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In the Bible Belt, Acceptance Is Hard-Won

They live in a ranch house they rent near Keystone Lake and the Cherokee Nation line. Michael changes into clothes to work on his truck. His mom sets her keys and Bible on the kitchen counter.

"One thing I want to point out is that people think gays are just interested in sex," Michael says. "I could live without sex."

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.

"So, what's the difference?" Janice asks.


"Why can't you love a girl?"

Michael thinks of how to put it. "I want what girls want," he says. "A guy."

"Maybe you need guy friends."

Michael looks at his mom. "It's confusing."

"Ever since you were a kid, girls were calling, the phone was ringing off the hook," Janice says. "You had a serious girlfriend."

Michael taps his boot. They have been over this a hundred times. "I didn't even like her," he says. "It was just a thing to make myself look more normal. I didn't want to be gay."

Michael tried sending his mom a clue about his sexuality early on. He took her to a Cher concert in Tulsa, but she failed to make the connection.

"Apparently a lot of people don't know she has a gay following," Janice says, defensively. "The guys at work said how neat it was that I was going."

She pauses, thinking back. "I have to say, it was a fantastic concert."

Any hope Michael has for keeping a low profile at school is gone midway through his 10th grade. First the staring incident in the gym, then he writes a poem to a guy who turns out to be straight. "I coulda sworn he was gay," Michael says.

"I cannot believe you did that," says his friend Brent Wimmer, a senior. "Michael, you've got to be smarter, bud."

Brent Wimmer has a shelf of ribbons for raising purebred show chickens and knows his way around a hog auction. He is 6-foot-2 and also the most unabashedly gay student at Charles Page High. Michael is in awe of Brent's outspokenness, but it frightens him, too. Brent has paid a price for being so open. He's been called to the front of his church to have demons cast out of him. Someone sent a mailbox crashing through his living room window. His car gets egged and scraped with keys in the student parking lot. Nothing seems to stop him.

Even with all the anti-gay rhetoric swirling in Oklahoma, and at a school that prohibited same-sex couples from attending the prom, Brent decides it's time to start a Gay-Straight Alliance group at Charles Page High.

Michael dreads the prospect. "I'm not one to be flauntin' myself," he says.

Brent gets help from a gay businessman from Tulsa, who phones the school to set up a meeting. The effort goes nowhere at first.

Gay activists in this part of Oklahoma don't hold many aces up their sleeve, but this time they had one. Sam Harris, a Broadway performer and 1979 graduate of Charles Page, was scheduled to fly into Sand Springs over Christmas to perform two benefit concerts for the cash-strapped school district. The performer is openly gay. When he heard that his alma mater was a less-than-pleasant place for gay students, he asked to meet with the superintendent before the concerts.

A meeting was held. Sam Harris performed his shows. "Magical" is the word Superintendent Lloyd Snow later used to describe the concerts that raised $50,000. And Charles Page High had itself a new Gay-Straight Alliance.

After the Christmas break, Brent puts up posters around school announcing the first meeting. "Come to the meeting, be straight but not narrow," one sign reads. Some of the posters are ripped down or defaced, including one with the word "fagget," to which Brent adds: "Love prevails over ignorance. Learn how to spell. Thank you."

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