When Nightline is good it is very good. Last night it was very good. (Full transcript in extended entry.) In a portrait of a gay 17 year old Oklahoma boy, Michael Shackelford, his family, church and community come to terms with his sexuality. There was no correspondent; the people told their story. And what a story it was.
Shackelford was the subject of Anne Hull's 4 part Washington Post series, Young and Gay in Real America. That made him the target of Fred Phelp's Westboro Baptist Church (found at www.godhatesfags.com). Phelps most recently thanked God for 3,000 dead Americans in the Tsunami, but was probably seen by most Americans in news coverage of Matthew Shepard's murder, where he picketed the funeral. He's been around forever, a staple at Gay rallies and news events nationwide. When Phelps and his crew targeted the Baptist church Shackelford's family attends, Nightline was there.
Shackelford's mother, sister, preacher and classmates were interviewed, as were the Westboro protestors - whose bigotry was so extreme and explicit that it helped most of those who knew Shackelford come to support him. They didn't change their mind about the sin of homosexuality, but hated the sin not the sinner. Progress. The preacher said from his pulpit that God loves everyone. The congregants applauded. Real progress. And in a real life ending that avoided sentimentality it was revealed that Shackelford had dropped out of high school and is now working towards a GED.
These stories are true to the experience of people I know living here now in Middle Georgia. Milledgeville is 30 miles from the nearest Interstate, a town dominated by a state hospital, 6 prisons and a liberal arts college. The college tempers us somewhat, but here and in towns all around here, growing up gay, coming out and finding acceptance is tough. I have a young acquaintance right now struggling with exactly the issues raised in the Nightline piece and Washington Post series. Isolated and facing rejection from his family, he still chose to come out. I've saved the show for him and will direct him to the Post series.