On Thursday, April 18th, Nigel Shelby, an openly gay 15-year old freshman at Huntsville High School in Alabama, committed suicide after facing a relentless pattern of bullying which led him into deep depression and a struggle with his identity.
“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.”
“It’s just jokes.”
“It’s just a phase.”
“It’s not that serious.”
“Kids tease each other.”
“This generation is soft.”
Rest in Peace, Nigel Shelby. pic.twitter.com/7JNOULLsm1
— Sam White (@samwhiteout) April 24, 2019
Sadly, Nigel’s light was forced to shine amid the shadow of a queer antagonism that is not just reducible to the act of school bullying. In the wake of Nigel’s tragic death, a local news station posted a story to Facebook to raise awareness about LGBTQ-based harassment. Madison County Deputy Jeff Graves commented on the post with mocking words that are as revealing as they are reprehensible.
“Liberty. Guns. Bible. Trump. BBQ. That’s my kind of LGBTQ movement,” Graves wrote. “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 was simply expressing 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 actually 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, the disenfranchisement of women, and the ongoing vilification of Mexicans, Muslims, queer and transgender people of color, and the poor.
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.
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Today I got the opportunity to celebrate the life of Nigel Shelby. . I pray that no other child will ever have to endure what this young baby dealt with. We gotta love on our own! Check on your friends and loved ones. You never know what someone is going through. #ripnigel ?
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 about the most. Plus, 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 U.S. military.
The silence of the Black church
The white evangelicalism of Trump’s base, as expressed by Graves’ comment, does not represent my church tradition, but I will admit that the predominantly Black churches that loved me failed to fully love my same-gender-loving mother. Growing up, I watched her faithfully attend a church that would never let her preach, never let her get married, and never let her serve in a leadership role, but had absolutely no problem taking her hard-earned money.
My mom could bring her tithes and offerings, but not dare to express her sexuality and full humanity. Now that I am an ordained minister, I am ashamed of the Church’s complicity in patterns of homophobia that helped create the toxic culture that ultimately led to Nigel’s premature death.
Despite my shame in the moral failures of the Church, I take inspiration from people who practice the simple teaching of a sunbaked, Palestinian Jew who believed we should all “love your neighbor as yourself.” Faith leaders such as Pastor Yvette Flunder, 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 by creating radically inclusive ministries, supporting same-sex marriage, preaching sermons criticizing Christian homophobia, curating online platforms that affirm the need for pleasure and the range of Black sexuality, 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 who love God and whose work demonstrates a simple truth— being queer is not a sin, but being homophobic is.
While some Christians debate what it takes to make it into heaven and what sins will send you straight to hell, young people like Nigel are left to navigate abhorrent conditions right here on Earth. According to the Human Rights Campaign, nearly three out of every four LGBTQ+ youth report not feeling safe at school. Queer identified young people make up nearly 40 percent 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.
While statistics are important, they don’t always tell the whole story especially when 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. This is about the value of certain people’s flesh and blood.
Nigel’s blood is not only on the hands of the bullies, the bystanders, and the institutions that failed to ensure his safety, but it has stained the palms of the church as well. His death not only lands on the easily recognizable “monsters” like Trump and Graves, but on all of us in the faith community who have remained silent in the wake of this tragedy.
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Nigel’s mother made it clear that she wants her baby boy to be remembered for more than just 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.”
Black LGBTQ youth face painfully high rates of abuse. We can’t save lives if we don’t interrupt the conditions that harm youth like Nigel Shelby. https://t.co/0Whq69ZHh6
— TransgenderLawCenter (@TransLawCenter) May 1, 2019
It is up to us all to practice the love that Nigel once had to give. That’s the lesson I wish I had learned in Sunday school so many years ago. “This little light of mine” becomes a cloak of spiritual darkness if it shadows the light of any of God’s children. For Nigel’s sake, and so many other young people with the glow of God’s love in them, we must learn how to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.
Nyle Fort is a minister, organizer, and Ph.D. candidate at Princeton University. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text TALK to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.