On the day of the first meeting, a few students wear T-shirts to school saying "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve." But the meeting goes off without a hitch. Twenty-two students attend -- about a third are straight, the rest are gay.
Michael is not there. He tells Brent he doesn't want to risk more ridicule.
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.
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.
"If everyone else around here can deal with it, so can you," Brent says.
For Michael, the pressure keeps building. In current-events class, some of the football players say how sick gay marriage is. Michael says nothing. He hates coming to school and tells his mom he wants to drop out.
Janice is torn. She thinks about the Matthew Shepard video she rented from Blockbuster. "If there was a group of kids mean enough, this could happen to Michael," she says. "We are still living in the middle of the Bible Belt."
One afternoon in late January, as a bitter wind pushes off the lake, Michael bundles up and goes out to his truck. Using masking tape and orange paint, he decorates the hood with menacing flames. When he proudly rumbles into the school parking lot, he later recalls, someone calls him a flaming faggot. Screw it, he thinks. Rubber burning, he peels out of the parking lot, making his formal exit as a student at Charles Page High.
Michael enrolls in a GED prep course at Tulsa Community College. He goes full time at the pet store where he's worked since he was 14. The pet store is old and small, with a bell that jangles when the front door opens. The shelves are stocked with products called Reptile Ranch, Wabbitat, Tick Arrest, Tasty Paste, Small World Thermalight and Fantastic Ferret Ball. Michael feeds and waters, cleans out cages and waits on customers. He can relax here. The parakeets don't care if he's gay.
One Friday morning in February, Michael goes to the break room and picks out music for his CD player. "Ever notice how Cher has a song for every emotion?" he says. Cher's "We All Sleep Alone" wafts across the rows of cages. Even the Madagascar plated lizard, recently reduced from $29.95 to $19.95, sleeps on his bed of cedar shavings, alone.
Something is different about Michael. His blond hair is now styled in glossy little spikes that look like shocks of frozen wheat. He bought a pair of delicate tinted sunglasses more common on J. Lo than residents of Sand Springs. He tells his mother that he needs some new outfits. She corrects him. "I wear outfits," she says. "You wear clothes."
Michael is cutting up cantaloupe for the iguanas when his cell phone vibrates. It's Victor, an 18-year-old he met at a teen club in Tulsa. Victor just moved from California. He is dark, gelled and hip. Michael worries that he's not sophisticated enough. "Sometimes I yawn-burp and he says it's gross," Michael says.
Victor's text message suggests they meet at the mall later, with one bit of instruction: If you are gonna come, dress nice.
"We're completely different," Michael says, dropping a breakfast mouse into a snake's cage. "I'm a white-trash redneck and he's from L.A."
That Friday night, Michael stops for gas at QuikTrip, stamping his boots in the cold. He picks up his 16-year-old female cousin and then a friend of hers, an effervescent fundamentalist with long, brown hair who neglects to tell her parents that she's hanging out with someone who is gay. "My pastor says we shouldn't align ourselves with them but it's okay to be friends with them," she says.
With Michael at the wheel, the three teenagers take the interstate into Tulsa, the glow of the skyline getting closer. Michael's cousin reports that she sold her 240-pound white Chester hog for $100. Her friend reports that at her church youth group meeting she wanted to raise the moral dilemma that a girl on the praise team was having sex with her boyfriend.
They arrive at Promenade Mall, and surprise, surprise, there is Victor. He and Michael hug, barely and awkwardly. They end up at TGI Friday's. It's 10 o'clock when the waitress clears the plates. Michael yawns.
"What are you doing after this?" Victor asks.
Michael shrugs. "Going home -- it's Oklahoma."
A look of blankness crosses Victor's face. "I want to go back to California."
Out past the Broken Arrow Expressway, Grace Fellowship church rises majestically off 80 acres of pastureland. The church has 3,500 members and is one of the largest in Tulsa, but it is known across the Midwest for a ministry called Restoration by Grace that helps people who want to stop practicing homosexual behavior.
Restoration by Grace is one of the first places that Janice Shackelford called after she learned Michael was gay. She was told that Michael had to be ready and willing to change. He wasn't.
Others are, and they drive from as far away as Arkansas and Missouri to get here. Chuck McConkey has run the ministry since 1995. He is the antithesis of the fire-breathing evangelical. Hands folded on his desk, he sits quietly in his book-lined office and shares the story of a young man who recently came to him in tears. "He asked me: 'Will I stop having these thoughts when I see a guy with his shirt off? I want to believe you so bad.' "
McConkey says he can answer that question with confidence because he was once gay. He spent "15-plus years in the homosexual lifestyle." Now 54, he has a wife and two adopted sons. Impulses that used to trigger him are gone. "No buzzing, no burning, no stimulation," he says. "I'm telling you, it can go away."