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A Slow Journey From Isolation

By Anne Hull
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2004; Page A01

Part II

Peace came to Michael Shackelford last year inside a psychiatric ward. He was 16 and his mother had just discovered his relationship with another young man. Feeling alone and frightened, and unable to imagine his future as a gay teenager in rural Oklahoma, Michael bought 10 packets of ephedrine-laced powder from the mini-mart and swallowed them all, which is how he landed at Laureate Psychiatric Clinic and Hospital, his belt and shoelaces confiscated.

At first, in group therapy, Michael was withdrawn. He'd never discussed being gay with anyone. After a few days, he uncrossed his arms and began talking. No one laughed. No one threatened him. No one said he was going to hell. On discharge day, Michael didn't want to leave. But he couldn't stay forever because real life was waiting beyond the double doors.

The walls in Michael Shackelford's bedroom are decorated with posters of NASCAR champions, monster trucks and Speedo hunks. He has also pinned up a saying that reads, "Love is blind so it's harder to find." (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

_____Gay in Real America_____
In the Bible Belt, Acceptance Is Hard-Won (The Washington Post, Sep 26, 2004)
Braving the Streets Her Way (The Washington Post, Oct 3, 2004)
Using Her Voice to Rise Above (The Washington Post, Oct 4, 2004)
_____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.
About This Series

With the Shackelford family's permission, Washington Post reporter Anne Hull 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 reporter accompanied Michael to work, church, car shows, speedways and Saturday night forays to the gay teenage dance club in Tulsa. Extended periods were spent in the Shackelford home, where Michael and his mother, Janice, struggled to understand each other. The events and direct quotes in this story were witnessed by the reporter unless otherwise noted.

The final two parts of Young and Gay in Real America are scheduled to run Sunday, Oct. 3, and Monday, Oct. 4.

Now a year later, his initial anguish of awakening to his sexuality has eased. He is making his first bumbling, fumbling attempts at human connection. With a girl, it would be simple. "You just go up to her," Michael says, shrugging. In this new and unknown territory, he has no clue what to do or say. Every calculation is accompanied by a risk: "I could get the crap beat out of me."

One night at the mall he sees a clerk at Abercrombie & Fitch who he thinks might be gay. Heart pounding, Michael decides to go for it.

He asks the clerk: Are you fruity?

The answer is no.

For guidance, he buckles into his truck and drives into Tulsa to visit the Barnes & Noble. After slurping down a chocolate brownie Frappuccino, he buys a book called "Mr. Right Is Out There: The Gay Man's Guide to Finding and Maintaining Love" by Kenneth D. George.

He doesn't want to upset his mother so he reads the book in the bathtub. Who is Mr. Right? And once you find him, how do you keep him?

If coming out is a journey, then Michael is on one. He studies CD covers of Annie Lennox, her pearly beauty drawing him in. His mother feels a spark of hope -- maybe Michael is taking an interest in girls -- until she sees that someone has been using her angel-beige makeup.

At the gay teenage dance club in Tulsa, Michael watches the female impersonators, translucent and fearless. "They just seem so confident," he says. Needing some confidence of his own, he begins wearing a light foundation to cover his acne. He gives up chili cheese fries for Slim-Fast bars. One night he visits his mom at the barbecue restaurant where she works. "Good Lord!" she says, noticing that her son who used to wear work boots and plaid shirts now has makeup at his jaw line. Michael explains to her that he doesn't want to be a woman; he just wants to experience physical perfection.

A month after leaving the high school hallways that felt so hostile, it is February and Michael is studying for his GED and working full-time at the pet store. His cell phone allows contact with the outside world. His fleeting friendship with Victor ended with a text message and now there is an olive-skinned male cheerleader at a high school in the nearby town of Mannford.

"He said the one thing that makes him melt is nice teeth," says Michael, who figures spending $40 on teeth-whitening products at Wal-Mart is an investment in love. When the cheerleader invites Michael to watch him cheer at a basketball game, Michael hurries home from work and showers. Standing in front of the mirror, he applies concealer to his face. Then he can't resist. He rustles around in his mom's drawer and finds a tube of pink lip gloss. His pale blue eyes shimmer like glass stones set in a creamy canvas.

Male butterflies are rare in Sand Springs, and rarer still if they drive trucks with dual chrome exhaust pipes. But off Michael flutters, into the darkness, to the one-stoplight town of Mannford, where hundreds of cars are parked outside the high school gym. Getting out of his truck in the cold, Michael can hear the buzzer and whistles. As he walks toward the open gym door he can see the crowd: the feed caps, goatees, football hunks with floppy bangs and girls in denim jackets.

Michael hesitates. He thinks back to a few days earlier at the car wash, where he ran into his harasser from high school gym class and heard the words "There's that pretty little faggot."

Now at the gym door, he takes measure of his courage. Using the back of his fist, he wipes the lip gloss from his mouth. "I don't want to start any trouble," he says.

Janice Shackelford worries about Michael's eternal salvation, but the truth is, she's embarrassed to have a gay son. She imagines the small-town speculations of those who might wonder where she went wrong as a mother. Janice grew up in Sand Springs but has told only two friends about Michael. She thinks her secret is contained until her pastor approaches her one Sunday before church. "Now, Janice," she recalls the pastor gently saying. "I'm going to talk about something this morning and I want you to know that it's not directed at you." He preaches against homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Janice sits through it, wondering how many others know.

She is in her own closet. A teacher at Michael's old high school suggests Janice find a meeting of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). But Janice believes going would send the wrong signal to Michael that she's condoning his behavior. She also knows that it would be a final admission of a truth she's not ready to accept. She wishes the subject would go away, an improbable hope for anyone living in 2004 America. The week that the mayor of San Francisco allows gays to marry at City Hall, Janice keeps her distance from the TV at work to avoid being drawn into any discussions. The only place she feels safe is in her Oldsmobile Cutlass with the radio set to country music. These are the values that matter to her. Driving past the oil derricks and the church marquees with their black-lettered messages, Janice lets the music restore her.

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