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At first, in group therapy, Michael was withdrawn.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.
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.
Where I come from it’s corn bread and chicken
Where I come from a lotta front porch sittin’
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!”
The rally closes with a young boy and girl who take the stage with sweet falsetto voices.
I love mother
She loves me
We love daddy, yesiree
We are a happy fam-i-ly
Two hours later inside the Capitol, when the state House approves a resolution urging Congress to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, there is not a single dissent.
Spring comes and the culture war intensifies. Michael can’t quite grasp the concept of same-sex marriage. He wonders about the domestic arrangements. Who would do all the stuff women do? “I can’t really picture myself folding the laundry,” he says. Right now he’s more worried about being 17 in Oklahoma. He joins a weekly rap group at OpenArms Youth Project in Tulsa. Michael never says much, but the meetings are an escape from the wilderness of Sand Springs. One Thursday night, he plunks down on one of the secondhand couches. The attendees range from scruffy farm kids to clean-cut sons of Tulsa business leaders. The group is moderated on this night by a 16-year-old named Fred who has come up with a list of discussion questions. The first is, “What are your hopes and dreams?”
“To be stable without my parents’ support.”
“To go to NYU and become a psychologist.”
“To be in the Berlin Philharmonic.”
“To go to art school in Savannah.”
“Getting the hell out of Oklahoma.” This brings laughter.
Next question. “Do you live up to your parents’ expectations?”
“Not even close, I really don’t even talk to my dad.”
“My dad wishes I played guitar instead of cello.”
“My dad and I’ve never met.”
Last question: “Do you bash back?”
“It depends on how many there are.” No one laughs.
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.
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.
“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.
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.