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In the Bible Belt, Acceptance Is Hard-Won

Though he is not a licensed counselor, McConkey's philosophy is similar to the approach known as "reparative therapy," which contends that homosexual behavior is learned or chosen. McConkey says homosexuality is a compensation for a bad relationship with a parent or the result of childhood trauma. "Make the gay person have a stronger relationship with God -- rediscover God as parent and God as able to heal childhood wounds -- and the need to be in a relationship that pleases God will happen naturally," he says.

But these are tough times for McConkey's mission. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws, decriminalizing homosexuality for consenting adults, and then the Massachusetts courts legalized same-sex marriage in that state. Just as insidious, McConkey says, are the shifts in American culture that portray gay life as domestic -- wedding bands, two-car garages, dad and dad vacationing with the kids.

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.

McConkey's job is to dispel young people of such notions.

"The next sweetie that comes along and you are yesterday's news," he says. "It's all about vanity and bodies."

On a freezing Valentine's Day night, the parking lot of an old strip mall in Tulsa is packed with cars. As at Restoration by Grace, some of the license plates are from as far away as Arkansas and Missouri. The sign on the building says OpenArms Youth Project, giving no clue that behind the door is a dance club for gay teenagers.

Michael Shackelford has persuaded his mother to let him go. When she asks what goes on at OYP, Michael tells her just a bunch of people dancing. She imagines men with their arms around each other. Michael decides on a black velvet shirt with snap buttons. Winter stars light the drive into Tulsa. When Michael turns into the OYP parking lot, there is not a single space left. "Good golly!" he cries.

How to describe what waits inside? Janice Shackelford's suspicions are right. Young men are dancing with other young men. There is also a snack bar that sells Pixie Stix, Mountain Dew and Red Bull. The deejay and sound system are worthy of any big-city club; the female impersonators in their hand-sewn ensembles are definitely by way of Oklahoma.

Standing by the pool table is an all-state swimmer who has driven 50 miles from his small home town. Nearby is a 17-year-old church organist who will attend Oral Roberts University next year. There is a blond high school senior with a delicate gold cross on her neck; she was recently banned from her church's candle-lighting service because she's a lesbian.

There is Victor, holding six red roses for Michael.

Victor takes Michael's hand and leads him to the crowded dance floor. Victor is a natural, but Michael is hopeless. There's hardly room to move. The energy on the dance floor builds. The song has a repeating phrase -- "This joy, this joy, this joy" -- and its repetition works like a trance on the dancers. Victor has his hands on Michael's neck. The silver disco ball scatters light over their faces. Michael smiles at Victor and looks around. Heads are tilted back, arms in the air, blue jeans moving in rhythmic currents until the fever breaks and half the dance floor shouts the chorus.

This joy, this joy, this joy.

The next morning, Michael and his mom find their seats in the back of Cornerstone Church. Nearly a thousand worshipers are here, most of whom call themselves nondenominational Christian or "Bapti-costal." Services are in an industrial building with exposed beams and three stained-glass windows. The altar is a platform stage large enough to hold an eight-piece band. When the pastor asks the congregants to bow their heads, some of the men come out of their chairs and drop to their knees. Michael shuts his eyes.

Today's message is from Jeremiah 1:4-5. The scripture flashes on the overhead screen.

Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.

The pastor makes the words his own and repeats the message. "Before you were in the womb, I knew you," he says, his voice rising. "God knew you!"

Michael elbows his mother.


God knew he was gay before Michael knew he was gay.

Janice smiles at him but shakes her head.

The pastor asks the congregation a question. Who's not afraid to die? Michael's hand goes up.

"I ain't afraid," he says to his mother. "I'll see everyone else. I'm not going to some separate place."

Tomorrow: Michael's search for peace.

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