Opinion: Openly Gay Fifteen-year Old High Schooler In Alabama Committed Suicide After Facing A Relentless Pattern Of Bullying

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Photo of Nigel Shelby. Source: The Root

Photo of Nigel Shelby. Source: The Root

Last week, Nigel Shelby, an openly gay fifteen-year old freshman at Huntsville High School in Alabama, committed suicide after facing a relentless pattern of bullying. “He was just special,” Nigel’s mother, Camika Shelby, told NBC news. “Nigel was the sweetest child. He was always full of joy, full of light.”

Sadly, Nigel’s light was forced to shine amid the shadow of a queer antagonism that is not reducible to school bullying. In the wake of Nigel’s tragic death a local news station posted a story to Facebook seeking to raise awareness about LGBTQ-based harassment. Local Sheriff Jeff Graves commented on the post with words that are as revealing as they are reprehensible. “Liberty. Guns. Bible. Trump. BBQ. That’s my kind of LGBTQ movement,” Graves wrote last Sunday. “I have a right to be offended and will always be offended by this fake movement which requires no special attention but by persons with an altered ego and fake agenda.” he continued. 

Some will say that Graves simply expressed his first amendment right. What is lost in that idea, however, is the way religion is often used to sacralize bigotry and social inequality. Patriarchy, homophobia, and white supremacy are all deeply held religious views. In fact, the United States was founded on an idea of religious freedom that ordained indigenous genocide, chattel slavery, lynching, and the disenfranchisement of women.

Graves conflates his right to be offended with a right to be oppressive. This false freedom is central to the American project. It is a liberty built on slavery: a freedom to oppress the most vulnerable. 

Grave’s comment reveals more than his wicked sense of morality. It lays bare the inextricable links between law enforcement, white evangelical Christianity, and an entrenched American culture of violence where guns and scripture go together like hot dogs and baked beans. In this sense, the Bible couched between “Guns” and Trump in Graves simple-minded acronym should come as no surprise. 

Many conservative Christian evangelicals tout a seemingly paradoxical message of values and violence. Eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for President Trump despite him bragging about grabbing women’s genitals against their will. Of course, conservative evangelicals put Trump in the White House because he advocates for issues they care most about. And he does so primarily under the guise of “religious freedom,” which is often code for discrimination against Muslims, people of color, and the lgbtq community. Since taking office, Trump’s administration rescinded an Obama-era guidance that encouraged schools to permit students to use facilities based on their gender identity as well as implemented a transgender ban in the US military. 

The white evangelicalism of Trump’s base, as expressed by Graves comment, does not represent my church tradition. But the predominantly black churches that loved me failed to fully love my same-gender-loving mother. Growing up, I watched my mother faithfully attend a church that would never let her preach, marry, or serve in a leadership role—but never had a problem taking her hard earned money. My mom could bring her tithes and offerings but not her sexuality and full humanity. As an ordained minister, I am ashamed of the Church’s complicity in patterns of homophobia that helped created the toxic culture that led to Nigel’s premature death. 

But despite my shame in the moral failures of the church, I take inspiration from people who practice the simple message of a sun-baked Palestinian Jew: love your neighbor as yourself. Faith leaders such as Pastor Yvette Flounder, Archbishop Carl Beam, Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, Rev. Dr. Emile M. Townes, Rev. Candace Simpson, Pastor Delman Coates, Darnell Moore, Rev. Dr. Leslie Callahan, Rev. Otis Moss III, and Ahmad Greene are courageously practicing this kind of love work: creating radically inclusive ministries, supporting same-sex marriage, preaching sermons critical of homophobia, and producing scholarship that challenges the way we think and act. 

These are not Christians who “hate the sin but love the sinner.” They are people of faith whose work demonstrates a simple truth: being queer is not a sin but being homophobic is. 

While some Christians debate who will go to heaven or hell young people like Nigel are left to navigate hellish conditions right here on earth. According to the Center for Social Equity, nearly 3 out of every 4 LGBTQ youth report not feeling safe at school. Queer identified young people make up nearly 40% of the homeless youth population in New York City. And nearly half of all black transgender people report being incarcerated at some point of their lives, usually against their gender identity. Once there, they often face violence from guards and other incarcerated people in cells and solitary confinement.

The numbers are bleak. And while statistics are important they can obscure the fact that real people’s lives are at stake. This is not a debate between conservatives and liberals or the so-called gay agenda and religious liberty. It is a over the value of certain people’s flesh and blood. Nigel’s blood is not only on the hands of the bullyers, bystanders, and institutions who failed to ensure his safety. It is on the Church’s hands, too. Not only the hands of easily recognizable “monsters” like Trump and Graves, but on all of us in the faith who remain silent in the wake of this tragedy. 

Nigel’s mother made it clear that she wants her baby boy to be remembered for more than his tragic and untimely death. "I don't want him to be remembered as a kid who was bullied for being gay and who took his own life," she said. "He was so much more than that. He was sunshine. He was just a great spirit to have around and it just breaks my heart because I feel like he had so much more love to give."

It is up to us to practice the love that Nigel can no longer give because we refused to love him. That’s the lesson I wish I had learned in Sunday school. “This little light of mine” is not light if it shadows the light of any of God’s children. It is spiritual darkness clothed in righteous drag. 

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