by Jennifer Wilson
If you ask Charles Perkins what he does for fun, you’ll hear answers you might expect from a young person: listen to music, play video games, and talk with friends. Talk to him a little more, though, and you’ll discover that this energetic teen has a higher calling. Charles is a 19-year-old Mexican/African American young man with sparkling brown eyes and a grin that lights up his entire face. His smile gets even brighter when he speaks about his passion for service. “I’m dedicated to trying to stop the spread of HIV among youth and connecting gay youth to the community.” Almost every day, Charles can be found at Project Q, a youth program of the Milwaukee LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Community Center for people 24 and under. Trained as a Peer Counselor and Educator, he provides accurate, current information about HIV and its prevention and is available to any young person who wants to talk with or simply be listened to by someone with an open heart and mind. Charles also co-facilitates Focus, a program for young men that offers support, education, and activities as a way to create community and end isolation. Born in Okinawa, Japan, Charles spent most of his childhood in Texas where he learned about isolation all too well. Teased by his peers, he never felt that he could be himself, let alone come out as gay. “There was nothing there for me,” he says, his voice still touched with sadness as he recalls those days. Life changed dramatically when his family relocated to Milwaukee six years ago. Searching for somewhere to belong, Charles discovered Project Q, but didn’t get involved until November 2001 when his loneliness deepened in the wake of September 11. “I looked up Project Q long before I went, but I was kind of scared. I didn’t know what to expect, but I went, and I’ve been going ever since.” It wasn’t long before Kurt Dyer, Project Q program manager, encouraged Charles to participate in leadership activities. “I guess he saw that I had potential,” Charles says with a pleased grin. Charles was right. Dyer says, “I knew there was so much underneath his very shy shell. I saw the passion underneath…that part of him that really wanted to lead.” It was the Peer Counselor and Educator training that transformed Charles from a shy, quiet young man into an outgoing, friendly activist with a passion for community. “I was mostly quiet all my life. Now you can’t shut me up!” Charles laughs. “I still get shy once in a while, but now I try to get to know people.” The greatest challenge that Charles believes gay youth face is the terrible feeling that they’re all alone out there. “There are a lot of youth who aren’t connecting to the gay community.” He thinks the act that will have the most impact on youth is “just being there… I think about the people who were there for me, and where would I be without them?” Being seen by Dyer as someone of worth was an incredibly powerful experience for Charles, and he hopes that he can have that kind of impact on the life of a young person. In spring of 2003, an opportunity for Charles to find a greater sense of belonging came from an unexpected source. Due to struggles within the family, his mother decided to move back to Texas. Charles did not want to return, but as a UWM student with limited resources, he had few options. His friend and Focus co-facilitator, Deon, turned to his friends for help. The person who responded was Sura Faraj, a resident of Riverwest and community activist. “Sura brought me in for awhile, and that’s a big thank you I want to give to her.” She opened much more than her home to Charles. “She’s the one who helped me get more political. She got me involved with the Riverwest community, going to protests, and with the Riverwest Rainbow Association.” Faraj admires Charles, too. “He’s an up and coming leader who has a willingness to shoulder responsibility. He’s more gutsy than other seasoned activists I know!” Charles is renting a place of his own now and has chosen to remain in Riverwest. “It’s nice, very calm. It has this whole community feeling,” he says thoughtfully. “Living here allowed me to be open about myself. I can take chances, compared to living in a small town. There are some moments when I’m afraid to be so out in public, but you know what? Forget them! I’m me.” Charles’ future holds promise and opportunity. He’s employed as a web designer for Homeboyz Interactive and provides technology support for Milwaukee Public Schools. After taking a semester off this fall, Charles will resume his studies in Computer Science at UWM. “I’m continuing that geek thing,” he jokes. Talking about his future caused Charles to reflect for a moment on the past. “I look back on the old days and think, ‘Wow.’ I’m a totally different person than I was back then.” He would like gay youth to know that there is a community ready and willing to support them. I asked Charles why he continues to be one of the dedicated individuals reaching out. “It seems that someone should pick up the flag and carry it on. I have a sense that I’m doing something good. I’m not just playing around, doing nothing. I’m having an impact.” For more information about Project Q and the programs available for young people 24 and under, please call 414/223-3220. You can visit them on the web at www.projectq.org or drop in at the Milwaukee LGBT Community Center at 315 West Court Street, Suite 101. Do you know someone who lives in Riverwest or who has had an impact on our neighborhood? We want your suggestions for unsung heroes, quirky characters and interesting people for our “Neighbor Spotlight” feature. Call 265-7278 or send ideas to .