The belt buckle says SEXY. The silk jersey says Denver Nuggets. Both are laid out on the bed as Felicia Holt stands at the ironing board, trying to press some perfection into her Friday night. Her T-shirt is fresh from the store package and goes on warm. Two dabs of Egyptian musk oil on the neck. Hair braided short like an NBA star. A do-rag carefully tied over her braids.
A voice rolls down the hall. “Felicia, is your room clean?”
Felicia picks a cap from her vast collection on the dresser and stands in front of the mirror. With sleepy eyes and a smooth jaw, she cocks her chin with satisfaction. What stares back is the creamiest thug on the block. To be a young lesbian from the trash-blown and violent streets of Newark takes a measure of imagination. Felicia uses a soapy toothbrush to buff her Timberlands, diligent and delicate, still believing that a Friday night can hold some wonder. She contemplates the splendor of Jersey Gardens mall until she remembers the weekend crowds on a city bus, everyone packed like sardines and breathing each others’ necks.
“No seats,” Felicia says, fastening her rainbow necklace. “I got a date, and I don’t want her to stand.”
What is gay America? It is this 17-year-old who lives with her mother and two teenage sisters in an apartment on working-class Eckert Avenue. There is a Bible on the coffee table and fish frying in the kitchen. With no cell phone to receive text messages, Felicia keeps her folded love notes in a shoe box. I just want to kick it with you, one girl writes.
In courtrooms and city halls across the country, a historic battle is being fought over the expansion of rights for gay people. Far below the revolution is Felicia Holt, whose life is as hidden from the national debate as her box of stashed love notes. She cares less about wedding bells than dodging stray bullets and storefront preachers who keep the word “abomination” on the tips of their tongues, reserved for the likes of this high school senior now pulling the brim of her hat low over one eye.
Newark. Brick City. Twenty-eight percent living in poverty, 54 percent African American, 30 percent Hispanic, Newark is just a $1.50 PATH train ride from Manhattan, but Felicia hardly ever crosses the river. Her world is Newark and she knows every inch of it, every shortcut through every vacant field. The Pabst brewery has been boarded up since her childhood, but the giant bottle on the roof is still the neighborhood North Star.
Leafy suburbs have after-school gay organizations and parent support groups. Felicia’s Newark has nothing. On Friday nights, a rattletrap teen dance hall called the African Globe is the one beacon in an otherwise empty landscape for gay teenagers. They descend by the hundreds, Felicia among them, waiting to get inside their dingy sanctuary.
Felicia felt none of the windfall of victory many American gays experienced last year when the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalized homosexual relations between adults, or when the Massachusetts high court allowed gays to marry in that state. Getting married was someone else’s dream. Felicia was more worried about staying alive.
Survival is a part of everyday Newark, but for Felicia it intensified in May 2003 with the killing of her friend, a 15-year-old lesbian named Sakia Gunn, who was at a bus stop downtown when she rejected a man’s pickup attempt with the declaration that she was gay. A fight followed and Sakia was stabbed to death. The slaying was Newark’s version of Matthew Shepard, the gay college student found beaten and lashed to a fence post in 1998 in Wyoming. In Shepard’s case, gay and lesbian organizations flew into the town of Laramie to maximize the political moment. President Bill Clinton spoke out against the hate crime, and in New York thousands of protesters marched down Fifth Avenue. No such forces rallied around the poor black teenager from Newark.
When Felicia heard the news about Sakia, she hurried downtown to the bus stop where her friend had been killed. Dozens of other young black lesbians were already gathered at the corner of Broad and Market, and more kept arriving, bringing Knicks jerseys, Mass candles and cardboard eulogies that said “Stop the Killing” or “Rest Your Head, Baby Girl.” The shrine grew in gaudiness and emotion, and not even rain or darkness sent the mourners home. The teenagers clung to the patch of bloody sidewalk in a stubbornness that suggested a political awakening.
The vigil was just the start. A few days later, nearly 500 marched from the bus shelter to City Hall, demanding that Newark Mayor Sharpe James do more to protect gay youths. By the day of her funeral, Sakia Gunn had become a martyr. Perry’s Funeral Home had prepared for only a modest crowd, but hours before the service began, young people were lining up to view Sakia’s body in a small room upstairs. She was laid out in a blue tracksuit. When the 1 p.m. service started, the funeral director, Samuel Arnold, glanced out the window and all he could see, on the lawn and up and down Mercer Street in front, were young people. He guessed there were 2,000 mourners standing outside.
Before the coffin lid closed, a friend of Sakia’s dropped in a white-gold necklace that spelled in cursive script “Lesbian Pride.”
After the funeral, Felicia took stock of her life. She looked like Sakia, dressed like Sakia and braided her hair like Sakia. The smart thing would’ve been to ditch the men’s clothing and rainbow gear. That struck Felicia as cowardly, if not disingenuous. She decided to go out into the world just as she was.
For the next nine months, The Washington Post spent hundreds of hours in Newark with Felicia, her family, her friends and her teachers. The events and direct quotes that appear in this story were witnessed by this reporter, unless otherwise noted.
The thumpty-thump of rap is how she seems, but deep down Felicia is old school. Her earliest memories are of the R&B music that her parents, before the divorce, listened to as they drove around with her in a car seat. The songs today are about Glocks and bitches, but Felicia clings to Patti LaBelle. Her eyelashes curl like a fawn’s. She has milk-chocolate skin as smooth as blown glass. A cubic zirconium glints from her left earlobe. Felicia can strut with the best of them, talking about what girl she “souped” or “smashed,” Timbs unlaced and “yo, yo, yo,” but her ankle socks say “Hug Me.”
When her mother was hospitalized last year with pneumonia, Felicia was so frightened that she wore a dress for her senior photo, knowing it was the one gift that could cheer up her ailing mom. Then it was back to the T-shirts that hung like bedsheets at her kneecaps.
Felicia’s natural state is a tomboy state: jumbo clothes, inhaling bags of ranch chips, storing a rolled-up chemistry notebook in her back pocket and giving girls playful headlocks in the halls at West Side High School. Even in the sixth grade, she knew she was on a different path. Her sisters wore foxy lingerie and gold chains, but Felicia felt right -- deeply right -- in sports bras and undershirts known as “wife beaters.” She went swirly watching Aaliyah videos. The grooves of her yearnings cut deeper. She told no one. She’d spent enough Sundays in church pews to know that homosexuality is considered a sin. The preachers said it was a choice, something that could be overcome with prayer and willpower; the matter seemed out of Felicia’s hands.
“I didn’t choose nothin’,” she says. “It choosed me.”
In the 1950s, a black lesbian who identified with masculine traits and clothes would have been called butch or a bulldagger. Growing up, Felicia heard the word clucked in gossip -- bulldagger -- and just hearing it sent a ripple of curiosity. Now it seems old-fashioned to Felicia, even though she is the modern-day version of it.
Felicia describes herself as an “A-G,” short for “aggressive.” Her body is 100 percent female, but she has a masculine approach to life. She prefers women who are ultra-feminine: hoop earrings, tight jeans and French-wrap nails. Felicia finds zero attraction in another A-G. “They’re my peoples, not my girls,” she says.
Identifying strictly as butch or femme has diminished in recent generations of lesbians, but human sexual identity is fluid and there are infinite ways to express it. What comes naturally to Felicia -- despite her delicate features and hormonal moodiness -- is letting her khakis ride low around her boxers.
Wearing men’s clothes is not enough. Felicia believes she must also display the traits of strength and invincibility that women supposedly want in men. She mimics all the distorted and magnified qualities of manhood. In Felicia’s neighborhood, a public performance of bravado is mandatory for survival. “You gotta represent,” Felicia says. “It just goes with the territory.”
Being an A-G is a double-edged sword. At times, Felicia experiences a respect unknown by most women, free from objectification. When she sees the fellas on the corner, she greets them by jutting her chin out. “S’up?” she says. “S’up?” they say back, returning the chin jut and exchanging the neighborhood handshake. When she goes into the chicken shack, she sweeps in like a king, shaking hands with the owner -- “Ali, my man!” -- and pulls wadded-up bills and coins from her cavernous pockets.
But there is the other edge of the sword. Felicia has been jumped and beaten. Men press her for sex. After Sakia Gunn was killed, Felicia had to become more discerning about the overtures. Some have a hint of playfulness, and she can handle those. Others have menace. Felicia says that some men view her as competition for their women and want to remind her of their dominance. She has developed her own radar that tells her who might be trouble.
“They know that under the clothes, we got a shape,” Felicia says. “They think they can change us. They just can’t let it go. They’ll say, ‘Felicia, you too pretty to be gay.’ “
Anita Holt had two rules for her girls as they were growing up: Any daughter who became pregnant or gay could find another place to call home. Felicia waited until the 11th grade to break the news. Her mother was in the bathroom getting ready for work. The moment of truth arrived, and Anita couldn’t make good on her threat. “I don’t care what you are,” she told Felicia, after letting the news settle, “just don’t bring it in my face.” It was the best Felicia could hope for.
Her father’s reaction was harsher. He told Felicia that he didn’t like to see her touching her younger sisters anymore. Last fall, at the beginning of her senior year, he invited Felicia to accompany him to church with his girlfriend. Felicia was careful to wear her best plaid shirt and to double-starch her khakis, but nothing seemed to recapture her father’s affections.
Anita Holt had not dwelled much on the details of Felicia’s life until Sakia Gunn was stabbed. On the day of Sakia’s funeral, Anita, a bus driver for the Newark school system, was behind the wheel of a van patrolling for truants when she noticed all the teenagers walking in the direction of the funeral home. Instead of collaring them, she drove them to the service. So many looked like her Felicia. “I know what my daughter is,” Anita says. “I don’t like it, but that’s my child.”
Her struggles with homosexuality have less to do with religious dogma than the rules of nature. “God put us on this earth for a woman to be with a man and a man to be with a woman,” Anita says. On occasion, her curiosity outweighs her discomfort. “What do two women do?” she asks Felicia, who is too mortified to answer. Anita has some idea because her younger sister, Shakira, is gay. Shakira is 24 and looks like Mary J. Blige, with a platinum wig feathering out from beneath her suede cap. When she wanted a baby, she hooked up with a man to get pregnant, and then it was back to women for love. All of this mystifies Anita.
One autumn Saturday afternoon, Felicia is home cleaning the apartment when there’s a knock on the door. “Aunt Shakira!” Felicia says with delight. In walks Shakira wearing gold hoop earrings and high-heeled boots. She drops into a chair across from Anita. Big sigh. She’s having love troubles. Her girlfriend has stopped paying attention to her and isn’t helping around the house.
These conversations irritate Anita. “Why would you put up with that from a female?” she asks her sister. “You could just be with a man.”
“Because a female gives you something a man can’t,” Shakira says.
“And what is that?” Anita asks. Felicia stops sweeping and listens.
“Friendship,” Shakira says.
“Well, I’m friends with my man,” Anita challenges.
“It’s different,” says Shakira, whose baby is now 3. She folds her arms and sighs again. “Just like with a man, it ain’t that easy to get up and leave.”
If one theme unites the Holt household, it’s the hunt for love. Anita goes out dancing with a gentleman friend but not often enough. Felicia’s 15-year-old sister drags the phone around like an IV pole, calling her boyfriend who is always MIA. It is not lost on the women of the house that Felicia -- the sexual oddity -- has more nibbles than anyone.
And yet Felicia is not really looking for love. She’d rather be out riding with her crew. On this Saturday night, her ride is a city bus and her crew consists of her friend Paige, an 11th-grade A-G whose mom recently probed her sexuality by asking: “Are you really over the gate? You aren’t gonna come back, are you?”
Felicia and Paige dress with great care and ritual, assembling nearly identical outfits and fresh-fitted caps.
“Abbott and Costello,” Anita says, looking at the two creatures.
“Tom and Jerry,” says Felicia’s 15-year-old sister.
Felicia is out the door. “What you wanna do, son?” she asks Paige. They zip up their hoodies against the autumn night, walking by the corner stores where last-minute lottery dreamers buy their tickets. A midget stands on a crate, talking on a pay phone. The sidewalk sparkles with shards from a smashed bottle. A Pentecostal church glowers in the dark stillness. Two children dance together under a yellow porch light.
“I wish I had a video camera right now to get all this,” Paige says. “The street, us walking, just everything about this life.”
Five months after Sakia Gunn’s death, the concrete near the bus shelter where she was stabbed is still scrawled with RIP farewells. The sun pounds down, the rain pounds down, and though thousands of tired feet hoof over the scribblings every day, somehow they stay. Newark’s mayor still has not come through with his pledge to build a center for gay youths. Felicia and some of her friends have formed their own organization, Sakia Gunn Aggressive’z and Femme’z, and they hold bake sales and buy fresh flowers for Sakia’s grave site, but they get no help from the city.
When a group of black gay activists plans a rally, Felicia is asked to sing. It is a gray and raw Saturday in October as police set up barricades to block off the area around the bus shelter where Sakia was killed. Haggard storefronts display wigs and discount fashions. “Rise and Shine With Us” banners hang from light poles, but Foot Locker and Footaction are the only two national retailers on the corner, looming like titans across from each other.
There are already more than 300 people gathered by the time Felicia arrives, carrying her gym bag from basketball practice. She is greeted by her friend Jai Marsh, the president of the Aggressive’z and Femme’z group. Felicia scans the crowd nervously. She has tried to put Sakia’s death behind her, but now she stands in the middle of hundreds of lesbians, young and old, rainbow colors flying, forcing Felicia to confront her emotions. Jai grabs her hand and they squeeze toward the front.
“There is nothing here for us,” says Newark Pride Alliance founder Laquetta Nelson, standing on the plywood stage. “Most gay and lesbian people are living in the closet of fear. We are about to kick that closet wide open.”
The national president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays takes the microphone and announces a $2,500 annual college scholarship in Sakia Gunn’s name. The crowd quiets as a frail woman makes her way to the platform. It is LaTona Gunn, Sakia’s mother. She has appeared publicly several times over the past few months. At an awards banquet in Washington for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, she received a standing ovation for urging parents to support their gay children. Someone asked afterward, “Can I have your e-mail address?” LaTona didn’t even have a phone.
Today at the rally she is drained of energy. She seems less like a spokeswoman and more like a mother whose daughter is gone. As the wind picks up and torn billboards flap in the cold, LaTona sags. She tries to speak but can’t. The crowd coaxes her. One girl buries her face in her hands and then calls out, imploring, “Say it, Mommy.”
LaTona is led from the stage. The rawness of the moment is too much for Felicia, but there is no escape. It’s her turn.
By now the crowd has grown, and Felicia climbs up on the wobbly stage. She takes off her cap and holds it in front of her face to gather her concentration. Without musical accompaniment, she sings “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” The crowd sways to the hymn. When the last note is sung, Felicia bolts from the stage. She pushes through the bodies, hurrying away, with Jai trying to follow.
Jai looks everywhere for Felicia. In the pizzeria, the fish place and among the sidewalk vendors and their cardboard boutiques. Nothing. The last place to check is the video arcade. Jai ducks into the dim and noise-shattering gallery where young men with backward baseball caps take target practice. Simulated gunfire echoes off the walls, and computerized voices shout, “RELOAD, RELOAD.” Jai walks through the battlefield.
Finally, in the corner, in the scrap heap of long-gone video games, she finds Felicia, working the joystick to Ms. Pac-Man, tears rolling down her cheeks.
West Side High, home of the Rough Riders, is the poorest high school in one of Newark’s most high-crime neighborhoods. Students are greeted each morning by metal detectors, hand-held wands and, finally, a search of the backpack. Guards are stationed at every exit. The halls are joyous, but there is no ignoring the vista from the left side of campus: Fairmont Cemetery and its 100 acres of headstones.
After Sakia’s death, the A-Gs started traveling the hallways of West Side with new respectability. In a neighborhood perforated by violence, they had earned a perverse standing. By weathering death, the odd girls were odd no longer. A oneness sweeps them all down the same river. They forget they are straight or gay. They are just Rough Riders.
Felicia manages to transcend the cliques and rivalries with her singing voice, a wood-smoked alto strengthened by years of hymns. A guidance counselor calls her the school canary. Every morning, she shambles up to the front office to sing the West Side High alma mater over the PA system, like Sarah Vaughan in K-Swiss sneakers.
As homecoming approaches, Felicia auditions to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” at the football game and wins the honor. Homecoming day is crisp, all russet and copper. Without a football stadium of their own, the Rough Riders load onto buses for the ride across town to a loaner field, where the marching band runs through its routine before clearing the way for the opposing West Milford Highlanders. As the Highlanders raise their instruments to play in perfect formation, four gold tubas flash in the autumn sun.
From the bleachers, the tuba-less West Side band looks on with a familiar feeling: outgunned by the white suburbs again.
Hassan Vann, West Side’s band director, senses their sinking spirits and claps his hands for attention. “We have a beautiful day out here,” Mr. Vann says, regarding his troops. “The sun is out. The wind is down. So let’s wake the people up! AMEN!”
The Rough Riders knock out an R-rated version of “24’s” and “Get Low” while the crop-topped Hot Ice dancers swivel their hips over the 50-yard line. The Highlanders cheerleaders, dressed in Burberry plaid, watch from the sidelines with stony admiration.
The most dignified moment of homecoming is the a cappella national anthem sung from high in the press box, floating out over the quiet stadium.
No one can see the XXL clothes from the men’s department because there is only the voice, “that gospel Baptist voice she’s used to get through the emotions of her life,” as Mr. Vann says. The voice that makes West Side feel like it has a genuine advantage.
From the bleachers, a student cries out, “Sing it, Fee!”
Felicia tells her friends that they need some church in their life. Their choices would seem without limit. Just beyond the gates of West Side High, there are seven: Full Gospel Monument of Faith Church, Pentecostal Soul Saving Temple, House of Prayer, Deliverance Christian Fellowship Church, Living World Healing Temple, Macedonia Baptist Church and Mount Sinai Church of God in Unity.
But there is only one choice for Felicia and her friends.
After Sakia was slain, most of the pulpits in Newark were silent. There was one that raged. Liberation in Truth Unity Fellowship Church is a full-gospel, sweat-under-the-armpits, rosewater-scented African American church for gay people. Services are held downtown on Sunday afternoons in a 260-year-old stone church borrowed from the Episcopalians. The culture of Newark churches is patriarchal and cuff-linked, but Liberation in Truth is a world apart. The clergy is all lesbian, mixing priestly robes with African kente.
“Good afternoon, family!” one of the ministers calls from the front of the sanctuary. “Let’s stand on our feet. Let’s pray for love right now!”
The tambourines start, and a few hundred congregants raise their hands as the volume reaches higher. Unlike a lot of white gay churches, children are everywhere, the product of earlier liaisons and a shared attitude that no family is complete without kids.
The Rev. Jacquelyn Holland appears, dreadlocked and regal. It was Elder Holland who arranged counseling for Sakia’s friends after her slaying. Now she looks out over the pews, noticing Felicia and a few of the girls.
“No matter how you identify yourself, no matter how you look, no matter what you are wearing, God loves you,” Elder Holland tells the congregation. “Jesus had a moment when he had to go off and pray in the wilderness. God does not intend for us to stay out there. We need to come out, shouting, praising victory. We are living in the wilderness!”
Whispers of “Yes, Lord,” ripple across the rows.
“It’s time to embrace freedom and come out,” Elder Holland beseeches. “Bring all the victory with you. Bring your voice. This is the new wine. God gave you something different. Our blessing is on the way.”
The music begins again, a rising syncopation of keyboards and tambourines. Suddenly the instruments stop, leaving only the voices, working harder and harder to be heard.