Time Out Youth's strategy to reach out to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth between the ages of 13 and 23 is bold by Charlotte standards. The Mecklenburg County Commission did, after all, make national headlines four years ago after five commissioners voted to pull the plug on county funding for the Arts & Science Council because of homosexual themes in a play it helped fund.
The message on the seven billboards that appeared across Charlotte Wednesday is short and to the point.
"We are your gay youth," the billboards read. The people pictured on it aren't models, but four actual members of the organization, along with the group's phone number, website and logo.
Joy Pugh, Time Out Youth's director of development, said the group expects the billboards will generate controversy, including charges that the group is trying to "recruit" or entice young people into a homosexual lifestyle.
Pugh said the group is using the billboards to more aggressively reach out to LGBTQ youth because of the problems they face with depression, drug use, suicide and harassment at school.
According to a 1989 US Department of Health and Human Services study, up to 30 percent of all teen suicides are by gay youths, and GLBT teens are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Studies show that nearly all gay and lesbian suicides occur between the ages of 16 and 21.
Nineteen-year-old UNCC student Sara Michau -- pictured second from the right on the billboard -- has been involved with Time Out Youth for five years. Michau told her parents she was gay when she was 13. As is the case for many of the kids the organization reaches out to, things quickly soured at home and her parents threw her out. Michau tried more than once to commit suicide.
As an openly gay teen at a Charlotte high school, Michau was regularly shunned because of her sexuality.
"You would go into the girl's locker room and everyone would run and hide behind the lockers," said Michau. "The biggest reason I was all depressed was because I was by myself. There were no party invites. There was nowhere to go. I was so reclusive that my mom just broke down my door one day and said we are going to go to a mental institution. Without Time Out Youth, I don't think I would be here."
Michau eventually got her mother to take her to group meetings, where she was one of the few parents in attendance.
"Everyone took to my mom," said Michau. "For my mom, seeing very feminine lesbians helped a lot. I didn't shave my head or whatever she was scared of. It made it OK for her."
Michau, who now gives others rides to Time Out Youth meetings, admits that sometimes kids under 16 have to lie to their parents about where they're going. At times, she said, the group has met at a church, and kids have told their parents they are going to a study group or a Bible study.
Taylor Overcash, who is pictured on the far right in the billboard photo, has had a much easier time of it than Michau. His mother, who is also gay, is supportive and he says he's made close friends at Garinger High School, where he is a senior. Overcash said he agreed to be pictured on the billboards to get the organization's name out and to reach out to kids who may not have the support network he does.
"It's saying you aren't the only one in the world," said Overcash. "There are people who can identify with the problems you face and they are very supportive."
In addition to Monday night meetings led by trained facilitators, the organization provides emergency housing for youth who have been abandoned or rejected by their families, and a mentoring program.
The number for Time Out Youth is (704)344-8335. The group's web address is www.timeoutyouth.org. *