Aisha N. Davis, Manager of Policy & Advocacy; Kylon Hooks, Associate Director of Broadway Youth Center
Content Warning: suicide
Last week, our community suffered a heartbreaking loss – Nigel Shelby committed suicide after being bullied for being himself. Nigel, as described by his mother, Camika Shelby, was “the sweetest child.” A bubbly 15-year-old, Camika already knew that he wanted to be a performer. Having come out to her when he was 13, Camika retells the moment, noting that she “just grabbed [Nigel] and hugged him and…told him I would never turn my back on him.” And, importantly, Camika wants to make sure that Nigel isn’t “remembered as a kid who was bullied for being gay and who took his own life. He was so much more than that.”
For many of us, hearing about Nigel Shelby’s suicide was not the first time we had learned about the loss of a community member, a friend, or a loved one. Our community, in each of its various iterations, knows that there are experiences that we face and that wear on our mental and physical health. Whether interpersonal or systematic, LGBTQ people are disproportionately more likely to experience violence. These instances of degradation, hostility, and disrespect weigh on all of us – including our youngest.
Nigel Shelby’s tragic death does not exist in a vacuum and is directly related to the persistent violence that he, and many other queer youth, face. In addition to bullying and teasing that may come at the hands of their peers and adults, queer youth also contend with under-resourced schools, lack of mental health providers, and the normalization and insidiousness of homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia. Furthermore, given their minor status, young people simply do not have the needed access to proper wellness services – especially related to marginalized identities like sexual orientation, gender, or race.
In their 2019 Black and African American LGBTQ Youth Report, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) found that more than 70% of the surveyed young people “usually” felt worthless or hopeless, and only 35% of them felt they could “definitely” be themselves in school. Additionally, 40% of the young people surveyed reported being bullied on school property within the past year. While these are not necessarily instances of physical violence, the mental anguish that comes with being bullied cannot be ignored or overlooked. We are losing our younger siblings – like Nigel Shelby – because of the ridicule and rejection they face and the lack of support for young, Black LGBTQ people.
There is work to be done to increase support for queer youth – including interpersonal support for the queer youth in each of our lives. On a larger scale, as we have noted before, mayor-elect Lori Lightfoot has stated that she wants to implement an LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in Chicago Public Schools and establish 24-hour drop-in centers to provide space for young LGBTQ people experiencing housing insecurity. Beyond this, we must all work to improve the mental and social health services available to young people – including comprehensive violence intervention and anti-bullying policies in Chicago Public Schools that focus on healing students and unlearning homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia.
Here at Howard Brown, we want all LGBTQ young people to know that they have support within our spaces. We welcome you to visit the Broadway Youth Center – including our drop-in therapy services (or call to make an appointment at 773.388.1600 ext 9). If you want to speak to someone immediately, you can text, chat, or call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386, or text the Crisis Text Line by sending HOME to 741-741.