Project Q

by Kevin FlahertyProject Q

Kurt Dyer is a young man with a simple mission: don’t let other youth go through what he did when he came out as gay at age sixteen. When Dyer came out in his hometown La Crosse, he found bullying classmates and an unsympathetic family who kicked him out of the house. Now, at age 21, he runs Project Q, a program that served over 600 young people last year and the only gay youth program with a drop-in space in Wisconsin. Project Q is a program within the Milwaukee Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgendered (LGBT) Community Center in Milwaukee’s Brewers Hill neighborhood. Origins of Project Q After he was thrown out of his house, Dyer moved in with the family of a good friend and eventually graduated from high school. In January of 1999, Dyer came to Milwaukee to attend UWM. He shared an apartment with a friend in Riverwest before moving to an apartment building on Martin Luther King Drive. The apartment soon became a busy hubbub of socializing and support for many of Dyer’s LGBT friends. At any given time, there might be four rent-paying roommates and anywhere from four to nine other youth staying there temporarily. “Me and my roommates, we might only have one job between us (Dyer waited tables at Denny’s and TGI Fridays), but everyone helped everyone out,” he says. The group of friends, including members of Gay Youth Milwaukee, saw a vacuum in social opportunities and support for gay youth and sought to establish a more permanent youth group. Impromptu meetings at the apartment — promoted by word-of-mouth, flyers, and discussions in Internet chat rooms — sometimes drew as many as forty people to the apartment. The LGBT Community Center, its own doors barely open at that point, noticed the energy and grassroots nature of Project Q as the group began to gel in early 1999. Dyer at first doubted Project Q could operate within the larger LGBT Community Center. He was originally unaware of the center and suspected the adult-run center wouldn’t let Project Q be the “by-and-for-queer youth” organization its members wanted. Despite initial reservations, Project Q became a program of the LGBT Community Center in April 1999 and both groups now view the marriage as a success. Project Q now has a formal drop-in space and access to more resources, including a natural mentoring network with the center’s older members. “It totally worked out. It’s been beneficial for both groups,” says Dyer. Activities at Project Q Project Q has two social areas: a coffee bar and an adjacent larger room painted in warm rainbow colors with plush couches, computers, a large TV, and stereo system. At a recent Tuesday night drop in, seven or eight youth, along with several adult allies, staff people, and a teen peer educator were casually sitting on the couches and at computer desks working on a mailing. “Yeah, this is a slave labor shop,” joked Joel, a 14 year-old parochial school student who rides the bus an hour and fifteen minutes to attend the drop-in. Kids will come from places such as Hubertus, West Bend, Racine, Kenosha, and even the Illinois border to socialize in a safe environment. Dyer estimates 50-60% of the youth who use Project Q are People of Color. The visitors to Project Q come from a wide variety of backgrounds with an equally wide range of needs. Some kids might only need peer support and an occasional respite from what many here call “hetero-sexism.” Others, though, have more complex needs. Queer youth from unsupportive families may end up on the street or bouncing from one friend’s couch to the next, much like Dyer’s revolving-door roommates from the early days of Project Q. Some have addiction problems. Without a supportive family as a safety net, and faced with an over-burdened public health service often ignorant of the needs of queer youth, some youth may be forced into vulnerable, exploitive situations. This is the void the staff and volunteers at Project Q are trying to fill. Says Dyer, “There’s a lot of groups out there who are not able to meet the specific needs of LGBT youth. They don’t have the knowledge. Most of the time they don’t even know the issues. [It makes sense we have a group like Project Q] just like it makes sense that we have a YWCA or an organization for Latinos or African-Americans.” “We collaborate with lots of agencies [when youth have issues beyond Project Q’s capacity]. We work with Pathfinders and other groups that aren’t expressly LGBT. Often youth feel isolated, and they need to find a space that’s for them and be around a place where other people are just like them.” Pathfinders, a homeless shelter for runaway youth, has offered to make its staff therapists available for Project Q youth. Planned Parenthood lends its volunteer teen-peer educators to Project Q. Project Q has two full-time staff people — Kurt Dyer and Ita Meno — and one part-time staff person, Joe Witkowski. Meno, the HIV Risk Prevention Coordinator, works with youth to set goals and to refer them to other sources if their needs are too great. Her position is funded from the City of Milwaukee’s AIDS Initiative. Project Q, in tandem with PFLAG and the Gay Lesbian Straight Educators Network (GLSEN), recently sponsored a leadership and skills-building conference in Riverwest’s Friends Meeting House for area Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs). GSAs, unheard of fifteen years ago, are increasingly common in urban and suburban high schools and offer support and social networks for gay and questioning students and their straight friends. Riverside, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, and Nicolet High Schools all have GSAs. Forty students from area high school GSAs and four advisors attended. Riverwest is also home to two of Project Q’s Advisory Board members: Rachel Federlin and Deon Young. When asked why she thought Project Q was important, Federlin, a high school senior, responded: “I think that [LGBT] youth should have an open and supportive environment…[having] a place to hang out is important.” Federlin, active in her school’s GSA and other causes, wants to help Project Q flourish. Young, a 19-year old college student, was a natural for the group’s advisory board because of his experience as a community outreach coordinator at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Young enjoys the drop-ins because “there’s not a lot of things [people under 21] can do, and a lot of my friends are there.” Like Federlin, he believes its essential to have a place where people can be themselves and socialize with friends with similar likes. When asked why he loves his work, Dyer stated: “It’s real for me. It’s live for me. I’m trying to prevent youth from having to go through the same things I went through.” Project Q is located at 315 W. Court Street in Milwaukee’s Brewer’s Hill neighborhood. The organization can be reached at (414) 223-3220. Drop-in hours are Tuesday, 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., and Saturday from 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 3 – April 2002