What is it like growing up gay in America? How have recent historic advances and greater mainstream acceptance affected the lives of young teens coming to terms with their homosexuality?
Washington Post staff writer Anne Hull discussed her four-part series on gay youth in America Monday, Oct. 4, at 11 a.m. ET.
Hull's Washington Post series looks at the lives of two gay teenagers from very different backgrounds.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
I find it very disturbing that a national newspaper would put a story about gay people on their front page. We have soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq everyday and the Washington post can only find a story to put gay people on their front pages. How is this fair? You could at least write about a soldiers life or service throughout the military. There are so many other topics that are newsworthy other than putting a lesbian and a homosexual on the front page. I find it deeply disturbing and it makes me doubt whether or not to renew my subscription.
Anne Hull: There is no doubt that topic of homosexuality and same-sex marriage has entered the realm of politics in the last two years. The presidentof the United States has proposed an amendmnent to our constititution. This act alone pushes the topic into the news pages.
The Post does and should devote precious space to covering the war and those who fight it. Last year, I had the privilege of spending two weeks inside Ward 57 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center where the wounded soldiers from Operation Iraqi Freedom were recovering. The story ran on the front page of the Post for two days.
Flower Mound, Tex.:
Do we know what percentage of American high
schools now have Gay-Lesbian Student Alliances
organized and supported by the schools? Do we
know how this compares to Canada, for example?
Anne Hull: There are more than 2,100 Gay-Straight Alliances at schools across the U.S. I'm not sure how many there are in Candada.
Your piece on Felicia Holt brought back a flood of memories of being 18, Latina and lesbian in Oakland, Calif. and running with a large circle of Latina, black and working-class white lesbians in the early 80's. Times have not changed so very much. I too had a fight at a bus stop with a guy who had a bone to pick with lesbians. But the guy was so drunk and he so badly underestimated my strength that he limped off with wounded pride. I was well aware that it could have ended very differently.
I see girls like Felicia on the Metro or around town and I doubt that they realize how well this now slightly graying butch (with a terribly respectable professional job) understands the family struggles, the confusion and the exhilaration of declaring one's refusal to conform to gender stereotypes and follow love where it leads. Anne Hull, thanks for a beautiful article and Felicia, don't let anyone stop you from being the best that you can be!
Anne Hull: The story on Felicia could have been written from Washington DC, but we chose Newark because that's where the murder of Sakia Gunn took place. The white gay experience has been explored and examined without end; the minority gay experience has barely been touched in the mainstream press.
I can't help but feel that the substance of your pieces on two fairly unlucky gay kids is a long overdue -- but honestly humanized a class of people that have largely been defined by wealthy, white, older men.
My question: in the piece about Ms. Holt you briefly mentioned that the media (and not just LGBT-specific media) had much more attention to give the murder of Matthew Shepard than Sakia Gunn. As someone that works in media, why do you think that was the case? Do you think it had more to do with the fact that she was female or that she African American? Or was it that she was poor?
Anne Hull: Race, gender and class are the great dividers in this country, and the same dynamic is present within the gay and lesbian advocacy organizations. Take a look at the executive board of directors or trustees of these organizations. I don't mean to take away from the historic work they do but the complexion of their leadership is also revealing.
Reading the stories about Felicia yesterday and today, I was wondering if you know what her future plans are. Also, has the fact that her state's governor came out recently had much -- if any -- effect on how her family or friends see her orientation?
Anne Hull: Gov. Jim McGreevey's coming out had zero impact on Felicia's world. As Valencia Bailey's mom said with a shrug, "you never know who's flying the colors," meaning the rainbow colors.
Last spring, before his own cascading scandal, McGreevey signed a proclamation dedicating a moment of silence in Essex County schools for the students who'd fallen to violence. This was a watered down version of what gays in Newark wanted - a special recognition for Sakia Gunn's death - but it was something nonetheless.
Great series. It's nice to see a topic that is a real issue in America being looked at in depth. I'm curious to know what covering this topic did for you as a journalist? I'm not asking for your personal feelings on this topic although I'd be interested to know how you felt before and now after writing this series. As a journalist I'm not sure if you're allowed to share your personal opinion. However, what was this experience like for you covering such a sensitive topic in America?
Anne Hull: Mostly, I was struck by the bravery of teenagers. If there is any time one wishes to fit in and not be different, it is high school. Both Felicia Holt and Michael Shackelford exhibited a strain of bravery that most teens can't possibly understand, regardless of one's views on homosexuality.
was also reminded that even in the grimmest moments or neighborhoods, there are true poets walking around, and sometimes they are 17 years old. Like Felicia's friend, Latoya Grissett, who said:
"The thing about the place we live -- the ghetto, the hood, whatever you want to call it -- people live what they see. You have to able to live beyond what you can see."
How can you feel anything but humble in the face of these words?
Felicia was a high school senior when her story was being followed. Did she graduate from high school this past spring? What is she doing now?
Anne Hull: I followed Felicia for most of her senior year, and of and on this summer. She did not graduate. She was 4 credits short. She visited West Side last week to inquire about registering in night school to get the credits she needs for graduation.
I saw her 10 days ago in Newark. She seems determined to make this happen.
New York, N.Y.:
You compare the differing responses to the murders of Shakia Gunn and Matthew Shepard. I was unaware of the Gunn case until I read your story. While I support the push to recognize the legality of gay marriage, I think that anti-gay violence -- or any violence -- is a more pressing issue. How prevalent is gay-bashing in America? Are statistics available? Do you think the Gunn and Shepard murders are isolated incidents?
Thanks for some great writing! Will you continue the series?
Anne Hull: One reason we took on the Newark story was to highlight the realities of the lives of many gay people in this country. There was and is great debate among gay organizations about whether marriage should become the dominating goal. For good or bad, it has become the big push, and the results are striking. Everyone is watching New Jersey and California now.
But for Felicia and many of the folks I met in Newark, marriage ranks far lower on the spectrum of desired goals. Resources, safety and jobs are what people are thinking about there. After Sakia was killed, many of the young lesbians felt incredibly vulnerable.
Give it a break, Maryland. Not every story on the front page has to be about the war or wounded soldiers. There are other issues that need to be addressed in this country. The hateful acts conducted against homosexuals are a big problem. Maybe people will understand that homosexuals are normal human beings if they are exposed to stories about individual lesbians and gays.
Anne Hull: i'll toss this into the fray and leave it at that.
It strikes me that the two teenagers in the articles Michael and Felicia both have very different support networks. Felicia seems to be emersed in an environment surrounded by other lesbians, where as Michael seemed to have a much more isolated experience with small brief pockets of other gay friends. How much do you see that as a function of Michael existing in a rural community and Felicia in a much more urban environment, or do you see other factors at work?
Anne Hull: Michael doesn't have to deal with the ambient violence that Felicia does. On the other hand, his existance is more isolated.
At the same time, Tulsa has a thriving gay teen organization called OpenArms Youth Project that holds Saturday night dance parties in a safe environment, and has weekly rap groups and has just started a chorus.
There is nothing similar in Newark. Efforts are being made but the advances are moving at a snail's pace.
As a lesbian, I am astounded that Felicia -- and I suppose other gay urban youth like her -- would want to have a baby. I know the urge to have children is innate in most women, gay and straight, but it makes no sense to me in this context. What is this about?
Anne Hull: Visit Takoma Park, MD., farmer's market one weekend. Lesbians wanting to have babies is not limited to "gay urban youth" as you say, but women in general.
Rehoboth Beach, Del.:
Both of the teenagers you profiled had gay relatives (gay uncles, lesbian aunt). It seemed in your reporting that the relationships were cordial and friendly, but not the lifelines I would have expected. Do you think having these older gay relatives made a difference for Michael or Felicia?
Anne Hull: In the case of both Michael and Felicia, their gay uncles and aunts served to pave the way in terms of precedent-setters within the family. This was a relief to both that they didn't have to be the pioneers.
And yet each were filled with anxiety at having to tell their parents that they were gay. It's as Janice Shackelford said, "it's different when it's your child."
The very first question -- from Maryland claiming that "The Post" is wasting space reporting on gay kids' lives -- convincingly demonstrates just why "The Post" and other major dailies should feature such well-written quality stories on the front page. As a reporter, did you encountered such homophobia when researching and writing the pieces? And how did you handle it?
Anne Hull: During the reporting of the stories, I tried to see life through the eyes of the subjects. We tried very hard to keep these pieces free of polemics. When someone expressed views against homosexuality, those sentiments went into the paper. When Janice Shackelford "caught" her son with another teenage boy, she told me that she wanted to vomit. This is bracing and visceral and real, and we wanted to relay her revulsion. I didn't consider this homophobia; this was a person's honest reactions.
Last week's series gave the impression that being gay was the principal source of Michael's problems -- if he were straight, his life would be much easier and more pleasant. By contrast, in this week's series, I came away with the impression that if Felicia were straight, her problems may be different in nature but not in magnitude -- she'd still be going to a poor school in a violent neighborhood where teenagers are regularly shot. Her poverty, rather than her homosexuality, seems to be the principal source of her difficulties. Do you agree?
Anne Hull: Felicia's life in some ways is more complicated than Michael's. You are right, her sexuality is but one struggle in a multidude of many. And yet she clings to hymns and the church that rejects her. Her search for acceptance is profound. Read carefully the lyrics of the songs she chooses to perform whenever she auditions. The common theme is isolation and scorn, and trying to find acceptance.
I think your series is pushing the idea that "Gay is Good!" Will you next write a multi-part series about how wonderful gay marriage is in Massachusetts? You and many writers at The Washington Post are promoting homosexuality and gay marriage.
Anne Hull: if anything this series should be titled "Gay is Hard," not your suggested title of "Gay is Good."
Excellent articles and, oh, the memories. I could have been Michael but I lived in a very rural town in West Texas, same culture, during the 50s. There was no PFLAG, no mental health clinic, but lots of homophobic jocks, Baptist preachers (of whom my father was one) and all the rest of it. How I survived it physically was largely a matter of sheer luck.
Michael has to get out of that awful place and away from those awful people, but I worry about his ability to handle Las Vegas at such a young age. I fear the drug culture, the fast lane, and many problems await him in Las Vegas if he doesn't make healthy connections quickly. I know from personal experience.
Do you have a sense that the fundamentalist religious culture in which Michael is immersed is becoming more virulently and openly oppressive for gay people in the past year or so because of the national debate over gay marriage and the tenor of the campaign? I live in the Bible Belt and it appears to me to definitely be the case.
Anne Hull: I want to address one element of your comment. In Oklahoma, particularly, the same-sex marriage debate has created a forum for the topic of homosexuality itself. There is now a political rationalization to use phrases such as "crimes against nature" as Rep. Bill Graves did one day on the floor of the Oklahoma statehouse, and others who use the words "vile" to publicaly describe gays. Graves is certainly entitled to voice his opinion; my point is, the marriage debate often is not about marriage at all but about gayness and our comfort and discomfort with it.
Silver Spring, Md.:
I found the story of Felicia a lot harder to follow than Michael. Did you find it difficult to follow the two worlds? I know one was in Newark, N.J. and the other in Oklahoma, but as the people involved, was it easier for you to relate to one instead of the other?
Anne Hull: If you found it hard to follow, it has nothing to do with Newark and everything do with my poor organization of the story, I would suggest.
The textures, the music, the languange, everything about Newark if vibrant in a way that Tulsa never will be. Both have their uniqueness.
Do you think your presence as a journalist affected Felicia in her daily routine? As a young journalist, I encounter this question a lot.
Thanks for the deeply insightful work you did.
Anne Hull: Unlike public personnas, private citizens such as Felicia and Michael pretty soon forget you are following them around. They are unguarded and natural in way that is exhilerating to witness as a reporter. They are not canned and caculating. They are the essence. I don't think the presence of a journalist affected them too much. When I sensed they needed their privacy - who wants a lady with a notebook tagging along on a date - I bowed out and gave them their privacy.
Is anyone preaching to the gay youth about abstinence at all? Being gay is purely about sexual preference, so how can we encourage our gay youth to "come out of the closet" if having random sex is not encouraged.
Anne Hull: In Newark and Tulsa, two very churchy places, abstinence is preached to all teens. I have to say that in Tulsa, the gay youth had an almost old-fashioned sense of courtship - dates and flowers and the fast, hyper-sexual teen culture I notice here in D.C., for instance.
In rebuttal to Maryland's insensitive remarks regarding why this subject is on the front page and not the soldiers plight, is typical of those who would rather put civil and equal rights on the back-burner of the stove because it doesn't affect them and therefore, isn't important to them as well. What this person fails to understand is that there are many gays and lesbians who have fought in previous wars and conflicts and are fighting in the service of the country today. These same people are treated as "second-class" citizens when their civil and equal rights are requested.
One is aware of their sexual orientation usually at an early age and is only presented with the heterosexual role modal to observe. All others are considered, only because of religious teachings, to be wrong and immoral. Believe what you will, but this country is not a Theocracy and one can be who they are without the "Talibanic" type harassment aimed at them. It is a hard life growing up gay or lesbian in a straight world. Thank goodness it is not against the law to be who you were meant to be by nature's design. The young need to see role models and know that it is just as ok to be gay as to be straight. Sexual orientation is not a choice, and I usually retort with the question to a straight person who thinks one can change and be straight, "When did you choose to become straight?"
Anne Hull: i'll post this with no reply.
I have been reading this series and I have to admit that I am still finding it difficult to believe that teen-agers have a real handle on what their sexuality is, given their limited experience.
The music industry and other forces like peer pressure that have a strong influence on young people have made it somewhat trendy to be considered gay. A good example is the program "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy." It's like it is cute to be considered gay.
The ramifications of such a decision are far-reaching. I just don't think they have the capacity to decide something that could affect them for the rest of their lives.
Anne Hull: another posting for everyone to consider.
Thank You when I was a kid(teenager) my mom sent me to a gay therapist to help with the issues that we are facing today in our society and being homosexual. Here in Birmingham at a High School they have a organization called BAGSLY which is a suppport group for homosexual, bisexual, and straight teenagers supporting each other. And this is Birmingham Alabama do I need to say anymore(historical context.)I really believe that we need to network and support teenagers they need it with the issues of families... and other peers. Birmingham is Alive finally!
Anne Hull: i'll post this, and also say i've received a few interesting emails from teens who run ex-gay blogs. these are teens who once were gay but are no longer, and they say they often suffer incredible ridicule from gays.
I'm amazed that both teens seem to want to hang on to churches that so firmly reject them. Did you ask either of them why they wanted to do this?
Anne Hull: Very important question. Both Felicia and Michael were raised in the church. It is knit throughout them, not just the ritual of attendance but the words and feelings from the Bible. They are both trying to reconcile their identities with their love for and from God. When I interviewed the superintendent of schools in Newark, Marion Bolden, she suggested that the black churches could do a lot more to reach out to gay kids. The ministers look the other way (except when it comes to the church music department.)
The internet has really opened a vast new world to
isolated people (like I was) where they can learn about
from other gay people. To what extent does access to the
internet (if they have any) help the subjects of your article?
On the other hand, censorship of the internet, whether
through filters or other such means, often restricts a
young gay person from getting the help they need.
Anne Hull: The internet has revolutionized this generation of young gay people, in terms of making connections and not feeling so isolated. Of course there is also the underside - the underage hook-ups and predators - but this is univeral to the internet in general.
Many gay kids like like Felicia cannot afford a computer.
In response to one poster noting the different amount of support available to Michael and to Felicia, I have an observation. I grew up as a gay woman in a city very similar to Newark. As a white woman I was astounded by the relatively high level of acceptance, or tolerance, for homosexuality in the black community versus the white. There were several out black lesbians in my neighborhood but no white ones. Perhaps the black community is more welcoming of diversity that is the white.
Anne Hull: This a huge question and I don't dare offer a generalization.
There are field studies being conducted now in California by a Univ of San Fran researcher who is examining this topic, among others.
In Tulsa, a social worker who deals with gay teens has what she calls the "Thanksgiving rule" - don't tell your parents you are gay unless you've got somewhere to go on Thanksgiving in case they throw you out.
I never heard anything as harsh as that in Newark.
Is there something wrong with being straight? What aboput gay people who harrassed straight people?
Anne Hull: There is nothing wrong with being straight.
Unlike your previous poster who doesn't think things have changed for lesbian youth since the 80s, I can attest to this confused child of the 50s, that YES, it has.
Growing up in inner city Philadelphia, I had little resources and a lot of community scorn. Oh, how I would have welcomed sisters who embraced me for what I was and dance halls -- however spartan -- where I could be with family.
Your article empowers me with the hope that a younger generation of both gay and straight kids are being accepted for what they are.
Anne Hull: thanks for writing. i'll post your comments.
What a terrific feature! I'm the Executive Director of the
National Youth Advocacy Coalition (NYAC) and we
represent the majority of LGBTQ youth programs around
the country. I used to be the director of the Sexual
Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) here in the
I was excited to see your focus on youth of color, in
particular. Media representations are generally focused on
the white LGBTQ experience, and rarely on young people.
You and The Post should be congratulated for bringing
much needed attention to this important population. At a
time when so much of our public discourse is vicious and
vile when it comes to homosexuality; this series will give
hope to young people who are struggling not to feel
isolated and alone.
All too often, these courageous young people become
statistics when our social service systems and the adults
who are supposed to help and protect them, do nothing;
or worse, when they cause them to experience
harassment, intimidation, or violence.
I hope that any youth who may be struggling to find their
place in the world can find access to this series; and a
program that can help them. On our website at
www.nyacyouth.org, young people can find access to
culturally-competent serviceseven in New Jersey.
Thanks again for such a terrific piece.
Anne Hull: i'll post this for those who may find the resource links here helpful.
Anne Hull: Dear readers, time to say goodbye but thank you for your thoughts, one and all. Hope the dialogue continues out there. anne