Michael Shackelford slides under his 1988 Chevy Cheyenne. Ratchet in hand, he peers into the truck’s dark cavern, tapping his boot to Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings” drifting from the garage.
Flat on his back, staring into the cylinders and bearings, Michael fixes his truck like he wishes he could fix himself.
“I wake up and I try so hard to look at a girl,” he says. “I tell myself I’m gonna be different. It doesn’t work.”
Michael is 17 and gay, though his mother still cries and asks, “Are you sure?” He’s pretty sure. It’s just that he doesn’t exactly know how to be gay in rural Oklahoma. He bought some Cher CDs. He tried a body spray from Wal-Mart called Bod. He drove 22 miles to the Barnes & Noble in Tulsa, where the gay books are discreetly kept in the back of the store on a shelf labeled “Sociology.”
While the rest of the country is debating same-sex marriage, Michael’s America is still dealing with the basics. There are no rainbow flags here. No openly gay teacher at the high school. There is just the wind knifing down the plains, and people praying over their lunches in the yellow booths at Subway. Michael loves this place, but can it still be home? What if the preachers and the country music songs are right?
“Being gay, you’ll never have that true love like a man and a woman,” Michael says, standing against his truck as Merle Haggard mixes with the backyard whippoorwills. “Hearing all the songs about a man coming home from work to his wife’s loving arms, you never hear of gay couples like that.”
He sets his ratchet down. “Do you?”
The gay revolution hit the buckle of the Bible Belt with a clang. The sweeping changes of 2003 — the U.S. Supreme Court decriminalizing homosexual acts between consenting adults and the Massachusetts high court legalizing same-sex marriage in that state — pushed gays more toward the mainstream than ever. If the revolution was coming, Oklahoma aimed to stop it. In the first weeks of Oklahoma’s 2004 legislative session, 10 anti-gay bills were introduced, including one to ban gay marriage and another to prohibit the recognition of out-of-state adoptions by same-sex couples.
The damnation mixed with the bluest skies, so beautiful and round. The greater Tulsa phone book has 13 pages of church listings; there are 133 churches alone that begin with the word “First.” One Tulsa church that bills itself as a “hardcore, in-your-face ministry” constructs an elaborate haunted house each Halloween where live actors depict various sins. Last year’s spook house featured a gay male pedophile.
Tulsa has world-class opera and Starbucks, and a religious conservatism that rules public life. It wasn’t until 1993 that a social agency, Youth Services of Tulsa, noted a higher suicide rate for gay youths and quietly began providing counseling to gay teenagers. To this day, the United Way-funded agency does not publicize the location and times of its meetings. When one of its social workers drove out to a rural middle school to talk with an eighth-grader who had told a teacher she was gay, the teacher locked the social worker’s pamphlets in a cabinet before leading her to the girl, who waited in a darkened classroom. “Lady, I already know I’m going to marry a woman,” the student told the social worker. “Just tell me, am I going to hell over this?”
For Michael Shackelford, blond and earnest, the question of salvation is a serious one. But his concerns about eternal life are eclipsed by the here and now of being a gay teenager in the rural town of Sand Springs, west of Tulsa. There are only a handful of openly gay students at Charles Page High, and they are subject to ridicule and vandalism. This year, they also became a convenient outlet for the fury against gay marriage, which is why Michael wanted to keep his sexuality a secret.
With the Shackelford family’s permission, The Washington Post 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 events and direct quotes in this story were witnessed by this reporter.
In Sand Springs, population 19,000, the local paper dutifully reports when meth labs blow up or restraining orders are violated, but the good news always outweighs the bad. A member of the search committee heading up the hiring of a new football coach at the high school tells the Sand Springs Leader, “We want someone that attends church here, goes to Rotary and becomes a community leader.” At Atwoods general merchandise store, the hay bales are kept outside overnight. In the sleepy downtown, the tallest points of interest are flagpoles and church steeples.
And yet it’s here in this green and rolling landscape that Michael had his first clue that he was different. In the life of every gay person, there is a moment of reckoning — a glance, a touch, a hard-to-name feeling — that suddenly crystallizes and fills the soul with exhilaration. There is also dread; this will be a lonely path away from society’s celebrated rituals of love.
For Michael, the awareness began in the fourth grade while he was watching “The Blue Lagoon,” a movie about a pair of love-struck teenagers shipwrecked on a beautiful island. Seeing the young male character, tan and smooth, Michael felt a wave of warmth move through him.
Growing up, he did all the normal Oklahoma things. He talked with a rubber-band twang, he loved the smell of the Tulsa Speedway, and he ordered Dr Pepper at Sonic by hanging out the window of his truck. Still, the Blue Lagoon boy kept visiting him.
It was as though Michael was being culled from the herd. Inside him were contradictory feelings of terror and curiosity.
Last year, when Michael was 16, he had his first sexual experience. Everything flowed and the pieces fit — the boy’s skin, his bony chest, even saying his name sounded right. They fooled around the way other teenagers fool around: when parents were at work. The romance ended abruptly. Michael was devastated. He started writing poetry in a notebook.
I think of you all day,
I think of you all night
I can’t wait to hold you tight
I think of you all morning,
I think of you all afternoon
If I could, I would rope you the moon.
Other crushes and romances followed, each searing and short-lived but adding to the growing evidence that Michael might be gay.
Now a year later, Michael has short, blond hair, a square jaw, the roseate remnants of acne and the sandpapery beginnings of a beard. He is uncharacteristically sincere for his age, telling customers at the pet store where he works after school, “You have a real nice day.” A 17-year-old sophomore, he is more at ease around trucks than textbooks. As a little boy, he’d put foil on the bumpers of his toy cars and simulate stock-car crashes. A Dale Earnhardt Jr. poster hangs in the bedroom he shares with an eight-foot Burmese python. He leaves his dirty clothes on the floor but doesn’t drink or smoke, two facts he reminds his mother of when she starts to pray or weep over him.
He would rather watch the Blue Collar Comedy Tour than visit Internet chat rooms to look for hookups. “That kind of dirty talking, I don’t want sex,” Michael says. “I want a decent relationship.”
Still, he is 17, full of impulses. One day in PE class, a good-looking preppy guy on the bleachers strips off his T-shirt in the hot gymnasium. Before Michael can catch himself, his eyes drift. Stop looking at me, the other boy tells Michael in a voice loud enough to humiliate. This is the turning point at school. His secret is out.
“He was wanting to kick my ass,” Michael later recalls. “I told my dad about it. He said, ‘I’d kick your ass, too, if you were looking at me.’ “ Officially, ass-kicking is not allowed on school grounds since Oklahoma adopted anti-bullying laws. But Michael’s life at Charles Page High turns miserable. He is called a faggot in the hallways. For his own safety, he starts avoiding places where he could be trapped.
While the rest of the country is laughing over “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” Michael stops using the restroom during the seven-hour school day.
It was a Sunday morning that Janice Shackelford will never forget. Michael had a friend staying over. Church was starting in an hour, so Janice knocked on her son’s bedroom door. “Time to wake up, guys,” Janice remembers calling. She tried the door, but it was locked. Next to the door were some blinds hanging over a glass panel. Janice peeked through and saw Michael and his friend on the floor, kissing.
She ran across the house to her bathroom. She thought she was going to vomit. She wanted to scream but could only sob, so uncontrollably that when she called Michael’s father, he thought Michael had been killed in a car wreck. Somehow Janice still went to church that morning, where she broke down and told a friend that she’d discovered her son lying with another male.
For the next month, Janice barely slept. At work, she’d be shuffling papers at her desk and become choked with emotion. The vision of Michael on the floor haunted her. As the shock eased, she launched into action. She walked around Michael’s room reading passages from the Bible, forcing Michael to listen. She researched Exodus International, the Christian organization that says it can “cure” homosexuals.
Janice wasn’t prepared for what she would experience in the psychiatric world. She called her insurance company and requested the name of a Christian counselor. To her amazement, the Christian counselor didn’t tell Michael that homosexuality was wrong. Janice found a second counselor. This one said that he couldn’t be “pro or con” when it came to homosexuality. She felt as though the mental health industry was against her until someone gave her the book “Homosexuality and the Politics of Truth,” which asserts that gay activists successfully pressured the American Psychiatric Association in 1973 to remove homosexuality as a mental illness from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
Suddenly, Janice realized why she’d hit so many roadblocks. “The gay movement had gone into the politics and changed everything,” she says. “Now it’s not even a disease or sickness.”
No one seemed to understand that Michael’s eternal life was at stake. Janice feared that Michael would go to hell and be apart from her in the afterlife. “I’m afraid I won’t see him again,” she says, her voice breaking.
Janice is 45, blond and fine-boned, with the same pale blue eyes as her son. To make ends meet, she works full time as a scheduler for an oil field company and part time as a night waitress at a barbecue restaurant. Clocking 65 hours a week doesn’t stop her from attending Sunday church and then taking Michael to El Maguey’s for cheese enchiladas after. Gently, lovingly, Janice works on her son every chance she can. Her belief is that homosexuality is a “generational curse” that can be broken.
Driving around Sand Springs or daydreaming, Janice rakes over the past, trying to find the holes in her parenting. She divorced Michael’s dad when Michael was 2. James Dobson on his radio show says all boys need male love. Maybe Michael didn’t get enough.
“I tried to get him into the Big Brother program, but there was a two-year wait,” Janice says, still fretting. “I didn’t push it.”
She gets no help from Michael’s father, who lives in the next county. Bob Shackelford — Mr. NASCAR if ever there was one — owns a mail-sorting machine business and lives with his new wife on 30 acres. He drives a truck, loves cold beer, votes Republican and believes that people are born gay. Bob Shackelford comes from a family of seven brothers, three of whom were gay. He tells Michael that his sexuality is his own damn business.
Janice taught her kids to love their uncles. But her breezy tolerance crumbled the moment she learned about Michael. “It’s different when it’s your child,” she says. “I could kick myself for not portraying to them that it’s wrong.”
Now her strategy is patience. Janice visits the Web site of Dennis Jernigan, the Christian recording artist who once was gay but now has a wife and kids. Reading the testimonial, Janice is convinced that a person can be delivered from this “lifestyle,” as she calls it, or from “being this way.” She rarely uses the word “gay.”
One Sunday after church, Janice and Michael go to El Maguey’s as usual. Unavoidably, the subject turns to Michael’s sexuality. On the drive home, he makes a case that being gay is genetic. Janice’s tone is soft. “If you were born a bank robber, would that be okay, too?” she asks.
They live in a ranch house they rent near Keystone Lake and the Cherokee Nation line. Michael changes into clothes to work on his truck. His mom sets her keys and Bible on the kitchen counter.
“One thing I want to point out is that people think gays are just interested in sex,” Michael says. “I could live without sex.”
“So, what’s the difference?” Janice asks.
“Why can’t you love a girl?”
Michael thinks of how to put it. “I want what girls want,” he says. “A guy.”
“Maybe you need guy friends.”
Michael looks at his mom. “It’s confusing.”
“Ever since you were a kid, girls were calling, the phone was ringing off the hook,” Janice says. “You had a serious girlfriend.”
Michael taps his boot. They have been over this a hundred times. “I didn’t even like her,” he says. “It was just a thing to make myself look more normal. I didn’t want to be gay.”
Michael tried sending his mom a clue about his sexuality early on. He took her to a Cher concert in Tulsa, but she failed to make the connection.
“Apparently a lot of people don’t know she has a gay following,” Janice says, defensively. “The guys at work said how neat it was that I was going.”
She pauses, thinking back. “I have to say, it was a fantastic concert.”
Any hope Michael has for keeping a low profile at school is gone midway through his 10th grade. First the staring incident in the gym, then he writes a poem to a guy who turns out to be straight. “I coulda sworn he was gay,” Michael says.
“I cannot believe you did that,” says his friend Brent Wimmer, a senior. “Michael, you’ve got to be smarter, bud.”
Brent Wimmer has a shelf of ribbons for raising purebred show chickens and knows his way around a hog auction. He is 6-foot-2 and also the most unabashedly gay student at Charles Page High. Michael is in awe of Brent’s outspokenness, but it frightens him, too. Brent has paid a price for being so open. He’s been called to the front of his church to have demons cast out of him. Someone sent a mailbox crashing through his living room window. His car gets egged and scraped with keys in the student parking lot. Nothing seems to stop him.
Even with all the anti-gay rhetoric swirling in Oklahoma, and at a school that prohibited same-sex couples from attending the prom, Brent decides it’s time to start a Gay-Straight Alliance group at Charles Page High.
Michael dreads the prospect. “I’m not one to be flauntin’ myself,” he says.
Brent gets help from a gay businessman from Tulsa, who phones the school to set up a meeting. The effort goes nowhere at first.
Gay activists in this part of Oklahoma don’t hold many aces up their sleeve, but this time they had one. Sam Harris, a Broadway performer and 1979 graduate of Charles Page, was scheduled to fly into Sand Springs over Christmas to perform two benefit concerts for the cash-strapped school district. The performer is openly gay. When he heard that his alma mater was a less-than-pleasant place for gay students, he asked to meet with the superintendent before the concerts.
A meeting was held. Sam Harris performed his shows. “Magical” is the word Superintendent Lloyd Snow later used to describe the concerts that raised $50,000. And Charles Page High had itself a new Gay-Straight Alliance.
After the Christmas break, Brent puts up posters around school announcing the first meeting. “Come to the meeting, be straight but not narrow,” one sign reads. Some of the posters are ripped down or defaced, including one with the word “fagget,” to which Brent adds: “Love prevails over ignorance. Learn how to spell. Thank you.”
On the day of the first meeting, a few students wear T-shirts to school saying “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” But the meeting goes off without a hitch. Twenty-two students attend — about a third are straight, the rest are gay.
Michael is not there. He tells Brent he doesn’t want to risk more ridicule.
“If everyone else around here can deal with it, so can you,” Brent says.
For Michael, the pressure keeps building. In current-events class, some of the football players say how sick gay marriage is. Michael says nothing. He hates coming to school and tells his mom he wants to drop out.
Janice is torn. She thinks about the Matthew Shepard video she rented from Blockbuster. “If there was a group of kids mean enough, this could happen to Michael,” she says. “We are still living in the middle of the Bible Belt.”
One afternoon in late January, as a bitter wind pushes off the lake, Michael bundles up and goes out to his truck. Using masking tape and orange paint, he decorates the hood with menacing flames. When he proudly rumbles into the school parking lot, he later recalls, someone calls him a flaming faggot. Screw it, he thinks. Rubber burning, he peels out of the parking lot, making his formal exit as a student at Charles Page High.
Michael enrolls in a GED prep course at Tulsa Community College. He goes full time at the pet store where he’s worked since he was 14. The pet store is old and small, with a bell that jangles when the front door opens. The shelves are stocked with products called Reptile Ranch, Wabbitat, Tick Arrest, Tasty Paste, Small World Thermalight and Fantastic Ferret Ball. Michael feeds and waters, cleans out cages and waits on customers. He can relax here. The parakeets don’t care if he’s gay.
One Friday morning in February, Michael goes to the break room and picks out music for his CD player. “Ever notice how Cher has a song for every emotion?” he says. Cher’s “We All Sleep Alone” wafts across the rows of cages. Even the Madagascar plated lizard, recently reduced from $29.95 to $19.95, sleeps on his bed of cedar shavings, alone.
Something is different about Michael. His blond hair is now styled in glossy little spikes that look like shocks of frozen wheat. He bought a pair of delicate tinted sunglasses more common on J. Lo than residents of Sand Springs. He tells his mother that he needs some new outfits. She corrects him. “I wear outfits,” she says. “You wear clothes.”
Michael is cutting up cantaloupe for the iguanas when his cell phone vibrates. It’s Victor, an 18-year-old he met at a teen club in Tulsa. Victor just moved from California. He is dark, gelled and hip. Michael worries that he’s not sophisticated enough. “Sometimes I yawn-burp and he says it’s gross,” Michael says.
Victor’s text message suggests they meet at the mall later, with one bit of instruction: If you are gonna come, dress nice.
“We’re completely different,” Michael says, dropping a breakfast mouse into a snake’s cage. “I’m a white-trash redneck and he’s from L.A.”
That Friday night, Michael stops for gas at QuikTrip, stamping his boots in the cold. He picks up his 16-year-old female cousin and then a friend of hers, an effervescent fundamentalist with long, brown hair who neglects to tell her parents that she’s hanging out with someone who is gay. “My pastor says we shouldn’t align ourselves with them but it’s okay to be friends with them,” she says.
With Michael at the wheel, the three teenagers take the interstate into Tulsa, the glow of the skyline getting closer. Michael’s cousin reports that she sold her 240-pound white Chester hog for $100. Her friend reports that at her church youth group meeting she wanted to raise the moral dilemma that a girl on the praise team was having sex with her boyfriend.
They arrive at Promenade Mall, and surprise, surprise, there is Victor. He and Michael hug, barely and awkwardly. They end up at TGI Friday’s. It’s 10 o’clock when the waitress clears the plates. Michael yawns.
“What are you doing after this?” Victor asks.
Michael shrugs. “Going home — it’s Oklahoma.”
A look of blankness crosses Victor’s face. “I want to go back to California.”
Out past the Broken Arrow Expressway, Grace Fellowship church rises majestically off 80 acres of pastureland. The church has 3,500 members and is one of the largest in Tulsa, but it is known across the Midwest for a ministry called Restoration by Grace that helps people who want to stop practicing homosexual behavior.
Restoration by Grace is one of the first places that Janice Shackelford called after she learned Michael was gay. She was told that Michael had to be ready and willing to change. He wasn’t.
Others are, and they drive from as far away as Arkansas and Missouri to get here. Chuck McConkey has run the ministry since 1995. He is the antithesis of the fire-breathing evangelical. Hands folded on his desk, he sits quietly in his book-lined office and shares the story of a young man who recently came to him in tears. “He asked me: ‘Will I stop having these thoughts when I see a guy with his shirt off? I want to believe you so bad.’ “
McConkey says he can answer that question with confidence because he was once gay. He spent “15-plus years in the homosexual lifestyle.” Now 54, he has a wife and two adopted sons. Impulses that used to trigger him are gone. “No buzzing, no burning, no stimulation,” he says. “I’m telling you, it can go away.”
Though he is not a licensed counselor, McConkey’s philosophy is similar to the approach known as “reparative therapy,” which contends that homosexual behavior is learned or chosen. McConkey says homosexuality is a compensation for a bad relationship with a parent or the result of childhood trauma. “Make the gay person have a stronger relationship with God — rediscover God as parent and God as able to heal childhood wounds — and the need to be in a relationship that pleases God will happen naturally,” he says.
But these are tough times for McConkey’s mission. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws, decriminalizing homosexuality for consenting adults, and then the Massachusetts courts legalized same-sex marriage in that state. Just as insidious, McConkey says, are the shifts in American culture that portray gay life as domestic — wedding bands, two-car garages, dad and dad vacationing with the kids.
McConkey’s job is to dispel young people of such notions.
“The next sweetie that comes along and you are yesterday’s news,” he says. “It’s all about vanity and bodies.”
On a freezing Valentine’s Day night, the parking lot of an old strip mall in Tulsa is packed with cars. As at Restoration by Grace, some of the license plates are from as far away as Arkansas and Missouri. The sign on the building says OpenArms Youth Project, giving no clue that behind the door is a dance club for gay teenagers.
Michael Shackelford has persuaded his mother to let him go. When she asks what goes on at OYP, Michael tells her just a bunch of people dancing. She imagines men with their arms around each other. Michael decides on a black velvet shirt with snap buttons. Winter stars light the drive into Tulsa. When Michael turns into the OYP parking lot, there is not a single space left. “Good golly!” he cries.
How to describe what waits inside? Janice Shackelford’s suspicions are right. Young men are dancing with other young men. There is also a snack bar that sells Pixie Stix, Mountain Dew and Red Bull. The deejay and sound system are worthy of any big-city club; the female impersonators in their hand-sewn ensembles are definitely by way of Oklahoma.
Standing by the pool table is an all-state swimmer who has driven 50 miles from his small home town. Nearby is a 17-year-old church organist who will attend Oral Roberts University next year. There is a blond high school senior with a delicate gold cross on her neck; she was recently banned from her church’s candle-lighting service because she’s a lesbian.
There is Victor, holding six red roses for Michael.
Victor takes Michael’s hand and leads him to the crowded dance floor. Victor is a natural, but Michael is hopeless. There’s hardly room to move. The energy on the dance floor builds. The song has a repeating phrase — “This joy, this joy, this joy” — and its repetition works like a trance on the dancers. Victor has his hands on Michael’s neck. The silver disco ball scatters light over their faces. Michael smiles at Victor and looks around. Heads are tilted back, arms in the air, blue jeans moving in rhythmic currents until the fever breaks and half the dance floor shouts the chorus.
This joy, this joy, this joy.
The next morning, Michael and his mom find their seats in the back of Cornerstone Church. Nearly a thousand worshipers are here, most of whom call themselves nondenominational Christian or “Bapti-costal.” Services are in an industrial building with exposed beams and three stained-glass windows. The altar is a platform stage large enough to hold an eight-piece band. When the pastor asks the congregants to bow their heads, some of the men come out of their chairs and drop to their knees. Michael shuts his eyes.
Today’s message is from Jeremiah 1:4-5. The scripture flashes on the overhead screen.
Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.
The pastor makes the words his own and repeats the message. “Before you were in the womb, I knew you,” he says, his voice rising. “God knew you!”
Michael elbows his mother.
God knew he was gay before Michael knew he was gay.
Janice smiles at him but shakes her head.
The pastor asks the congregation a question. Who’s not afraid to die? Michael’s hand goes up.
“I ain’t afraid,” he says to his mother. “I’ll see everyone else. I’m not going to some separate place.”