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Braving the Streets Her Way

"Tom and Jerry," says Felicia's 15-year-old sister.

Felicia is out the door. "What you wanna do, son?" she asks Paige. They zip up their hoodies against the autumn night, walking by the corner stores where last-minute lottery dreamers buy their tickets. A midget stands on a crate, talking on a pay phone. The sidewalk sparkles with shards from a smashed bottle. A Pentecostal church glowers in the dark stillness. Two children dance together under a yellow porch light.

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.

"I wish I had a video camera right now to get all this," Paige says. "The street, us walking, just everything about this life."

Five months after Sakia Gunn's death, the concrete near the bus shelter where she was stabbed is still scrawled with RIP farewells. The sun pounds down, the rain pounds down, and though thousands of tired feet hoof over the scribblings every day, somehow they stay. Newark's mayor still has not come through with his pledge to build a center for gay youths. Felicia and some of her friends have formed their own organization, Sakia Gunn Aggressive'z and Femme'z, and they hold bake sales and buy fresh flowers for Sakia's grave site, but they get no help from the city.

When a group of black gay activists plans a rally, Felicia is asked to sing. It is a gray and raw Saturday in October as police set up barricades to block off the area around the bus shelter. Haggard storefronts display wigs and discount fashions. "Rise and Shine With Us" banners hang from light poles, but Foot Locker and Footaction are the only two national retailers on the corner, looming like titans across from each other.

There are already more than 300 people gathered by the time Felicia arrives, carrying her gym bag from basketball practice. She is greeted by her friend Jai Marsh, the president of the Aggressive'z and Femme'z group. Felicia scans the crowd nervously. She has tried to put Sakia's death behind her, but now she stands in the middle of hundreds of lesbians, young and old, rainbow colors flying, forcing Felicia to confront her emotions. Jai grabs her hand and they squeeze toward the front.

"There is nothing here for us," says Newark Pride Alliance founder Laquetta Nelson, standing on the plywood stage. "Most gay and lesbian people are living in the closet of fear. We are about to kick that closet wide open."

The national president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays takes the microphone and announces a $2,500 annual college scholarship in Sakia Gunn's name. Most in the crowd have never heard of PFLAG. But they give their rapt attention to the frail woman making her way to the platform. It is LaTona Gunn, Sakia's mother. She has appeared publicly several times over the past few months. At an awards banquet in Washington for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, she received a standing ovation for urging parents to support their gay children. Someone asked afterward, "Can I have your e-mail address?" LaTona didn't even have a phone.

Today at the rally she is drained of energy. She seems less like a spokeswoman and more like a mother whose daughter is gone. As the wind picks up and torn billboards flap in the cold, LaTona sags. She tries to speak but can't. The crowd coaxes her. One girl buries her face in her hands and then looks up, imploring, "Say it, Mommy."

LaTona is led from the stage. The rawness of the moment is too much for Felicia, but there is no escape. It's her turn.

By now the crowd has grown, and Felicia climbs up on the wobbly stage. She takes off her cap and holds it in front of her face to gather her concentration. Without musical accompaniment, she sings "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." The crowd sways to the hymn. When the last note is sung, Felicia bolts from the stage. She pushes through the bodies, hurrying away, with Jai trying to follow.

Jai looks everywhere for Felicia. In the pizzeria, the fish place and among the sidewalk vendors and their cardboard boutiques. Nothing. The last place to check is the video arcade. Jai ducks into the dim and noise-shattering gallery where young men with backward baseball caps take target practice. Simulated gunfire echoes off the walls, and computerized voices shout, "RELOAD, RELOAD." Jai walks through the battlefield.

Finally, in the corner, in the scrap heap of long-gone video games, she finds Felicia, working the joystick to Ms. Pac-Man, tears rolling down her cheeks.

West Side High, home of the Rough Riders, is one of the poorest high schools in one of Newark's most high-crime neighborhoods. Students are greeted each morning by metal detectors, hand-held wands and, finally, a search of the backpack. Guards are stationed at every exit. The halls are joyous, but there is no ignoring the vista from the left side of campus: Fairmount Cemetery and its 100 acres of headstones.

After Sakia's death, the A-Gs started traveling the hallways of West Side with new respectability. In a neighborhood perforated by violence, they had earned a perverse standing. By weathering death, the odd girls were odd no longer. A oneness sweeps them all down the same river. Students forget they are straight or gay. They are just Rough Riders.

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