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Braving the Streets Her Way

Felicia manages to transcend the cliques and rivalries with her singing voice, a wood-smoked alto strengthened by years of hymns. A guidance counselor calls her the school canary. Every morning, she shambles up to the front office to sing the West Side High alma mater over the PA system, like Sarah Vaughan in K-Swiss sneakers.

As homecoming approaches, Felicia auditions to sing the "Star-Spangled Banner" at the football game and wins the honor. Homecoming day is crisp, all russet and copper. Without a football stadium of their own, the Rough Riders load onto buses for the ride across town to a loaner field, where the marching band runs through its routine before clearing the way for the opposing West Milford Highlanders. As the Highlanders raise their instruments to play in perfect formation, four gold tubas flash in the autumn sun.

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.

From the bleachers, the tuba-less West Side band looks on with a familiar feeling: outgunned by the white suburbs again.

Hassan Vann, West Side's band director, senses their sinking spirits and claps his hands for attention. "We have a beautiful day out here," Mr. Vann says, regarding his troops. "The sun is out. The wind is down. So let's wake the people up! AMEN!"

The Rough Riders knock out an R-rated version of "24's" and "Get Low" while the crop-topped Hot Ice dancers swivel their hips over the 50-yard line. The Highlanders cheerleaders, dressed in Burberry plaid, watch from the sidelines with stony admiration.

The most dignified moment of homecoming is the a cappella national anthem sung from high in the press box, floating out over the quiet stadium.

No one can see the XXL clothes from the men's department because there is only the voice, "that gospel Baptist voice she's used to get through the emotions of her life," as Mr. Vann says. The voice that makes West Side feel like it has a genuine advantage.

From the bleachers, a student cries out, "Sing it, Fee!"

Felicia tells her friends that they need some church in their life. Their choices would seem without limit. Just beyond the gates of West Side High, there are seven: Full Gospel Monument of Faith Church, Pentecostal Soul Saving Temple, House of Prayer, Deliverance Christian Fellowship Church, Living World Healing Temple, Macedonia Baptist Church and Mount Sinai Church of God in Unity.

But for Felicia and her gay friends, there is only one choice.

After Sakia was slain, most of the pulpits in Newark were silent. There was one that raged. Liberation in Truth Unity Fellowship Church is a full-gospel, sweat-under-the-armpits, rosewater-scented African American church for gay people. Services are held downtown on Sunday afternoons in a 260-year-old stone church borrowed from the Episcopalians. The culture of Newark churches is patriarchal and cuff-linked, but Liberation in Truth is a world apart. The clergy is all lesbian, mixing priestly robes with African kente.

"Good afternoon, family!" one of the ministers calls from the front of the sanctuary. "Let's stand on our feet. Let's pray for love right now!"

The tambourines start, and a few hundred congregants raise their hands as the volume reaches higher. Unlike a lot of white gay churches, children are everywhere, the product of earlier liaisons and a shared attitude that no family is complete without kids.

The Elder Rev. Jacquelyn Holland appears, dreadlocked and regal. It was Elder Holland who arranged counseling for Sakia's friends after her slaying. Now she looks out over the pews, noticing Felicia and a few of the girls.

"No matter how you identify yourself, no matter how you look, no matter what you are wearing, God loves you," Elder Holland tells the congregation. "Jesus had a moment when he had to go off and pray in the wilderness. God does not intend for us to stay out there. We need to come out, shouting, praising victory. We are living in the wilderness!"

Whispers of "Yes, Lord," ripple across the rows.

"It's time to embrace freedom and come out," Elder Holland beseeches. "Bring all the victory with you. Bring your voice. This is the new wine. God gave you something different. Our blessing is on the way."

The music begins again, a rising syncopation of keyboards and tambourines. Suddenly the instruments stop, leaving only the voices, working harder and harder to be heard.

Tomorrow: Felicia's song.

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