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A Slow Journey From Isolation

Smack dab in the middle of America, lesbian chic has arrived in the halls of the high schools but the same titillation does not apply to gay guys. "Two girls together, straight guys love that," Michael says. "Two guys, that will get you beat up."

Michael grows out of the lip-gloss phase. He becomes consumed with his masculinity. "I want my truck to look as straight as possible," he says, and he paints over the flames that had once decorated the hood, making his Chevy a rumbling bucket of steel and primer.

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.

He starts dating a 15-year-old who is fascinated with drag. The boy is fair and freckled, with a spoiled attitude that Michael mistakes for glamour. One night, Michael brings him out to meet his dad, who is generally supportive of Michael's sexuality, but this time, he takes one look at the boy's pedicure and says, "What in theee [expletive] hell do you have on your toes?"

Michael's next encounter is the opposite: a strapping 16-year-old who goes to diesel mechanic school. He and Michael work on their trucks together. The dynamic feels perfect. "When we're in public, we're just friends," Michael says. "When we aren't, we're as gay as can be."

Then the diesel mechanic stops calling and Michael is back to square one. He quits using all the fancy hair gels and visiting the tanning salon. He takes out his pierced eyebrow ring. He stops listening to Cher. When his older sister Sarah comes home from Las Vegas for a visit, she notices the metamorphosis. "He's like, 'I'm just gonna be my damned self. If I want to listen to country music and be gay, I'm gonna do it,' " Sarah says.

One Friday night in June, Michael goes to the Tulsa Speedway for the stock car races. "I feel more free," he says, breathing in the smell of exhaust and fuel. He sits at the top of the bleachers alone. The country bunnies in cutoffs hop up and down the stands in front of Michael, but they may as well be invisible. Only once does his head turn, when a dark-haired teenager with ropey muscles and a white undershirt walks by.

By now Michael has learned a few things. While the heterosexual guys can let their eyes follow whatever they want for as long as they want, Michael puts his eyes back on the racetrack, watching the cars roar in hopeless circles.

At Charles Page High, the last day of classes marks the end of a long battle for Michael's friend Brent Wimmer, the openly gay senior who started the school's first Gay-Straight Alliance. The fight has left him drained. "I wasn't meant to be born here," Brent says, taking his lunch break at Subway. "Looking back, I know I said I need to make changes in this town, but I've done all I can."

Which is why Brent is so surprised when a teacher tells him, "You've changed this school forever" -- and she is smiling.

Maybe he has. Charles Page High holds its end-of-the-year awards ceremony in the auditorium, with the usual honors for outstanding academics and the raising of spectacular livestock. On the printed program, near the bottom, one award merits only an acronym. The letters spell PFLAG. There is no explanation of what PFLAG stands for, or that Brent is winning a $1,000 scholarship for starting the Gay-Straight Alliance.

Tim Gillean, a board member of PFLAG's Tulsa chapter, is here to present the award. Looking at the program, Gillean would later recall, he debates whether he should say the full name out loud. He goes to the microphone. "On behalf of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays," he begins, to the sound of feet shuffling and murmurs in the crowd.

Brent strides up to the stage. Later that week, someone takes a bat to the windshield of his dad's car.

Tulsa holds its annual gay pride parade on a sweltering day in June, with 28 floats and cars waiting patiently at the corner of 15th and Utica. The event is euphemistically named "Diversity Celebration," but all the touchstones of any gay pride parade are visible -- Mardi Gras beads, drag queens melting in the sun and disco songs about liberation. Unlike gay pride events in big cities, a certain air of reverence hangs over this parade. No elected officials are present. No companies are willing to be publicly identified as sponsors. The most mainstream presence is a float sponsored by a local Presbyterian church that welcomes gays.

The parade cuts through Tulsa's arts district, where scattered crowds line the curb and applaud politely. Then comes a purple float, blasting "We Are Family," overloaded with teenagers who stayed up half the night stapling construction paper and spelling out the words OpenArms Youth Project. This float, more than any other, rouses the crowd. A simple crepe-papered representation of gay pride in Middle America. Not the faraway enemies -- the "renegade mayor in San Francisco" and "liberal activist judges" -- denounced at that rally in Oklahoma City, but more ordinary and threatening.

A protester moves toward the OYP teenagers, pointing his sign at the purple float: "WHY DOES THE GROUP WITH THE HIGHEST SUICIDE RATE CALL ITSELF GAY?" Another protester holds a sign that says, "GOT AIDS YET?"

The purple float rolls into a three-block stretch void of spectators. Then it makes its final bend into Veterans Park, where an all-day gay pride picnic will draw a few thousand supporters.

One last protester cups his hands and screams a parting message: "There's less of you queers this year. Are you dyin' off? You can't reproduce. You can't reproduce."

Instead of riding the purple float, Michael Shackelford mixes oats and groats for parakeets at the pet store. His mother has made it clear how she feels about gay pride. After the parade, OYP is having a big dance party but Michael stays home to fix his broken clutch. His friend Amanda McBeath comes over to help. Amanda is the only girl in her automotives class at Michael's old high school. She doesn't care that Michael is gay. In the driveway, they slide under the Chevy and get to work. Amanda says how much she wants to go to Big Splash this summer.

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