brought a range of colors and cultures into advertising. The firm, which houses around 6,000 images, is betting on a royalty-free distribution relationship with Getty Images to help promote more widespread usage of selected images. In addition to producing its own lifestyle imagery, the stock supplier has acquired licensing rights to as much queer content as it can find. Through a recently-announced partnership with Retna, a modern and historical celebrity, music and fashion photo agency, Queerstock is reviving yesterday's icons like Oscar Wilde and Virginia Woolf. And in an effort that affords new relevance to cultural works, the company offers fine-art images through a relationship with art representation outfit Bridgeman.

Clients, including Texaco, advocacy organization The Human Rights Campaign and Triangle Marketing, a firm associated with The Advocate publisher, LPI Media, have used Queerstock images for an array of purposes, from human resources manuals to gay marriage services websites to textbooks. "We've had lots of recent sales in the web area," notes Dodge. "People providing wedding services are racing to get their websites up."

Queerstock also produces custom work for its clients. However, while the company's pool of about 50 queer models enables it to respond more efficiently to client requests, convincing gay people to be photographed, especially for sensitive subjects such as family- or health-related issues has been a challenge. For fear of community reprisal or legal action, explains Carrillo, "as little as two years ago people were very hesitant to be used in a photo for anything involving HIV, for example. We have very few protections."

Mirroring apprehension within the queer community, some corporate marketers remain reluctant to reveal their efforts to target gay demographic groups. "There's a great big picnic on this table, and I don't think anybody is interested in pointing to their baskets," observes Dodge of some of her clients. While she admits that persuading marketers to open up has been an arduous task, she has hope. "We're involved in sowing a lot of seeds and helping corporations to become more comfortable."

Queerstock's ultimate goal is to assist in the integration of gay lifestyles into society. Says Carrillo, "I'm happiest when we get a request for an image to be used in a mainstream environment."

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