I’ve written over 300 articles in the last few years, I like to believe that in my writing I offer up a fresh perspective on whatever it is I’m writing about. So I am very sorry that my first contribution to this site isn’t a good display of that because what I’m writing is nothing new. It’s not anything I haven’t already spoken about, written about, or screamed at the top of my lungs about.
Another queer teen is dead, once again, by their own hand, pushed to make a decision at a time in their life where they are most vulnerable. A permanent solution to a temporary problem.
On Sunday afternoon one of my best friends from high school sent me a post on Facebook about Nigel Shelby. The image of the post showed a boy with the sweetest grin imaginable, throwing up a peace sign, and wearing a hoodie with a single image on it: a rainbow flag.
Unfortunately, the story wasn’t about achievement, a moment in Alabama history, or something that would make us all smile as Nigel did. Instead, the corresponding content was about how Nigel, barely a year into his High School career, took his own life following a constant barrage of bullying.
We are back here again, having to have a conversation about the effects of bullying on children. Adding the LGBTQ element to this only magnifies the issue. According to the Center for Disease Control*, LGBT youth are five times more likely to attempt suicide to their heterosexual youth counterparts. Each instance of physical or verbal harassment only increases the likelihood of this.** Despite all this research Alabama still does NOT have a law, on the book to punish such harassment.
The Huntsville school board has called an emergency meeting to address this issue but no meeting will ever give Nigel back his future or bring solace to a mother who lost the one person in this world she loved. The only way this issue changes for the better will require an entire shift in the cultural paradigm.
The South can be a remarkable place. It’s filled with people who believe in the actual idea behind Southern hospitality. There is a lot of the South that people outside it choose to ignore but among all the good is the bigoted reality that still permeates throughout. This reality takes the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. It can exist as a toxic form of masculinity where intolerance and ego get weaponized to the level that even those with the thickest of skin get wounded and sometimes it cuts deeper.
The parents of the bullies of Nigel Shelby are as much to blame as the kids who did it. These parents are raising their kids in a way that actually doesn’t even begin to reflect the values they claim to have. These kids were never checked, they were always led to believe that they were better somehow based on no sense of merit; only their gender, their sexuality, or their race. Sadly from what people are saying, kids were not the only ones bullying Nigel, adults were as well. Justice belongs to those who do wrong, forgiveness should never be off the table, but the only real apology is changed behavior and, for some, that time is long past. People like Madison County Deputy Jeff Graves, who, on a FB post, mocked Nigel’s death. This deputy has since been placed on leave pending an audit but I can only hope that he loses his job. If you believe a group of people are less than and if you hold such hate in your heart then you are not able to protect and serve all.
The story of Nigel’s passing goes deeper than its headline. This story brings to light what it means to be gay and what it means to be a queer person of color in 2019. Because it was hard enough being queer but to be a queer person of color is harder than most can imagine. Nigel faced a two-front war and he was only one teenager. Ill-equipped for a world that sought to oppress him rather than support him. It’s easy to think the world is better and, in many ways, it is. For some though, they thought that after marriage equality became the law of the land that the struggle for LGBTQ equality was over. Marriage equality was a major milestone but was only one issue of many. The rights the LGBTQ community has earned are rights that exist on shaky ground. Some still seek to push the community back to the closet we have fought so hard to escape and those believe that stripping rights will help achieve that vision. When kids in the South see their parents agreeing with sycophants like Mike Pence, they believe that they are who is wrong. They were led to believe their whole life, that people who preach from a bully pulpit are to be admired and respected without question and these poor kids sit and suffer in silence. Their world feeling darker and smaller with each bombastic condemnation.
There are no words that I could possibly type that can bring peace to Nigel’s loved ones. The only thing we can do is work to change the future, to make a better tomorrow where children don’t know this pain, where they only know unconditional love instead admonishment. When I read another story like this all I can think is how many more must die because those wielding hypocritical self-righteous sense of moral purity want to try and hold people down with hate.
The last striking thing about the photo of Nigel was the background. The bricks of the courtyard of Huntsville High School. I knew it cause I walked past them 15 years ago on my way to classes. Time has helped make the world a much more accepting place, but Nigel could never see it, he dealt with harassment that I never had to. I was not out during my High School years and Nigel was. We walked the same halls but in vastly different shoes. Nigel walked a harder ground and he did so more bravely than I ever did or could.
I wish he could know how his existence alone made a difference at Huntsville High School and how his pride was a remarkable sight. I hope others will be inspired by him and will pick up the rainbow flag as he did. Don’t let this issue rest, we owe that to Nigel and those surviving for him.
Rest in power, Nigel.
*CDC. (2016). Sexual Identity, Sex of Sexual Contacts, and Health-Risk Behaviors Among Students in Grades 9-12: Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
**IMPACT. (2010). Mental health disorders, psychological distress, and suicidality in a diverse sample of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths. American Journal of Public Health. 100(12), 2426-32.
Sidney Joel Stokes is from Huntsville, Alabama graduating Huntsville High School in 2005. In 2007 he began his activism career in Chicago working for the grassroots portion of the Clinton and Obama campaigns and in 2008 would become a founding member of Join the Impact Chicago. He currently resides in Los Angeles, California where he is the Program Manager for Impulse Group, an international non-profit organization that focuses on LGBTQ sexual and mental health.