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Young and Gay in Real America

In the Bible Belt, Acceptance Is Hard-Won

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 26, 2004; Page A01

Part I

Michael Shackelford slides under his 1988 Chevy Cheyenne. Ratchet in hand, he peers into the truck's dark cavern, tapping his boot to Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" drifting from the garage.

Flat on his back, staring into the cylinders and bearings, Michael fixes his truck like he wishes he could fix himself.

Stopping for lunch after church, Janice Shackelford reflects on the teachings of the Bible and how they apply to her family, which includes grandson Kaidin, 3.

_____Gay in Real America_____
Photo Gallery: Michael Shackelford, 17, deals with being homosexual in small-town Oklahoma.
_____Live Discussion_____
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull discusses her four-part series on gay youth in America.
_____Gay in Real America_____
A Slow Journey From Isolation (The Washington Post, Sep 27, 2004)
Braving the Streets Her Way (The Washington Post, Oct 3, 2004)
Using Her Voice to Rise Above (The Washington Post, Oct 4, 2004)
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.

"I wake up and I try so hard to look at a girl," he says. "I tell myself I'm gonna be different. It doesn't work."

Michael is 17 and gay, though his mother still cries and asks, "Are you sure?" He's pretty sure. It's just that he doesn't exactly know how to be gay in rural Oklahoma. He bought some Cher CDs. He tried a body spray from Wal-Mart called Bod. He drove 22 miles to the Barnes & Noble in Tulsa, where the gay books are discreetly kept in the back of the store on a shelf labeled "Sociology."

While the rest of the country is debating same-sex marriage, Michael's America is still dealing with the basics. There are no rainbow flags here. No openly gay teacher at the high school. There is just the wind knifing down the plains, and people praying over their lunches in the yellow booths at Subway. Michael loves this place, but can it still be home? What if the preachers and the country music songs are right?

"Being gay, you'll never have that true love like a man and a woman," Michael says, standing against his truck as Merle Haggard mixes with the backyard whippoorwills. "Hearing all the songs about a man coming home from work to his wife's loving arms, you never hear of gay couples like that."

He sets his ratchet down. "Do you?"

The gay revolution hit the buckle of the Bible Belt with a clang. The sweeping changes of 2003 -- the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults and the Massachusetts high court legalizing same-sex marriage in that state -- pushed gays more toward the mainstream than ever. If the revolution was coming, Oklahoma aimed to stop it. In the first weeks of Oklahoma's 2004 legislative session, 10 anti-gay bills were introduced, including one to ban gay marriage and another to prohibit the recognition of out-of-state adoptions by same-sex couples.

The damnation mixed with the bluest skies, so beautiful and round. The greater Tulsa phone book has 13 pages of church listings; there are 133 churches alone that begin with the word "First." One Tulsa church that bills itself as a "hardcore, in-your-face ministry" constructs an elaborate haunted house each Halloween where live actors depict various sins. Last year's spook house featured a gay male pedophile.

Tulsa has world-class opera and Starbucks, and a religious conservatism that rules public life. It wasn't until 1993 that a social agency, Youth Services of Tulsa, noted a higher suicide rate for gay youths and quietly began providing counseling to gay teenagers. To this day, the United Way-funded agency does not publicize the location and times of its meetings. When one of its social workers drove out to a rural middle school to talk with an eighth-grader who had told a teacher she was gay, the teacher locked the social worker's pamphlets in a cabinet before leading her to the girl, who waited in a darkened classroom. "Lady, I already know I'm going to marry a woman," the student told the social worker. "Just tell me, am I going to hell over this?"

For Michael Shackelford, blond and earnest, the question of salvation is a serious one. But his concerns about eternal life are eclipsed by the here and now of being a gay teenager in the rural town of Sand Springs, west of Tulsa. There are only a handful of openly gay students at Charles Page High, and they are subject to ridicule and vandalism. This year, they also became a convenient outlet for the fury against gay marriage, which is why Michael wanted to keep his sexuality a secret.

With the Shackelford family's permission, The Washington Post spent hundreds of hours following Michael over the past year as he came to terms with being gay, a journey that paralleled Oklahoma's fight against same-sex marriage. The events and direct quotes in this story were witnessed by this reporter.

In Sand Springs, population 19,000, the local paper dutifully reports when meth labs blow up or restraining orders are violated, but the good news always outweighs the bad. A member of the search committee heading up the hiring of a new football coach at the high school tells the Sand Springs Leader, "We want someone that attends church here, goes to Rotary and becomes a community leader." At Atwoods general merchandise store, the hay bales are kept outside overnight. In the sleepy downtown, the tallest points of interest are flagpoles and church steeples.

And yet it's here in this green and rolling landscape that Michael had his first clue that he was different. In the life of every gay person, there is a moment of reckoning -- a glance, a touch, a hard-to-name feeling -- that suddenly crystallizes and fills the soul with exhilaration. There is also dread; this will be a lonely path away from society's celebrated rituals of love.

For Michael, the awareness began in the fourth grade while he was watching "The Blue Lagoon," a movie about a pair of love-struck teenagers shipwrecked on a beautiful island. Seeing the young male character, tan and smooth, Michael felt a wave of warmth move through him.

Growing up, he did all the normal Oklahoma things. He talked with a rubber-band twang, he loved the smell of the Tulsa Speedway, and he ordered Dr Pepper at Sonic by hanging out the window of his truck. Still, the Blue Lagoon boy kept visiting him.

It was as though Michael was being culled from the herd. Inside him were contradictory feelings of terror and curiosity.

Last year, when Michael was 16, he had his first sexual experience. Everything flowed and the pieces fit -- the boy's skin, his bony chest, even saying his name sounded right. They fooled around the way other teenagers fool around: when parents were at work. The romance ended abruptly. Michael was devastated. He started writing poetry in a notebook.

I think of you all day,

I think of you all night

I can't wait to hold you tight

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