SAND SPRINGS, Okla. -- The fliers arrived three weeks ago. Some came over the fax machines of local churches, and others appeared mysteriously around town. Printed in bold was the heading "Westboro Baptist Church." No seeming cause for alarm. Sand Springs, population 18,500, is a Christian stronghold in the gently rolling hills of eastern Oklahoma.
But the message that followed was a rant against a 17-year-old Sand Springs resident named Michael Shackelford and his mother, Janice, the subjects of a recent Washington Post series examining Michael's struggles as a young gay man in the Bible Belt. The fliers posted a photo of Michael, called him a "doomed teenage fag" and announced that followers of Westboro Baptist in Topeka were on their way from Kansas to stage antigay protests in Sand Springs.
Janice Shackelford has struggled to accept that her son is gay. Janice and Michael, shown in February, talk about homosexuality.
(Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)
_____Gay in Real America_____
Photo Gallery: Michael Shackelford, 17, deals with being homosexual in small-town Oklahoma.
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull discusses her four-part series on gay youth in America.
Growing Up in an Evolving America|
In the courts and in 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 that begins today, 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: Michael's search for peace.
Public theater is the specialty of Westboro Baptist and its minister, Fred Phelps, whose place on the extreme fringe of the antigay movement is symbolized by his Web site, www.godhatesfags.com. But this time, Phelps picked a formidable target.
Oklahoma could never be mistaken for a liberal blue state. President Bush grabbed the seven electoral votes here like a sack of candy, winning 60 percent of the popular vote. A state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage passed by a 3-to-1 margin.
Sand Springs is the essence of pious Oklahoma. Downtown, a veterinary clinic with loudspeakers on its roof plays a taped carillon of hymns and patriotic songs. Michael and Janice Shackelford attend a large evangelical church where lots of worshipers bring their own Bibles.
In the eyes of Phelps, any church that allows an openly gay person to attend Sunday worship is weak. "Was there no Gospel preacher in Sand Springs or Broken Arrow to tell Michael . . . that sodomy is a monstrous sin against God that will destroy the life and damn the soul?" the fliers asked.
When Phelps announced that his group was coming to picket at several churches and the high school, fresh battle lines were drawn. To many here, homosexuality was a sin, but Michael Shackelford was their sinner. Just as the November election was reducing moral issues to red or blue, Sand Springs confronted subtler shades of truth. Janice Shackelford was terrified by the persecution of her son, then surprised by what happened next.
"This Westboro outfit thought they could come to this town and break it apart," Janice said. "But it has brought the town together. It has opened some doors to talk."
After Michael's story was published, competing forces wrestled for his soul. The Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay advocacy group, invited Michael to attend its national dinner in Washington last month.
"Oh, great," Janice remembers thinking. A year and a half after discovering her son was gay, Janice still held hope that he would renounce his homosexuality. She worried for his safety, especially after renting a video at Blockbuster about Matthew Shepard, the young gay man who died after being beaten and lashed to a fence in Wyoming. Mostly Janice worried about Michael's salvation. Attending the dinner in Washington might reinforce his belief that he is gay. "I felt like allowing him to go was condoning the lifestyle," she said, "and it would propel him to that even more."
Yet something inside told her to let him go. One factor tipped it: Michael would get to meet Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew, who would be attending the event. Part of Janice wished that she could go, too, to see what her son wanted so desperately to see. But she worked two jobs and could find no one to take her shift at the barbecue restaurant where she is a waitress. It was decided that Michael would be accompanied by his 23-year-old sister, Shelly.
In Washington, a tux was waiting for Michael in his hotel room.
He brought his disposable camera to the dinner and asked a male model if it was okay to take his picture.
The next day there was a luncheon and sightseeing of the monuments. A lesbian couple with a 3-year-old daughter took Michael and Shelly to dinner in Dupont Circle. Walking around the gay neighborhood, Michael was in awe. "It was like being around family," he said. "Seeing all those successful people, that could be me."