What is it like growing up gay in America? How have recent historic advances and greater mainstream acceptance affected the lives of young teens coming to terms with their homosexuality?
Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull discussed her four-part series on gay youth in America Monday, Sept. 27, at 11 a.m. ET.
Hull's Washington Post series looks at the lives of two gay teenagers from very different backgrounds.
A transcript follows.
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Real America, Calif.:
Wonderful articles, sensitively reported and written.
However, I found the series title, "Young and Gay in Real America," insulting. I'm awfully tired of the subtle and not-so-subtle insinuations that only "heartland" America is "real America" and that places like San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York, and Miami are not.
Of course stereotypes that run in the opposite direction--i.e., thinking that only the Coasts matter and "flyover country" is filled with simple hicks--are equally pernicious. Your reporting itself belies these stereotypes, and ought to make pundits who can't see beyond "red states and blue states" feel pretty foolish. America is complex and mixed-up everywhere, and we're all struggling with "real" problems.
Anne Hull: The title "real America" was subject to lots of debate by editors. We didn't mean to condescend. We meant to suggest the large swath of land and opinions beyond the metropolitan areas. Politicians are forever using the term "real" to demonstrate goodness or pureness. There are many ways to read "Real."
First, thanks. Two great stories and looking forward to two more. Could you talk a bit about where the idea came from, how you reported it and the challenges you faced with your latest project?
Anne Hull: 2003 was a year of historic transformation for gays. Legal decisions, portrayals in pop culture, water cooler discussions, big backlash in the country. Huge national story. I originally set out to write about same-sex marriage but after doing some reporting it seemed that we needed to take a big set back from the marriage question and examine what happens long before that point: the coming out process. Finding the subjects was difficult, obviously, because of the discomfort still associated with the subject. But once I found folks who were willing to share their stories, basic reporting followed: spending lots and lots of time witht them in their worlds.
Kansas City, Mo.:
From your research on this report, would you say that it would be easier for a gay youth to cope with his or her sexuality in a smaller or larger school population? For example; would a youth feel more comfortable and gain more acceptance in a large school compared to a smaller one?
Anne Hull: The size of the school doesn't seem to matter that much. The larger questions:
What are the infastructures in place at the school to make all students feel safe?
What tone is the principal setting?
Are all students able to speak freely and organize?
Your article on Michael Shackelford focused primarily on being gay and getting by in every day life in rural America. You extensively discussed the faith of Michael's mother, but you did not mention much about Michael's faith. How has becoming an open homosexual affected his faith? Has it been weakened through disillusionment, or strengthened through a trial by fire?
Anne Hull: Michael has grown up going to church. Sunday morning church is just a part of the weekend. He is not ambivalent about his faith but he is not as fervant as his mother. One Sunday afternoon he called me from a lake where his church was having Baptisms. So he participates in the rituals. But he also wonders where his place is, given the unbending beliefs of his church. He definitely believes in God and wants to go to heaven.
Are you going to discuss gay teenagers in general? I think
it would be good to show the increased risk for suicide
among gay teenagers due to homophobia and isolation.
Anne Hull: I received a hostile email from a gay man who lives in Washington who said wrote a "melodramatic re-run of a stoary that might have been written 30 years ago" and that I was way out of touch on the more tolerant atmosphere of 2004. He also said the high number of suicide attemps for gay teens is a myth. I don't doubt the scientific data that suicide attempts are higher for gay kids than their peers.
How did you locate Michael for this story? How does
a journalist set out to find a gay teenager in small in
Okalahoma? And how does one gain the family's
trust to allow a journalist to report the intimate
details on what is clearly a very personal, troubling,
and ongoing odyssey. And did they have the
opportunity to read the story before publication?
Anne Hull: Michael nor his mom read the story before publication. I carefully went over the content of the story, however, to let them know the scope and scale of the story. Their trust and openness were the only reasons that this story happened.
How did the Post pick Michael as the subject for this series? Was he recommended to you by others? What was the selection process?
Anne Hull: I met tons of kids from around the country - PFLAG meetings, GLSEN convention, parent groups, church youth groups and lots and lots of interviews. From this casting of the wide net, you find your subjects. There were many many false starts. Some kids and their parents just weren't ready to tell their stories publicly.
I am a fellow Washingtonian residing overseas. My question for Ms. Hull is do you think that more teens today are identifying themselves as gay or bi-sexual more so because of a fad/trend or because they actually identify directly with the lifestyle?
Anne Hull: A University of Chicago study - among others - shows that puberty and sexual awakening are happening around the age of 10 for all kids, so it only stands to reason that gay kids would hone in on their feelings at an earlier age. Other influences factor in as well.
Another major hurricane devastates Florida, yet the Post decides to give more column space over the last two days to your "feature" story on this gay teen from Oklahoma. Amazing.
This series belonged in the Post's Sunday magazine, not two pages plus in the A Section.
Anne Hull: War, politics, financial corruption, winning quarterbacks and natural disasters are never neglected by the Washington Post. We aimed for something unique, and hoped that our four-day series would not take too much away from the other 361 days of "hard news."
Do you have any plans to write about those who have left the gay lifestyle and become heterosexual?
Anne Hull: this subject facinates me immensely. not so much the politics of it - this aspect is heating up, check out the ads currently running in a few major markets - but the personal and interior transformation.
Is Sand Springs really a rural town? It seems to me that it is a suburb of a moderately sized Midwestern town. It is only a couple miles from Tulsa, it's not some distant cowtown out on the edge of a field somewhere.
Anne Hull: sand springs is the town just west of tulsa, yes. michael lived at the far side of sand springs so he was 20 miles from tulsa. there is one high school. this signifies a lot. but i didn't in any way mean to insuinuate it's a distant cowtown.
Silver Spring, Md.:
You said "Other influences factor in as well." What other influences factor are there?
Anne Hull: i'm sure you've heard all the theories, from cultural stimulants (TV) to hormones in meat and milk.
Chapel Hill, N.C.:
I think this story is a great idea especially, since it protrays a different "type" of gay male. However, I have to ask, why not get even more diverse and do a story on Transgenders or LGBTQ of racial minorities. Often when society hears about LGBTQ or gay anything it is in relation to caucasian gay males. What about everyone else?
Anne Hull: we decided to stick with the largest statistical group of LGBTQ. There are lots of conversations within the LGBT world about inclusion. We just wanted to write about the largest group at the moment. I'm sure other stories will follow.
You quote Michael has saying that he could "live
without sex," that what he wants is "love," but that
he is "scared of love."
Defore doing the articles did you have any ideas
about the etiology or "causes" of male
homosexuality? Michael's father -- with three gay
brothers -- believes as many now do that
homosexuality is innate. Others -- following I
suppose Freud -- that exclusive homosexuality can
be explained developmentally or adaptationally.
This latter view is exemplified in your account of
Chuck McConkey's view that "homosexualityis a
compensation for a bad relationshipwith a parent or
the result of childhood trauma."
Have you come out of this experience with any views
of your own on the "causation" question?
Anne Hull: Honestly, no.
I'd like for Michael Shackelford, of Sand Springs, OK, to know there are at least three, but probably several churches (of what's sometimes called a "mainline" variety) less than an hour's drive from his home that will accept him as the person he is and incorporate him into their Christian community for the gifts he has, not exclude him for his sexual orientation.
Anne Hull: There is actually a Presbyterian church in Sand Springs that is open and affirming to gays. Brent Wimmer, who is mentioned in the story and started the Gay-Straight Alliance at his school, attends. A preacher in the local clergy organization wanted to kick out the minister for his views on gays.
It was interesting that mom's attempts to "change him" by seeing doctors and psychiatrists have all backfired and that he found refuge in a mental health facility that allowed him to "come out."
Do you sense mom sees the irony in this? Do you believe that she will ever "shift" or will she likely never be able to accept her son?
Anne Hull: In the months I have known Janice Shackelford, she has shifted slightly and I think she will continue to shift. She and Michael are extremely close. She simply cannot understand his homosexuality. "My heart breaks for him," she said.
Watching the Matthew Shepard video made her realize that Michael could meet violence. "We are living in the middle Bible belt," she said. I said that I didn't undertand what she meant. I argued that the Bible was full of compassion and that followers of Christ are compassaionate. She looked at me like I was crazy. She was referring to the "turn or burn" Christians.
Did he end up moving to Las Vegas? What are his future plans?
Anne Hull: He plans to move to Las Vegas in a few months. He's currently saving up for the move.
Are parts three and four of the story focused on Michael as well or another teenager? Did you have the opportunity to research the coming out experience of a teenage girl? Do you think it easier for teenage girls to come out than for teenage boys, as it's implied somewhere in the article?
Anne Hull: The next two parts take place in an entirely different world than Sand Springs, Oklahoma.
Felicia Holt is a 17-year-old African-American lesbian - she never uses the word lesbian, she says gay - who lives in in the urban Northeast.
You are only addressing the "gay-positive" side to this question. That is called biased reporting. What have you done to check out the research that explains the harmful aspects of acting on a homosexual "orientation"?
Anne Hull: If Michael represents the fun side of being gay, I'd hate to investigate the negatives.
State College, Pa.:
Did you learn much about the true attitudes of "straight" teenagers towards gays/lesbians other than the bullying outlined in your article - are the youth more tolerant ?
Anne Hull: As controversial as Gay-Straight Alliances were and often still are, they have gone a long way toward starting conversations on campuses.
I met lots of straight kids in Tulsa who had gay friends. But it was rare to meet one who didn't have a Biblical response that said homosexuality was a "sin."
I was intrigued by the straight young lady that was helping Michael work on his truck. Did you get to have any conversation with her?
Anne Hull: Of course, I interviewed her and spent lots of time watching her and Michael underneath the bottom of a truck.
Ms. Hull: Thank you for your series. I note that Michael's sister had a child out of wedlock, apparently with an African American. In the not too distant past, those behaviors would have been shunned just as much as homosexuality in the Bible Belt. While the sister's choice of mates and sexual behavior may not have been condoned, I would guess that it was not condemned in the same terms as Michael's revelation of his sexuality. Change in those areas has come, albeit slowly. The sister was conspicuously absent in the discussion; what were her views?
Anne Hull: Good point. Janice Shackelford experienced a lot of racism for having a bi-racial grandson. It threw her for a loop, at first. She told me people would look at her sideways in the grocery store when she was carrying her grandson, whom she adores. This pained her. She cites this experience as making her re-think some of her own values and rules. Of course, having a gay son took her into another statosphere.
As a 23 year old gay man originally from Boston, I want to thank you for this series. Yesterday, I read ALOUD the entire article to a friend (who grew up in Florida)--we were rivited to the article. In your opinion, did Mrs. Shackelford "change" at all in the year you witnessed? When I came out my mom was similar to Mrs. Shackelford, but now, thankfully, is most accepting and loving. A mother's approval is so important...
Anne Hull: Yes, there was lots of transformation, like time-lapse photography. Janice has definitely softened. Her love for Michael has trumped everything. But she is still uncomfortable with having a gay son, and her worry for his salvation is genuine and has not gone away.
Your article said that Michael was a 17-year-old sophomore. That is at least one year older than most sophomores. Was he held back in school or were there other problems?
Anne Hull: Michael has a November birthday and he was held back a year, which is why he's a 17-yo sophomore.
In the article it mentions that three of his paternal uncles are gay, does Michael have any contact with them? Were they at all supportive of his struggle?
Anne Hull: He is closest with the uncle who lives nearby. This uncle has been in a longterm relationship for more than a decade. The gay uncle and his partner are just part of the family.
I can't help to feel a little nervous for this young man. Coming out is one thing, but coming out on a national level is altogether something else. I hope he and his family were aware what the impact could be to them. Was there any concern on your part that you might be exposing this young man to more hardship by writing about him?
Anne Hull: There was lots of concern about the impact on his life. By the time the story published, the circle of those who knew of Michael's gayness had widened quite a bit from the time when I first met Michael. Still, his mom had not told many people. The family was prepared for the story. We talked openly about the range of possibilities that could result. Needless to say, this is where most of my worrying goes.
To what degree do you think that schools in that area are influenced (directly or indirectly) by the local churches? Are there any efforts to separte the church and the state (public school being an extension of the state)?
Anne Hull: I was told by the former national president of PLAG - she lives in Tulsa and runs the chapter there - that urban/rural doesn't matter so much as the presence of churches. The influence of churches seems to outweigh everything, both in their sway over public life and their impact on the internal lives of the kids coming to terms with themselves.
What was it about Micheal that distinguished him from the many gay teens you talked with?
Anne Hull: He had a unique ability to say things that were close to his heart: his fears, his desires, his confusion about himself.
He is honest. He is completely naive to the buzzwords and preoccupations of gay and lesbian organizations and advocates.
Did you ask him what else made him to move Las Vegas?, besides his sis lives there.
Anne Hull: He went to visit her once and he was blown away by the variety of people and the openness of the place.
New York, N.Y.:
At the end of your second piece, you mention that Janice believes Michael's depression to be from his lifestyle. Did she consider that it could be from the many forms of discrimination and scorn he faces in his community? Did she consider that he would be happier if people did not feel the need to judge him so harshly?
Anne Hull: Janice did not make this connection. It's a chicken-and-egg dynamic. She thinks Michael brings a lot of trouble on himself BECAUSE he is gay. She thinks he should conform to the norms of society and life would go a lot more smoothly.
Silver Spring, Md.:
I liked your answer to Michael's mother about Christians being compassionate. I had the same response when I read the article and his mom said we live in the "Bible Belt" as a reason to be worried for his safety. I thought you did a great job with these two articles. In the next two do you present any positive religious messages concerning being gay? I facilitate a number of spiritual retreats for gay Catholics and find that positive religious messages are really helpful (although all too often they are infrequent).
Anne Hull: Next week's installment indeed includes the religion factor, and in a different way.
Are you hoping to influence the political debate over same-sex marriage with your articles?
Anne Hull: I heard that Sen. Ted Kennedy held up the front page of the Post yesterday on Meet the Press. He was talking about Iraq. But there was Michael's face on screen for five seconds. I fear that's the extent of how these stories will impact public policy. The goal was to part a curtain and reveal something in hopes that conversations are held.
Congratulations on the very well-written article. It certainly painted a sympathetic and positive portrait of the young man.
But was it fair? It seemed to portray portrayed his schoolmates and his community as backward, intolerant religious freaks.
While some of the values in Oklahoma may seem strange to a Washington DC-area resident, I would suspect that they are very common and accepted outside the Beltway.
Were you and your editors concerned at all about how fairly you portrayed the people of Oklahoma?
Anne Hull: We didn't try to portray the people of Oklahoma. We wanted to write about Michael and those he knows.
did he get his GED, and does he have any plans to go to college or further his education?
Anne Hull: He says he'll be taking his GED in the next month. He has procrastinated. He took the prep course and now just needs to take the test.
Do you feel that Michael Shackleford's experiences are emblematic of middle America or simply his situation? It seems that you try to characterize the Bible thumping states to all hold the same low threshold of respect for varying lifestyles.
Combating Intolerance in Virginia
Anne Hull: There are a handful of very 'tolerant" churches in Tulsa. They are in the minority but they are there. Religion and God are invoked quite often in Tulsa, I must say, more than many other parts of the country. Take a look at the 2004 Legislative action in Oklahoma.
In your opinion, who should give in and conform to make life run more smoothly, Michael? Or the entire society in which Michael lives?
Anne Hull: Micheal needs to find a place where he's comfortable. Maybe it will be a larger city and he'll join the other generations of refugees who've fled their small towns for the big cities. Or maybe he will live in Oklahama. He is a small town person. He never wanted to leave. Being gay is but one element of his life. A summer sunset makes him positively joyous.
Silver Spring, Md.:
Do you know of any research about the percentage of drop-outs from high school who are gay? And any efforts to address this?
Anne Hull: Yes, GLSEN has such facts on its website, check out the safe schools report.
You said: He is completely naive to the buzzwords and preoccupations of gay and lesbian organizations and advocates.
Did you get a sense that this might change as he matures and recognizes that his personal struggles are part of a larger social movement for respect and equality for all? And do you think Michael will go back to school some day?
Anne Hull: Some people aren't joiners or activists. I put Michael in this camp. But he is only 17 and has just started his life. He will certainly become more fluent in the language of gayness but it's hard to picture him marching at a parade. He is quiet, an observer.
It sounds like Janice has sought out a lot of resources (on-line, etc.) to support her belief that homosexuality is a sin and can be "cured." Is she aware of the many religious leaders who believe that homosexuality is innate and can be consistant with a Christian lifestyle? There are many books, on-line resources, churces, groups, etc. she could explore.
Anne Hull: Bishop Spong is not on Janice Shackelford's reading list. Her set of beliefs do not correspond with the views of Spong and Gomes.
Anne Hull: Readers, thank you for taking the time to weigh in. Many many good and thoughtful comments from all angles. The next installment of the series is scheduled to publish next Sunday Oct. 3 and Monday Oct. 4. anne