How we failed Nigel Shelby and allowed the abuse he endured
In my mind, death was better than loneliness.
This essay contains discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation.
by Maximillian Matthews
There was Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, bell hooks, RuPaul, James Earl Hardy, E. Lynn Harris, Essex Hemphill, Bayard Rustin, and of course, James Baldwin. I did not know about any of them when I needed them most. I could not find In The Life, This Bridge Called My Back, Black Feminist Thought, or Paris Is Burning in my school’s library. Authority figures who did not even know me were choosing the materials I had access to. Although I attended the Blackest high school, Hillside High, in my liberal hometown of Durham, NC, I still did not see the examples of queerness I needed as a teenager.
My friends and I joke about having gaydar, an innate awareness of when another queer person is in our presence. Those brief moments when you make eye contact with “fam” as we like to call them or the instances when you observe the way somebody walks is what usually makes our gaydar ring the alarm. I longed to hear that alarm when I walked the hallways of Hillside. I longed to read about someone who was attracted to men like I was. I longed to see someone who rejected the labels assigned to them as I struggled to do. There was a time when all I wanted was a confirmation I was not alone in my queerness.
Despite the few examples that existed as I grew up in the 90s, the isolation I felt led me to consider suicide. In my mind, death was better than loneliness. Tragically, I was already battling a system that determined conservatism was better than queerness, normalcy better than diversity, conformity better than nonconformity, and whiteness better than Blackness. This was the system that decided what I did and did not see, what received approval and what did not, and whose life had value and whose did not. It was a system constructed to intentionally exclude, oppress, marginalize, and eradicate people like me and Nigel Shelby.
After enduring antagonism and bullying from his peers, Nigel Shelby of Huntsville, Alabama died by suicide at the age of 15. Nigel was a freshman at Huntsville High School. As the news spread, I saw tributes and condolences on my social media timelines. On April 20th, GLSEN Greater Huntsville wrote “Nigel, we will always remember you. You’re gone too soon and tonight our hearts are heavy,” on their Facebook page. Writer George M. Johnson tweeted, “Queer kids are dying while we wait on folk to grow out of homophobia…Homophobia has Black children committing suicide….It costs you NOTHING to love a queer child.”
Black children dying by suicide is nothing new. Considering the depth, magnitude, and predominance of anti-Blackness, there will be Black children who choose suicide. The intent of anti-Blackness is to inflict harm on Black lives and keep Blackness subjugated. The same applies to homophobia and its impact on gay lives. As we see with Nigel and other Black children before him, bullying is an effective way to perform the work of anti-Blackness and homophobia. To endure both can simply be far too burdensome for a child. Even in this age where Pride celebrations have become mainstreamed and Black queer folks are visible across genres, it is still not enough to eliminate the realities of intersectional oppression.
In the 2019 Human Resources Campaign Black and African American LGBTQ Youth Report, the following data was reported:
- 80% of Black LGBTQ youth “usually” feel depressed or down.
- 71% “usually” feel worthless or hopeless.
- 40% have been bullied on school property within the last 12 months.
- 67% have been verbally insulted because of their LGBTQ identity.
- 30% have been physically threatened because of their LGBTQ identity.
- 35% received counseling in the past year.
- 35% can “definitely” be themselves in school.
Nigel was particularly vulnerable to these realities in Alabama. Advocates For Youth reports LGBTQ youth in Alabama are marginalized and at risk for negative health outcomes. “The National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 11 percent to 30 percent of gay and lesbian students and 12 percent to 25 percent of bisexual students surveyed did not go to school at least one day during the prior month because of safety concerns. These concerns put LGBTQ youth [in Alabama] at greater risk for depression, substance use, and sexual behaviors that place them at risk for HIV and STIs (Advocates For Youth, 2016).” Under Alabama law, schools that offer sex education must emphasize homosexuality “is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public” and that “homosexual conduct is a criminal offense under the laws of the state (Ala. Code §§ 16-40A-2(a)(8).” To further illustrate the climate Alabama Black LGBTQ youth live in, an Alabama police officer was placed on leave this week after making anti-LGBTQ comments on a Facebook post about Nigel’s death.
We know that Nigel was “the sweetest child,” “outgoing,” “always full of joy, full of light,” and suffered from bouts of depression, according to his mother. We also know he was open about his sexuality. This placed him at greater risk for experiencing harassment and abuse. Although there is a popular rhetoric in society that maintains “It gets better” for LGBTQ youth, this could not be farther from the truth for some, particularly for Black LGBTQ youth. When we say “It gets better,” we ignore how impactful the present can be. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services states that children who are bullied are more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and decreased academic achievement. By underestimating the effects these things can have on a child’s mental health and not addressing this country’s bullying crisis with urgency, we fail the children who need us the most, as Nigel did.
I told my mother about my suicidal ideations when I was a high school freshman. She heeded the alerts I displayed, removed me from the honors level courses I was taking, and connected me with my high school’s band director who placed me in the marching band. He mentored me and took an interest in my life that inspired me to keep going. Gioncarlo Valentine writes, “We need to pay attention to the signs and the intricacies of what the children in our lives are going through, prioritizing it in a way that is nothing short of intentional.” The intention and swiftness with which my mother responded to my cries is rare; it is how we all must approach the needs of Black LGBTQ youth. I cannot help but wonder if Nigel cried out as I did.
Did he write about his struggles in an English assignment? Did he looked distressed or on the verge of his tears as he tried to concentrate in class? Did his teachers mark him tardy because he had to take the long way to class to avoid his bullies? Did he eat his lunch in the bathroom so he wouldn’t have to go in the cafeteria and be seen? Did he have any safe spaces at his school? Besides his mother who was clearly invested in his life, did the other adults in his life simply ask Nigel how he was doing or if he needed anything? We have the opportunity to do those things now.
Although it won’t bring Nigel, Giovanni, Blake, Ashawnty, Gabriel, Carl, and the other Black children who have died due to suicide, you can observe the Black LGBTQ children in your life more closely. You can learn more about the mental health resources available to them in your local community. You can create them if you feel there aren’t enough. You can empower and educate Black LGBTQ children. You can advocate for bullying prevention programs, laws, policies, regulations, and protections for LGBTQ youth. You can volunteer and partner with local LGBTQ organizations. You can hold your local elected officials and school districts accountable for the decisions they make. You can organize for Black LGBTQ youth. The most effective of them all, you can speak to Black LGBTQ youth directly.
In times like these, we can easily get discouraged and wonder if the work is in vain. For the sake of the Black LGBTQ youth still with us, resist.
Advocates For Youth. (2016). Young People in Alabama. Retrieved from https://www.advocatesforyouth.org/wp-content/uploads/storage//advfy/documents/Young-People-in-Alabama.pdf.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance – United States, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/67/ss/pdfs/ss6708a1-h.pdf.
Maximillian Matthews (non-specific gender pronouns) is a Black queer writer based out of Durham, NC. Maximillian’s work has been featured on Black Youth Project, Blavity, Afropunk, The Body Is Not An Apology and RaceBaitr. Maximillian has worked in higher education administration for ten years and is currently working on a collection of essays. Twitter: @maximillijamaal