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In the Bible Belt, Acceptance Is Hard-Won

I think of you all morning,

I think of you all afternoon

If I could, I would rope you the moon.

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.

Other crushes and romances followed, each searing and short-lived but adding to the growing evidence that Michael might be gay.

Now a year later, Michael has short, blond hair, a square jaw, the roseate remnants of acne and the sandpapery beginnings of a beard. He is uncharacteristically sincere for his age, telling customers at the pet store where he works after school, "You have a real nice day." A 17-year-old sophomore, he is more at ease around trucks than textbooks. As a little boy, he'd put foil on the bumpers of his toy cars and simulate stock-car crashes. A Dale Earnhardt Jr. poster hangs in the bedroom he shares with an eight-foot Burmese python. He leaves his dirty clothes on the floor but doesn't drink or smoke, two facts he reminds his mother of when she starts to pray or weep over him.

He would rather watch the Blue Collar Comedy Tour than visit Internet chat rooms to look for hookups. "That kind of dirty talking, I don't want sex," Michael says. "I want a decent relationship."

Still, he is 17, full of impulses. One day in PE class, a good-looking preppy guy on the bleachers strips off his T-shirt in the hot gymnasium. Before Michael can catch himself, his eyes drift. Stop looking at me, the other boy tells Michael in a voice loud enough to humiliate. This is the turning point at school. His secret is out.

"He was wanting to kick my ass," Michael later recalls. "I told my dad about it. He said, 'I'd kick your ass, too, if you were looking at me.' " Officially, ass-kicking is not allowed on school grounds since Oklahoma adopted anti-bullying laws. But Michael's life at Charles Page High turns miserable. He is called a faggot in the hallways. For his own safety, he starts avoiding places where he could be trapped.

While the rest of the country is laughing over "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," Michael stops using the restroom during the seven-hour school day.

It was a Sunday morning that Janice Shackelford will never forget. Michael had a friend staying over. Church was starting in an hour, so Janice knocked on her son's bedroom door. "Time to wake up, guys," Janice remembers calling. She tried the door, but it was locked. Next to the door were some blinds hanging over a glass panel. Janice peeked through and saw Michael and his friend on the floor, kissing.

She ran across the house to her bathroom. She thought she was going to vomit. She wanted to scream but could only sob, so uncontrollably that when she called Michael's father, he thought Michael had been killed in a car wreck. Somehow Janice still went to church that morning, where she broke down and told a friend that she'd discovered her son lying with another male.

For the next month, Janice barely slept. At work, she'd be shuffling papers at her desk and become choked with emotion. The vision of Michael on the floor haunted her. As the shock eased, she launched into action. She walked around Michael's room reading passages from the Bible, forcing Michael to listen. She researched Exodus International, the Christian organization that says it can "cure" homosexuals.

Janice wasn't prepared for what she would experience in the psychiatric world. She called her insurance company and requested the name of a Christian counselor. To her amazement, the Christian counselor didn't tell Michael that homosexuality was wrong. Janice found a second counselor. This one said that he couldn't be "pro or con" when it came to homosexuality. She felt as though the mental health industry was against her until someone gave her the book "Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth," which asserts that gay activists successfully pressured the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to remove homosexuality as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.

Suddenly, Janice realized why she'd hit so many roadblocks. "The gay movement had gone into the politics and changed everything," she says. "Now it's not even a disease or sickness."

No one seemed to understand that Michael's eternal life was at stake. Janice feared that Michael would go to hell and be apart from her in the afterlife. "I'm afraid I won't see him again," she says, her voice breaking.

Janice is 45, blond and fine-boned, with the same pale blue eyes as her son. To make ends meet, she works full time as a scheduler for an oil field company and part time as a night waitress at a barbecue restaurant. Clocking 65 hours a week doesn't stop her from attending Sunday church and then taking Michael to El Maguey's for cheese enchiladas after. Gently, lovingly, Janice works on her son every chance she can. Her belief is that homosexuality is a "generational curse" that can be broken.

Driving around Sand Springs or daydreaming, Janice rakes over the past, trying to find the holes in her parenting. She divorced Michael's dad when Michael was 2. James Dobson on his radio show says all boys need male love. Maybe Michael didn't get enough.

"I tried to get him into the Big Brother program, but there was a two-year wait," Janice says, still fretting. "I didn't push it."

She gets no help from Michael's father, who lives in the next county. Bob Shackelford -- Mr. NASCAR if ever there was one -- owns a mail-sorting machine business and lives with his new wife on 30 acres. He drives a truck, loves cold beer, votes Republican and believes that people are born gay. Bob Shackelford comes from a family of seven brothers, three of whom were gay. He tells Michael that his sexuality is his own damn business.

Janice taught her kids to love their uncles. But her breezy tolerance crumbled the moment she learned about Michael. "It's different when it's your child," she says. "I could kick myself for not portraying to them that it's wrong."

Now her strategy is patience. Janice visits the Web site of Dennis Jernigan, the Christian recording artist who once was gay but now has a wife and kids. Reading the testimonial, Janice is convinced that a person can be delivered from this "lifestyle," as she calls it, or from "being this way." She rarely uses the word "gay."

One Sunday after church, Janice and Michael go to El Maguey's as usual. Unavoidably, the subject turns to Michael's sexuality. On the drive home, he makes a case that being gay is genetic. Janice's tone is soft. "If you were born a bank robber, would that be okay, too?" she asks.

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