And How Are the Children?: Protecting Our Black Queer Youth at All Costs
Our community is still reeling from the loss of high school freshman Nigel Shelby of Huntsville, Alabama, who died by suicide in April 2019 after enduring constant, targeted abuse from bullies because he was gay. After his death, his mother Camika Shelby learned that he had spoken with school administrators about his struggles with his orientation, mental health, and with bullying, and that he was told, among other things, that his homosexuality was a choice. It seems no one in charge took action, and now a life is lost.
New information suggests that the school may have not only failed to protect him, but may have also recklessly endangered his life by telling him “being gay is a choice.” Camika is now calling for an investigation to find out more about who or what may have contributed to the deterioration of her son’s mental health. Unfortunately, these tragedies are becoming more and more commonplace and we as a community must come together to fight homophobia and transphobia if we are ever going to attain liberation.
I was almost Nigel Shelby. At 8 years old, I had already planned my suicide. I decided that the next time my bullies approached me, I would scan the oncoming traffic for the largest truck I could find and jump directly into its path, in front of everyone. I often dreaded that long walk home because it prolonged my exposure to the throngs of childhood tormentors who eagerly took advantage of their unsupervised time with me.
On my best days, I could outrun them. On good days, the abuse was only verbal: “sissy”, “faggot,” and the like. On bad days, I’d be frantically washing grass and bloodstains from my clothes before my parents came home. Elementary school was hell, middle school was hell, high school was hell, and I barely made it out alive. The world had big boy plans for me since the day I was born, and I still struggle with blaming myself for “failing” to overcome these obstacles and conquerto them.
Nevertheless, what remains truest of all is that I was a Queer Black child in the South, and I needed help. I needed guidance. I needed protection. Yet, the adults in my life largely failed me.
My first out-of-school suspension was in the 9th grade when a teacher walked in on me using the girls' restroom. By then, I had organized a system: a cisgender female friend would go in ahead of me to ensure the space was unoccupied, then she would try to keep watch while I was in there before finally signaling when the coast was clear for me to exit. This time, though, a teacher came in and forced her to go to class before she could warn me, and I was busted. Even after explaining that I was being harassed and physically attacked in the boys' restroom, I was suspended for three days for using the girls’ restroom — penalizing the victim, once again.
This was the final straw for me. I was never going to live up to the masculine standards enforced by my parents and the rest of society. I used to take solace in my academic prowess because even if I didn’t meet my parents gendered expectations, I could make them proud academically.
But, after years of teachers looking the other way, guidance counselors advising me to “man up” in my behavior in order to fit in, having to feign illness so that I could avoid bullies by leaving school early, and being disciplined when I defended myself, something in me died, and I finally collapsed, My grades suffered, as did I.
These same adults who refused to help me are also our lawmakers and politicians, putting policies in place that continue to harm Queer children. According to the Educational Exclusion Report published by GLSEN in 2016, it was found that “...the use of harsh and exclusionary discipline policies has contributed to higher dropout rates as well as reliance on alternative educational settings where educational supports and opportunities may be less available, including alternative schools or juvenile justice facilities. These forms of discipline may be applied disproportionately to LGBTQ youth and deprive them of educational opportunities.” The report also indicated that “LGBTQ students may be more likely to drop out of school due to hostile school climates they may face, in addition to potential other challenges outside of school caused by discrimination and stigma.”
Even when we challenge these policies, the burden is still left on us as children to fight these battles. Gavin Grimm, a transgender male student of Gloucester, Virgina, filed a lawsuit against the Gloucester County School Board for adopting a discriminatory bathroom policy that prohibited him from using the boys’ restroom. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before it was kicked back to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia with the latest hearing set for July 2019.
The policy initially went into effect in December 2014; Grimm graduated in June 2017, meaning that he had been burdened with carrying this landmark case for most of his high school career, on top of the added struggles that LGBTQ youth already deal with. Grimm has vowed he is not going to give up.
I catch myself wondering what we could have been if we had the support system that we needed. We have to make a way to support our kids that don’t exist within the confines of cishetero norms.
We still mourn the losses of Leelah Alcorn (17), Blake Brockington (18), Tyler Clementi (18) and countless others, but if there is one glimmer of hope, it is in smiling face of 12 year-old Zion Wade child of retired NBA All-Star Dwayne Wade and stepchild of actress Gabrielle Union, as he waves the rainbow flag at Miami Pride with his supportive family alongside him.
Every LGBTQ child should have gotten to be a Zion Wade. We must all rise up to love, protect, educate, and guide our youth. Together. The last thing I want is for them to grow up and wonder what they might have been if we had done better by them.
“And how are the children?” is a question we are all responsible for answering, so it is up to us to do the work until we can say, “The kids are alright.”
Yves is a non-binary, Virginia-based writer, photographer and stylist whose critical social, political, and sartorial musings can be found on Twitter @AdamantxYves