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A Slow Journey From Isolation

"I'd get in trouble there," Michael says.

Amanda keeps tightening a bolt. "Don't drool," she advises. "Just try to look at a guy who's standing next to a girl."

"I better just look at the ground," Michael says.

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.

They work in silence, mostly. "Here's another thing you might want to think about fixin'," Amanda says. "The suppression arms. And this ring over here's broken."

Michael grunts in irritation. "Oh, quit pointin' out all the bad things." The honeyed evening light of summer is fading. Michael sweats through his T-shirt, grease on his cheek, bits of gravel in his blond hair. "The fork's moving pretty well," he tells Amanda. He slides out and wipes his hands on his jeans, hopping up into the driver's seat. He cranks the motor and it turns over, loud enough to terrorize. Now the real test. He pumps the clutch. The shifting stick eases smoothly into gear. "It works," Michael shouts. "It moves!" He is laughing, pounding the steering wheel. "Wait'll I tell my dad."

The next day he drives out to the nearby town where his father, Bob Shackelford, lives on 30 acres with his second wife and their kids. Bob has always accepted that Michael is gay. He believes homosexuality is genetic; three of his brothers are gay. "I didn't jump in and say anything when his mother was having a fit," Bob says. And yet he winces when asked to describe what his son's everyday life is like. He knows Oklahoma. "Hell, I am Oklahoma," he says, letting his voice drift off. "There's a lot of things he has to deal with, being this way."

When Michael arrives, his dad and two uncles -- one straight and one gay -- are hammering away in the blazing sun on a 40-by-40-foot structure behind the house. The concrete has been poured and this afternoon the insulation is going in. The building will be a place where Michael's dad can work on his truck, listen to music and leave his tools out if he wants. The family already has a name for it: Manland.

One of the uncles notices that Michael has stopped wearing his eyebrow ring. "I'm done with all that," Michael says. His uncle confesses that he never would have worn a body piercing when he was younger. "That could just be something else my dad could grab hold of and pull me down on the ground with," he says.

The other uncle looks at Michael's empty eyebrow. "Want me to shoot you with a nail gun and put it back in?" he jokes.

Michael proudly delivers his news to his father. "I fixed my truck," he says.

Bob Shackelford smiles and gives the ultimate compliment. "Well, you can just bring it on down to Manland."

By the end of the summer, Michael is 16 pounds heavier and two inches taller than the year before. His voice is huskier, his jaw more hardened. He is thinking about a career in law enforcement. "That way, people would have to respect me," he says.

The badge can't come soon enough. Michael is at the drive-through at Taco Bueno in Sand Springs when he sees his harasser from gym class coming toward the truck. Michael tries to ignore the screams of "faggot." What sticks with him, he says, are the accusations that he's a loser who dropped out of school.

Michael's mood turns dark. In a notebook at home, he writes poems about death and release. In despair, he returns for intensive counseling to the place that first gave him peace, the psychiatric hospital in Tulsa.

"I want to say this lifestyle he's chosen, in one aspect, he's asked for it," Janice Shackelford says while Michael is at the hospital for counseling. "I know that sounds harsh. I guess there is something to be said about staying in the closet." She begins to cry.

The antidepressants Michael has been taking for several months might have contributed to his bleak mood, a doctor at Laureate tells him. A new drug is prescribed. At first Michael is jittery and aggressive, tossing old light bulbs in the air behind his house and smashing them with a bat for fun. His family barely recognizes his behavior. Eventually he settles down and formulates a plan.

There was a time when he couldn't imagine living anywhere other than Oklahoma. Tornado season, the searing heat of summer and the small-town familiarity of knowing everyone -- he always figured he'd be here where the fences went on forever. But now he decides he has to go.

"I'll just take some clothes," he says. "Get a fresh start."

He'll move west, to Las Vegas, where his oldest sister lives.

His truck won't make it to the desert. He'll leave it behind in the gravel driveway of home.

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