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Braving the Streets Her Way

The vigil was just the start. A few days later, nearly 400 marched from the bus shelter to City Hall, demanding that Newark Mayor Sharpe James do more to protect gay youths. By the day of her funeral, Sakia Gunn had become a martyr. Perry's Funeral Home had prepared for only a modest crowd, but hours before the service began, young people were lining up to view Sakia's body in a small room upstairs. She was laid out in a blue tracksuit. When the 1 p.m. service started, the funeral director, Samuel Arnold, glanced out the window and all he could see, on the lawn and up and down Mercer Street in front, were young people. He guessed there were 2,000 mourners standing outside.

Before the coffin lid closed, a friend of Sakia's dropped in a white-gold necklace that spelled in cursive script "Lesbian Pride."

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?"

_____Live Discussion_____
Monday, 11 a.m. ET: Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull will be online to discuss her series on gays in America.
_____Gay in Real America_____
In the Bible Belt, Acceptance Is Hard-Won (The Washington Post, Sep 26, 2004)
A Slow Journey From Isolation (The Washington Post, Sep 27, 2004)
Using Her Voice to Rise Above (The Washington Post, Oct 4, 2004)

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.

After the funeral, Felicia took stock of her life. She looked like Sakia, dressed like Sakia and braided her hair like Sakia. The smart thing would've been to ditch the men's clothing and rainbow gear. That struck Felicia as cowardly, if not disingenuous. She decided to go out into the world just as she was.

In the year after Sakia's death, The Washington Post spent hundreds of hours in Newark with Felicia, her family, her friends and her teachers. The events and direct quotes that appear in this story were witnessed by this reporter, unless otherwise noted.

The thumpty-thump of rap is how she seems, but deep down Felicia is old school. Her earliest memories are of the R&B music that her parents, before the divorce, listened to as they drove around with her in a car seat. The songs today are about Glocks and bitches, but Felicia clings to Patti LaBelle. Her eyelashes curl like a fawn's. She has milk-chocolate skin as smooth as blown glass. A cubic zirconium glints from her left earlobe. Felicia can strut with the best of them, talking about what girl she "souped" or "smashed," Timbs unlaced and "yo, yo, yo," but her ankle socks say "Hug Me."

When her mother was hospitalized last year with pneumonia, Felicia was so frightened that she wore a dress for her senior photo, knowing it was the one gift that could cheer up her ailing mom. Then it was back to the T-shirts that hung like bedsheets at her kneecaps.

Felicia's natural state is a tomboy state: jumbo clothes, inhaling bags of ranch chips, storing a rolled-up chemistry notebook in her back pocket and giving girls playful headlocks in the halls at West Side High School. Even in the sixth grade, she knew she was different. Her sisters wore foxy lingerie and gold chains, but Felicia felt right -- deeply right -- in sports bras and undershirts known as "wife beaters." She went swirly watching Aaliyah videos. The grooves of her yearnings cut deeper. She told no one. She'd spent enough Sundays in church pews to know that homosexuality is considered a sin. The preachers said it was a choice, something that could be overcome with prayer and willpower; the matter seemed out of Felicia's hands.

"I didn't choose nothin'," she says. "It choosed me."

In the 1950s, a black lesbian who identified with masculine traits and clothes would have been called butch or a bulldagger. Growing up, Felicia heard the word clucked in gossip -- bulldagger -- and just hearing it sent a ripple of curiosity. Now it seems old-fashioned to Felicia, even though she is the modern-day version of it.

Felicia describes herself as an "A-G," short for "aggressive." Her body is 100 percent female, but she has a masculine approach to life. She prefers women who are ultra-feminine: hoop earrings, tight jeans and French-wrap nails. Felicia finds zero attraction in another A-G. "They're my peoples, not my girls," she says.

Identifying strictly as butch or femme has diminished in recent generations of lesbians, but human sexual identity is fluid and there are infinite ways to express it. What comes naturally to Felicia -- despite her delicate features and hormonal moodiness -- is letting her khakis ride low around her boxers.

Wearing men's clothes is not enough. Felicia believes she must also display the traits of strength and invincibility that women supposedly want in men. She mimics all the distorted and magnified qualities of manhood. In Felicia's neighborhood, a public performance of bravado is mandatory for survival. "You gotta represent," Felicia says. "It just goes with the territory."

Being an A-G is a double-edged sword. At times, Felicia experiences a respect unknown by most women, free from objectification. When she sees the fellas on the corner, she greets them by jutting her chin out. "S'up?" she says. "S'up?" they say back, returning the chin jut and exchanging the neighborhood handshake. When she goes into the chicken shack, she sweeps in like a king, shaking hands with the owner -- "Ali, my man!" -- and pulls wadded-up bills and coins from her cavernous pockets.

But there is the other edge of the sword. Felicia has been jumped and beaten. Men press her for sex. After Sakia Gunn was killed, Felicia had to become more discerning about the overtures. Some have a hint of playfulness, and she can handle those. Others have menace. Felicia says that some men view her as competition for their women and want to remind her of their dominance. She has developed her own radar that tells her who might be trouble.

"They know that under the clothes, we got a shape," Felicia says. "They think they can change us. They just can't let it go. They'll say, 'Felicia, you too pretty to be gay.' "

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