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Gay youth billboards jolt Southern city

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  • John Mayes
    Gay youth billboards jolt Southern city Jennifer Christensen Gay.com / PlanetOut.com Network Friday, November 9, 2001 / 03:59 PM Drivers used to seeing
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 12, 2001
      Gay youth billboards jolt Southern city
      Jennifer Christensen
      Gay.com / PlanetOut.com Network
      Friday, November 9, 2001 / 03:59 PM

      Drivers used to seeing decaying industrial buildings
      and rundown bars on their way into uptown Charlotte,
      N.C., are getting a surprise. In the shadow of
      Erickson Stadium is a billboard showing four smiling
      young people and a message: "We Are Your Gay Youth,"
      with a contact number for the local GLBT youth group.

      For some, it may be an unwelcome surprise. While GLBT
      youth have made some headway in the nation's schools,
      in Charlotte they've made national headlines for the
      way their school district silences them.

      Three years ago, the city refused to stage one of the
      Charlotte Young Playwright Festival's winning plays,
      just because one of her characters was a lesbian. High
      school counselors cannot talk about sexuality with
      their students. And the gay and lesbian youth group,
      Time Out Youth, is not allowed to let students know
      about its activities on school property.

      That's why the group decided to get its message out to
      students in a different, bolder way.

      "We have only 30 or 40 students showing up for
      meetings," said Joy Pugh, Time Out Youth's director of
      development. "Statistically, we know there are more
      kids out there. We want to reach them. You know, the
      schools even block gay content from their Internet
      access. The billboards are a great way to let everyone
      know about us."

      With grants from the Gill and the Skylark foundations,
      the 11-year-old group mounted five billboards on some
      of Charlotte's busiest roads. The campaign is a bold
      one for Charlotte's quieter Southern-polite community,
      one that offends some conservatives.

      "I'm of a live-and-let-live philosophy," said Vincent
      Cole, who said he drives by one sign on his way to
      work. "But this flaunting of their behavior is just
      wrong. I think the issue should be kept out of the
      schools and off our city streets. The kids should've
      just kept quiet."

      The school system is keeping quiet about the
      billboards, refusing to comment about them. Time Out
      Youth said it did send a letter warning the district
      about the billboards, but the group hasn't heard a
      response.

      "This is surely a scarlet letter on Charlotte's
      schools," said Jim Anderson, a spokesperson for the
      Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
      Anderson said this is the first billboard campaign
      he's seen of this kind, but its sentiment is not
      unusual.

      "GLSEN is seeing many GLBT youth who refuse to suffer
      in silence," he said. "Across the country, they are
      finding many creative ways to make sure their own
      voices are heard in the schools."

      Up just a week, the signs are having an impact. The
      Time Out Youth office has been flooded with calls. Two
      urban radio stations called to offer airtime to reach
      their young gay listeners. And Democratic Congressman
      Mel Watt's office called to ask if a student from the
      group could sit on one of his youth advisory panels.

      "Sure, the campaign is a little in your face for the
      South," Pugh said. "But judging by the response, maybe
      this kind of bold campaign is just what this city
      needed."

      *******

      Visit Time Out Youth on the web at
      http://www.timeoutyouth.org

      For more about the Charlotte, NC LGBT Community go to
      http://www.gaycharlotte.com

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