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A Slow Journey From Isolation

Where I come from it's corn bread and chicken

Where I come from a lotta front porch sittin'

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.

Where I come from tryin' to make a livin'

And workin' hard to get to heaven

Where I come from

But just as Michael couldn't stay in the psychiatric unit forever, Janice can't hide in the isolation of her Oldsmobile. During the presidential primary season, the TV at work is tuned to the debates, and Janice feels herself tensing as the candidates are asked to state their positions on same-sex marriage. A co-worker weighs in, definitely against. Janice agrees, but without much conviction. At home later she tells Michael, "It's almost as if I can't stand strong for what I used to stand for."

"Did you stick up for me?" Michael asks.

They both know the answer. The same-sex marriage issue is forcing Janice to choose between her beliefs and her son. Her church is gearing up for the November elections. "I have to agree with the president," Janice says. "We need to keep the family unit as intended." And yet her own family unit is not quite as intended. Twice divorced, Janice works two jobs, day and night. Her unmarried 23-year-old daughter has a baby. Now her only son is gay. Janice begins reading the Bible more closely, studying the Scriptures to see if there is any leeway in the interpretation.

She's driving across the Arkansas River when she sees a gay-themed bumper sticker on the back of a car. Janice finds herself speeding up to get a look at the stranger who has some common thread with her son. She decides she needs to do some reevaluating. "Revamping," as she calls it.

One day Michael is sitting on the couch, telling her how he is destined to be alone. Usually Janice would cringe and start campaigning for girls. This time, she listens.

"I hate love," Michael says, in his deepening drawl. "I'm scared of it."

Janice draws in a breath. "Of love?" she asks. "I was, too."

Ninety miles to the west, in bright winter sunshine, more than 600 demonstrators gather on the steps of the state Capitol in Oklahoma City. Some hold Bibles and long-stemmed red roses. Others wave signs that say "Family: God's Beautiful Gift" or "Oklahoma Supports One Man, One Woman, One Family." The rally is to support all the anti-gay legislation proposed in Oklahoma, and to support President Bush's call for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. More than 60 elected officials, Republican and Democratic, sit on a dais overlooking the crowd. One by one, they take the podium, squinting into the sun and vowing to fight.

Rep. Thad Balkman, a Republican from Norman, says the protection of marriage is the most important issue facing Oklahomans. A busload of children from a Christian school arrives as Rep. Lance Cargill, a Republican from Harrah, talks about Noah and the ark. "I believe we can build an ark of safety to protect marriage in our country," he says to cheers.

A woman in front waves a photo of a recently married couple. One of the speakers points to the woman and says, "You see that photo? Now that's marriage."

Not according to the 150 counter-demonstrators across the street on the lawn of the Oklahoma Historical Society who are holding rainbow flags and signs of their own. They aim their loudspeaker toward the traditional-marriage rally, blasting them with the gay anthem "I'm Coming Out."

The emcee of the rally shakes his head. "They're coming out," he mocks. "And we are smack dab in the middle of America! We are on the doorstep of hedonism and it must be turned back!"

Senate Republican Leader James A. Williamson of Tulsa also nods toward the gay demonstrators. "You've got to wake up your neighbors," he says, gaining steam. "You've got to tell them you've seen the alternative over here. It's real. It's here in Oklahoma!"

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