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Using Her Voice to Rise Above

Some of Felicia's fellow A-G's mooch off their girlfriends, expecting to be kept in fresh sneakers and hair braidings but adamant about having their freedom. They brag of having "wifey" and a "jump-off."

A straight friend of Felicia's tells her that it takes more than jerseys and swagger to become a real man. "The thing about the place we live -- the ghetto, the hood, whatever you want to call it -- people live what they see," says Latoya Grissett, a senior at West Side. "You have to able to live beyond what you can see."

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.

Felicia herself is a mirage. Some straight women are so starved for companionship on the loveless boulevards of Newark that they overlook her gender. Seeing her ball cap and the hip-hop slouch, feeling her charm and attentiveness, they squeeze their eyes and imagine. It is almost always Felicia who pays the emotional price.

A few weeks into basketball season, she is spending time with Fontessa, a 19-year-old who has a 6-month-old child and is pregnant again. Felicia decides she loves this woman. She stays over at her cramped apartment behind a corner market. Fontessa proclaims her affections for Felicia and says she's getting a tattoo to prove it. This only seems to bring the baby's father around more often.

One Friday night, Felicia and Fontessa go out dancing at the Globe, the gay teen dance hall downtown. The Globe is so bare bones that the clubgoers, mostly lesbians, pile their parkas on the floor in the corner. The walls vibrate with the bass line of Missy Elliott's "Pass That Dutch." Felicia and Fontessa dance and kiss.

When they arrive back at Fontessa's apartment, Felicia would later recall, the boyfriend comes walking up. He takes the bedroom with Fontessa. Felicia gets the living room couch.

Felicia keeps her heartbreak to herself. She and her mother are fighting. Somewhere in the fog of Fontessa, she blew off her scheduled SAT.

On a January night when the temperature drops to 22 degrees, she and Valencia are walking along South Orange Avenue, mummified in their puffy jackets, when a car with four young men eases up. What's poppin'? one of the men calls out, Felicia and Valencia would later recall. The girls keep their heads down. Their snub is a sign of disrespect and they are surrounded. Valencia gets a bloody nose and mouth, and Felicia is thrown to the ground.

They refuse to think the worst -- that they are targets because they are lesbians -- and chalk up the beating to a neighborhood beef.

Even with the assault, Valencia shows signs of revival. She no longer gasps for breath in the middle of the night the way she did after Sakia's death. In the small apartment where she lives with her mother, a mail carrier, the sound of "Jeopardy" and the waft of oxtails give school nights a steady rhythm. Valencia's father, also a mail carrier, lives nearby and fusses over his only child, whom he calls "the baby." He shuttles Valencia here and there, and pitches in when she wants a white tux with a top hat for the prom.

Felicia becomes more fragile. In Mr. Mason's chemistry class, she sits in the front row, calculating molarity and writing her answers in a notebook. But her focus is sporadic. She starts smoking Newports and breaking curfew. "I have given Felicia to God," her mother, Anita Holt, wearily says one day. "Just take her, Lord, because I don't know what to do with her."

Felicia goes in to talk with Mrs. Perkins, the school counselor. A Muslim who wears a hijab and can decipher the various subsets of the Crips better than the police, Mrs. Perkins is sympathetic toward the A-G's. "You are like everybody else," she tells Felicia. "You are subject to the evil of the world, and you are subject to the good of the world."

To ease the tensions at home, Felicia decides to move in with her Aunt Shakira, who lives in Bradley Court, a 60-year-old public housing complex sandwiched between a cemetery and the Garden State Parkway. Felicia sleeps in a spare room, keeping her clothes in a plastic garbage bag.

The harshness of winter won't let go. Singing is Felicia's escape. The big news is that a talent scout from Harlem's Apollo Theater is coming to West Side High to hold auditions for a spot in a citywide talent show. Felicia signs up, scheming on her song selection. Hassan Vann, her music teacher, tells her to never mind all the rhyme-splitters on rap radio; sing the music that's inside. They start rehearsing after school at the beat-up piano in Mr. Vann's classroom.

A cloud, mystical and dark, settles on Felicia. "You can't take tomorrow for granted," she says, cryptically. She starts carrying two photos in her pants pocket, one of each grandmother. For her audition number, she settles on a hymn called "Alabaster Box" by CeCe Winans, about a prostitute shunned by the townspeople but received by Jesus after she washes his feet with oil from her perfume box.

There is a defiance in the way Felicia burrows into the music of the church. Rehearsing her hymn, she asks an A-G friend named Danny to stand in front of her and hold up the two photos of her grandmothers. With her do-rag cocked over one eye, Felicia sings "Alabaster Box" to the two iron-haired matriarchs.

She felt such pain

Some spoke in anger

Heard folks whisper

There's no place here for her kind

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