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We Failed Nigel Shelby: Addressing Suicide Among Black Gay Teens

Nigel Shelby – and every black gay kid deserves to grow up too.

David J. Johns is the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, a policy-engaged civil rights organization fighting for Black LGBTQ and Same-Gender-Loving people.

Last week, Nigel Ahmad Shelby, a beautiful young soul lost his life due to bullying and ignorance. Spurred on by the taunts of his classmates, Nigel, a gay teen, left this world without falling and discovering love or finding friends with similar life paths -- milestones so many of us take for granted. We can no longer ignore this struggle. It’s killing us. And it’s on all of us to make this right.

The stats tell the story behind this tragedy. According to the Human Rights Campaign, nearly 80% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer/SGL teens report feeling depressed. Data suggests that LGBTQ/SGL youth experience violence and bullying nearly twice as much as children who are or are presumed to be heterosexual.  LGBTQ/SGL kids are five times more likely to attempt suicide compared to their heterosexual peers. We also know, based on a UCLA study, that the substance and tone of national political discourse associated with the Trump administration negatively affected U.S. public high school students. This should be unsurprising considering increases in reported hate crimes and hate groups.

Black gay kids like Nigel Shelby deserve to grow up too, all of them! The fact that I have to say that makes my stomach turn and my head ache. But the sad reality is that we have so much more work to do to ensure that people acknowledge it and then do the work to end the hate, ignorance, and stigma that leads to bullying, harassment, and abuse in schools and in communities, which then contributes to increased levels of stress, trauma, and other mental health challenges.

As a former elementary school teacher, my experiences in the classroom showed me the importance of safeguarding mental health for adults and children. In both my conversations with students and through my academic research it has become clear that while many of us can recall a childhood filled with joy, for students who are LGBTQ/SGL really for any student considered “different,” childhood, and school more specifically, can be terrifying. We must understand how schools shape the experiences of students from both racial and sexual minority communities.

Anyone who knows me knows that I care deeply about children, youth and young adults, especially those most often neglected and ignored.  They were at the root of my work in Congress, in the White House, and now as a leader of the nation’s only civil rights organization working at the intersection of racial justice and LGBTQ/SGL equality, the National Black Justice Coalition.

Shortly after learning about Nigel, I was contacted by a student who said they recently contemplated suicide after being jumped in a bathroom by students who called them a “faggot who deserved to die.”

Taking that call broke me -- I cried heart heavy, cheeks burning, struggling-to-catch-your breath sort of cries.  I cried because I thought about Nigel, and Jamel Myles and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover. Jamel Myles died by suicide following reports of anti-gay bullying after coming out at school.  His mother has been quoted as saying: “My child died because of bullying.” Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover is a sixth-grader who liked to read and play football. Carl was bullied for being gay and died by suicide. We are failing them.

Too many anti-LGBTQIA/SGL policies and attitudes communicate that “WE DO NOT WANT YOU. YOU DO NOT BELONG.” These messages have deep meaning for young people especially. Words matter and can negatively impact the mental health of students.

There are high profile examples of what it looks like to to be supportive of our babies. Less than three weeks ago, the unconditional support that Gabrielle Union and Dwyane Wade publicly displayed for their son Zion garnered national news attention. They demonstrated an unyielding and unconditional love for Zion -- it was noteworthy because it was a Black family determined to show a Black child who also may be LGBTQ/SGL that they are loved and deserve to live out the full expression of their lives (the politics of policing sexual identity and gender orientation should be addressed elsewhere).  We need to make this the norm, not the exception.

In honor of Nigel, Jamel, Carl and so many other babies whose names we may never know, we also need to act urgently to address the trauma, stress, and mental health needs of children, youth, and young adults, especially those from racial and sexual minority communities.  

We need to pass federal legislation like the Equality Act to ensure there are clear and consistent civil and legal protections provided to people based on sexual identity and gender orientation.  States, like Alabama, that lack anti-LGBTQIA/SGL bullying legislation should move to pass meaningful policy and support lasting implementation swiftly.

We need more mental health professionals who understand child development and provide culturally competent care.  And schools and school districts should leverage resources provided by organizations like the National Black Justice Coalition. Providing cultural competency training is critical for anyone whose work is to nourish Black childhood, create a safe space, and catch our babies when they need a soft place to fall. They must also be aware of and possess the language and skills needed to support the mental health of all students—especially Black LGBTQ students who are most likely to be neglected or ignored.  

This is our work.  We owe it to Nigel Shelby and every young person who did not ask to be born, who deserves to know that they are perfect and that the only mistakes made are by adults who know and fail to make the world a better place for each of them.

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