11/14/2004

Coming Out for One of Their Own

(washingtonpost.com): Coming Out for One of Their Own
An Oklahoma Teen Finds Love Where He Least Expected It


SAND SPRINGS, Okla. -- The fliers arrived three weeks ago. Some came over the fax machines of local churches, and others appeared mysteriously around town. Printed in bold was the heading 'Westboro Baptist Church.' No seeming cause for alarm. Sand Springs, population 18,500, is a Christian stronghold in the gently rolling hills of eastern Oklahoma.

But the message that followed was a rant against a 17-year-old Sand Springs resident named Michael Shackelford and his mother, Janice, the subjects of a recent Washington Post series examining Michael's struggles as a young gay man in the Bible Belt. The fliers posted a photo of Michael, called him a 'doomed teenage fag' and announced that followers of Westboro Baptist in Topeka were on their way from Kansas to stage antigay protests in Sand Springs.

When Phelps announced that his group was coming to picket at several churches and the high school, fresh battle lines were drawn. To many here, homosexuality was a sin, but Michael Shackelford was their sinner. Just as the November election was reducing moral issues to red or blue, Sand Springs confronted subtler shades of truth. Janice Shackelford was terrified by the persecution of her son, then surprised by what happened next.

"This Westboro outfit thought they could come to this town and break it apart," Janice said. "But it has brought the town together. It has opened some doors to talk."

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