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Using Her Voice to Rise Above

The fact that two lesbians in boxers are crowned as the moment's truth tellers matters little to the crowd. Grief has equalized them all.

The auditorium goes atomic.

For a citywide talent show, Felicia wants to sing about teenage life in Newark. "I'm just saying, who holds tomorrow?" she asks. "You are not promised even today. Bullets ain't got no names on them." (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

_____Photo Gallery_____
Braving the Streets Her Way: Music has gotten Felicia Holt through the hardest moments of her life.
_____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)
Braving the Streets Her Way (The Washington Post, Oct 3, 2004)
About This Series

With the Holt family's permission, Washington Post reporter Anne Hull began following Felicia after the stabbing death of her friend Sakia Gunn. The reporter spent hundreds of hours with Felicia and her friends as they struggled with the aftermath of violence, accompanying the girls to school, basketball games, family dinners and meanderings through the neighborhoods of Newark. The events and direct quotes in this story were witnessed by the reporter unless otherwise noted.

Gunn's accused killer, Richard McCullough, 29, is scheduled to be tried in November in New Jersey's Essex County. He is charged with murder and bias intimidation.

Basketball gave Felicia and Valencia a certain status that brought instant coin with the girls. In high school, Felicia gravitated toward music while Valencia had her sights set on playing for the Women's National Basketball Association. Her junior year, she is 16, with light-filled marble eyes and braids that bounce when she trots down court. She doodles play patterns and to-do lists ("GOALS FOR A POINT GUARD") and presents them to her coach for consideration.

But as the 2004 season approaches, Valencia is still haunted by Sakia's death. Seven months later, the bloody clothes she wore that night still hang in her closet.

"Son, the kid's messed up," Felicia says of Valencia one day after practice. Shelley Perkins, a guidance counselor at West Side, has a starker assessment. "It's like she's dying inside."

There is one ray of optimism. The Lady Rough Riders of West Side High have a new coach, Latasha Thompson, a former St. John's University player who is determined to bring a sense of discipline to her street ballers by holding study hall and insisting the team dress up on game days. Coach Thompson, 24, is unbothered by the fact that a few of her players are tomboy lesbians who call themselves A-G's, short for aggressive. "I was around that in college," Coach Thompson says. All she asks is that her players keep their dramas out of the gym.

With one player lost to homicide -- Sakia Gunn was a dominating point guard -- the coach knows she's inheriting a shaken bunch. "Respect each other," she tells her team. Values will have to substitute for equipment: The athletic department issues six plastic water bottles to the 12-member team. Coach Thompson subsidizes the players with sneakers, deodorant and bus money. Only a few parents will attend a single game all season.

The season opener has the terrible timing of being scheduled the day after the talent show. The coach had watched Valencia and Felicia onstage, their pain so unmasked that the performance was wrenching to witness. On game day, she asks them if they're mentally prepared. "It's all good," Valencia says. But from the moment the Lady Rough Riders arrive at the waxed gymnasium at Passaic Valley High School, the game is a disaster. Felicia tips off, and she is hot on the post for the first half but the play is sloppy. Valencia is hammy and distracted, committing two turnovers. When she lofts an airball, Felicia grimaces and Coach Thompson screams from the sidelines, "You are killing me, Valencia!"

All the plays they'd rehearsed are scrambled in their heads. They lose to one of the weakest teams in the conference.

Back at West Side that night, the players duck into the locker room to grab their things but Thompson has other ideas. "Start running," she orders. They trot around the empty gym in the empty school, their cheap sneakers squeaking on the polyurethane. Valencia is dragging. Felicia runs next to her and whispers. Valencia picks up her pace. After 45 minutes of drills, Thompson tells them to line up.

"We are family," the coach says. "We chill together. We bug. I'd do anything for you. You're hungry, I take care of you. There's nothing I don't share. I'm like y'all's older sister. I work hard for y'all. I bust my butt. I expect you to do the same for me."

Her tone softens as she looks at Valencia and Felicia, who stand side by side in mismatched socks. Thompson brings up the talent show. "Maybe last night was upsetting," she says. The coach has spoken an absolute truth. Felicia and Valencia have a phrase they use when they hear something so authentic. Word is born, they say. A thousand pounds of weight seems to lift from the gym.

During the next few games, the team finds its rhythm, racking up three victories. Basketball season lets the Lady Rough Riders travel beyond their familiar three-mile radius of Newark's West Ward, but they are never free to forget their ghetto reputation. One night after a dramatic victory over Union Hill, tucked into a Latino neighborhood of aluminum-siding homes and lawn ornaments, a few of the girls walk to a nearby carryout place. Spirits are high. They are waiting at the cash register, Valencia excitedly reviewing the game, when a white police officer walks in.

"We are not causing no trouble," one of the West Side girls says.

The officer smiles. "I'm the nice police," he says. "Where you from?"

Valencia stands up straight. "We're from the bricks," she says. "Brick City."

At Liberation in Truth, the African American gay church that Felicia sometimes attends, the Rev. Jacquelyn Holland announces from the pulpit that she looks forward to officiating a same-sex wedding one day. The Massachusetts court has already decided that gay couples can marry in that state, and New Jersey has its own same-sex marriage lawsuit winding its way through the courts. One of the plaintiffs is a minister from Liberation in Truth.

"Some day!" Elder Holland tells her church.

But matrimony has a weak grip here in Essex County, where 47 percent of children are born to unwed mothers. Felicia dreams less about a marriage license than about having children. She can't pass up a baby stroller on the sidewalk. Felicia wishes she could get a woman pregnant. "Dag," she says, contemplating the impossible scenario.

Not that Felicia is ready to settle down. When it comes to girls, she has a mathematical ability to remember dozens of ever-changing cell phone numbers. And sweet talk? "Yeah, I got that little wallet picture of you on my mirror," Felicia tells a girl on the phone one night, looking at her dresser mirror that is void of any pictures. Fifteen minutes later she tells another caller, "You were my first; you never get over your first."

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