The belt buckle says SEXY. The silk jersey says Denver Nuggets. Both are laid out on the bed as Felicia Holt stands at the ironing board, trying to press some perfection into her Friday night. Her T-shirt is fresh from the store package and goes on warm. Two dabs of Egyptian musk oil on the neck. Hair braided short like an NBA star. A do-rag carefully tied over her braids.
A voice rolls down the hall. "Felicia, is your room clean?"
Felicia Holt, left, is a commanding presence in her neighborhood, which she surveys with friend David Cole, 16. Felicia is treated with respect by most men, who return the familiar greeting of a chin jut by saying "S'up?"
Monday, 11 a.m. ET: Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull will be online to discuss her series on gays in America.
GROWING UP IN AN EVOLVING AMERICA|
In the courts and popular culture, gays in America experienced an unprecedented push toward the mainstream over the past two years. But far beneath the surface, away from the spotlight of the historic advances and the conservative backlash they detonated, are the ordinary lives of young people coming to terms with their homosexuality. Their journeys are beginning earlier than ever. The average age when a young man or woman self-identifies as gay has dropped significantly in the past two decades, from 22 to 15 or younger, according to several academic studies. This earlier awareness is linked to a similar drop in the age of puberty's onset and sexual awakening for all youths.
Even with greater acceptance by society and the passage of anti-bullying laws, being young and gay is still fraught with peril and isolation. Young gays are two to three times more likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association. The American Counseling Association reports that nearly a third drop out of school, largely because of harassment related to their sexual orientation.
Michael Shackelford and Felicia Holt, the two gay teenagers at the center of the four-part Washington Post series, do not know each other. They come from distinct places in America, defined by culture, race and geography. But even across the miles, these two strangers know each other.
Monday: Felicia's song.
Felicia picks a cap from her vast collection on the dresser and stands in front of the mirror. With sleepy eyes and a smooth jaw, she cocks her chin with satisfaction. What stares back is the creamiest thug on the block.
To be a young lesbian from the trash-blown and violent streets of Newark takes a measure of imagination. Felicia uses a soapy toothbrush to buff her Timberlands, diligently and delicately, still believing that a Friday night can hold some wonder. She contemplates the splendor of Jersey Gardens mall until she remembers the weekend crowds on a city bus, everyone packed like sardines and breathing each others' necks.
"No seats," Felicia says, fastening her rainbow necklace. "I got a date, and I don't want her to stand."
What is gay America? It is this 17-year-old who lives with her mother and two teenage sisters in an apartment on working-class Eckert Avenue. There is a Bible on the coffee table and fish frying in the kitchen. With no cell phone to receive text messages, Felicia keeps her folded love notes in a shoe box. I just want to kick it with you, one girl writes.
In courtrooms, statehouses and city halls across the country, a historic battle is being fought over the expansion of rights for gay people. Far below the revolution is Felicia Holt, whose life is as hidden from the national debate as her box of stashed love notes. She cares less about wedding bells than dodging stray bullets and storefront preachers who keep the word "abomination" on the tips of their tongues, reserved for the likes of this high school senior now pulling the brim of her hat low over one eye.
Newark. Brick City. Twenty-eight percent living in poverty, 54 percent African American, 30 percent Hispanic, Newark is just a $1.50 PATH train ride from Manhattan, but Felicia hardly ever crosses the river. Her world is Newark and she knows every inch of it, every shortcut through every vacant field. The Pabst brewery has been boarded up since her childhood, but the giant bottle on the roof is still the neighborhood North Star.
Leafy suburbs have after-school gay organizations and parent support groups. Felicia's Newark has nothing. On Friday nights, a rattletrap teen dance hall called the African Globe is the one beacon in an otherwise empty landscape for gay teenagers. They descend by the hundreds, Felicia among them, waiting to get inside their dingy sanctuary.
Felicia felt none of the windfall of victory many American gays experienced last year when the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized homosexual relations between adults, or when the Massachusetts high court allowed gays to marry in that state. Getting married was someone else's dream. Felicia was more worried about staying alive.
Survival is a part of everyday Newark, but for Felicia it intensified in May 2003 with the killing of her friend, a 15-year-old lesbian named Sakia Gunn, who was at a bus stop downtown when she rejected a man's pickup attempt with the declaration that she was gay. A fight followed and Sakia was stabbed to death.
The slaying was Newark's version of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student found beaten and lashed to a fence post in 1998 in Wyoming. In Shepard's case, gay and lesbian organizations flew into the town of Laramie to maximize the political moment. President Bill Clinton spoke out against the hate crime, and in New York thousands of protesters marched down Fifth Avenue. No such forces rallied around the poor black teenager from Newark.
When Felicia heard the news about Sakia, she hurried downtown to the bus stop where her friend had been killed. Dozens of other young black lesbians were already gathered at the corner of Broad and Market, and more kept arriving, bringing Knicks jerseys, Mass candles and cardboard eulogies that said "Stop the Killing" or "Rest Your Head, Baby Girl." The shrine grew in gaudiness and emotion, and not even rain or darkness sent the mourners home. The teenagers clung to the patch of bloody sidewalk in a stubbornness that suggested a political awakening.