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Braving the Streets Her Way

Anita Holt had two rules for her girls as they were growing up: Any daughter who became pregnant or gay could find another place to call home. Felicia waited until the 11th grade to break the news. Her mother was in the bathroom getting ready for work. The moment of truth arrived, and Anita couldn't make good on her threat. "I don't care what you are," she told Felicia, after letting the news settle, "just don't bring it in my face." It was the best Felicia could hope for.

Her father's reaction was harsher. He told Felicia that he didn't like to see her touching her younger sisters anymore. Last fall, at the beginning of her senior year, he invited Felicia to accompany him to church with his girlfriend. Felicia was careful to wear her best plaid shirt and to double-starch her khakis, but nothing seemed to recapture her father's affections.

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.

Anita Holt had not dwelled much on the details of Felicia's life until Sakia Gunn was stabbed. On the day of Sakia's funeral, Anita, a bus driver for the Newark school system, was behind the wheel of a van patrolling for truants when she noticed all the teenagers walking in the direction of the funeral home. Instead of collaring them, she drove them to the service. So many looked like her Felicia. "I know what my daughter is," Anita says. "I don't like it, but that's my child."

Her struggles with homosexuality have less to do with religious dogma than the rules of nature. "God put us on this earth for a woman to be with a man and a man to be with a woman," Anita says. On occasion, her curiosity outweighs her discomfort. "What do two women do?" she asks Felicia, who is too mortified to answer. Anita has some idea because her younger sister, Shakira, is gay. Shakira is 24 and looks like Mary J. Blige, with a platinum wig feathering out from beneath her suede cap. When she wanted a baby, she hooked up with a man to get pregnant, and then it was back to women for love. All of this mystifies Anita.

One autumn Saturday afternoon, Felicia is home cleaning the apartment when there's a knock on the door. "Aunt Shakira!" Felicia says with delight. In walks Shakira wearing high-heeled boots. She drops into a chair across from Anita. Big sigh. She's having love troubles. Her girlfriend has stopped paying attention to her and isn't helping around the house.

These conversations irritate Anita. "Why would you put up with that from a female?" she asks her sister. "You could just be with a man."

"Because a female gives you something a man can't," Shakira says.

"And what is that?" Anita asks. Felicia stops sweeping and listens.

"Friendship," Shakira says.

"Well, I'm friends with my man," Anita challenges.

"It's different," says Shakira, whose baby is now 3. She folds her arms and sighs again. "Just like with a man, it ain't that easy to get up and leave."

If one theme unites the Holt household, it's the hunt for love. Anita goes out dancing with a gentleman friend but not often enough. Felicia's 15-year-old sister drags the phone around like an IV pole, calling her boyfriend who is always MIA. It is not lost on the women of the house that Felicia has more nibbles than anyone.

And yet Felicia is not really looking for love. She'd rather be out riding with her crew. On this Saturday night, her ride is a city bus and her crew consists of her friend Paige, an 11th-grade A-G who says her mom recently probed her sexuality by asking: "Are you really over the gate? You aren't gonna come back, are you?"

Felicia and Paige dress with great care and ritual, assembling nearly identical outfits and fresh-fitted caps.

"Abbott and Costello," Anita says, looking at the two creatures.

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