The picture of Nigel Shelby floating around the internet should be haunting to anyone that’s viewed it. In it, you see Nigel donning a gray hoodie with a rainbow-themed center, emanating confidence, humor, and more than anything, light. These are all the attributes we should hope to see from young people — notably a 15-year-old Black boy living in this country. I now wonder how long did it take for his homophobic bullies to break him. For Nigel, merely a ninth grader, to end up so dispirited, so heartbroken, and so lonely in his life that he decided to abruptly end it last week.
I’ve been writing for more than a decade and have consistently written about Black death. Most will react to that statement by immediately thinking about the numerous deaths Black women, men, and children have suffered at the hands of the state. That is undoubtedly the case, but as someone who happens to be both Black and gay, I, too, have had to write about many young queer Black boys like Nigel — and with a noticeable frequency on the latter.
These are the boys who also come to learn that as Black boys and gay boys, they will be targeted by both racists and homophobes. Some of these boys end up deciding that’s too many battles for their hearts to endure so they never get to become men. These boys largely make this choice because not enough hope was instilled in them to believe otherwise.
According to the Center for Social Equity, 74 percent of LGBTQ youth report not feeling safe in the schools they attend. It’s not hard to understand why. Anti-LGBTQ violence has risen significantly since the start of the Trump administration. And in the 20 years since the death of Matthew Shepard, there remain 15 states in the U.S. that fail to address sexual orientation or gender identity in their hate crime laws. An additional five states have no hate crime laws at all.
Nigel’s home state of Alabama is among them, offering no state-level protections for students like him in spite of studies showing that compared to other students, people in the LGBTQ community are more likely to experience violence in school.
In light of Nigel’s suicide, some are calling for much-needed change.
“These bullies have to be held accountable and until our state legislation shows that they have to do that, they are able to run amuck and do what they want,” drag queen Caila Malone told WZDX News at the recurring Rocket City Pride Drag Brunch, which dedicated its most recent event to Nigel and raised $800 for his family.
I agree with Malon about there needing to be a greater push for legal protections for the LGBTQ community and greater consequences for bigotry and its greatest perpetrators. However, I do wonder on a day to day level what many of us are doing to make the lives of LGBTQ people easier — especially our most vulnerable, these kids like Nigel Shelby who should not be subjected to cruelty.
In a statement to parents and guardians posted on Facebook last Saturday, Huntsville High Principal Aaron King in a Saturday post wrote: “Parents, please talk to your students about Nigel’s death. Know and be aware of changes in your child. Talk to them about what they see, words they speak and actions they can take to make a difference. We must be better.”
Do you teach your children to be kind? And if so, does that extend to all types of people or merely those who fit your rigid view of the world? Do you know to treat queer and trans people with dignity, so by extension, your children will know how to treat their queer and trans classmates?
I’ve seen plenty of retweets, shared posts, and dedications on Instagram, but I am curious if enough of us call out the casual prejudices that remain so pervasive in our communities?
Recently, quite a few folks undeserving of internet access took umbrage with Dwyane Wade and Gabrielle Union’s support of their 11-year-old Zion Wade at the 11th annual Miami Beach Pride.
Do you know why it mattered so much that they did that? Because they wanted Zion to not be broken the way so many other Black boys have been. They want to prevent him and others from ending up like Nigel Shelby.
“Suicide in Black youth is on the rise and has reportedly reached twice that of White youth,” Nadia M. Richardson of the organization No More Martyrs wrote in a separate tribute to Nigel on Facebook. “Unfortunately, for evidence of this, you don’t have to look much further than the state of Alabama. I graduated from Huntsville High. I am still processing this loss. We have so much to understand and so much work to do. Racism, sexism, homophobia, classism; all of that plays a part. Bullying is a by-product of a world ill-equipped to include that which is deemed different.”
If you have a child that you even suspect is different, I hope you are affirming them. I hope are you instilling in them the notion that different does not mean deficient. And if you are not raising a child you suspect is different, you ought to teach them that lesson all the same. Kindness should be contagious, not a conundrum in the context of treating someone that is LGBTQ humanly.
There are unique challenges to Black LGBTQ folks – certainly Black queer boys – and there is a part we can play in rectifying that.
I am so sad for Nigel and what he was subjected to, but more than anything, I am mainly sorry that while I know he was greater than the ignorance that tormented him, I understand why he felt it too unbearable. He deserves to still be here, and while that may no longer be possible, I hope more do their part to make sure others facing similar problems get the support they need to stick around. It should be a common goal among all Black folks, regardless of how we identify in terms of our sexuality and gender.