Mother of gay Alabama teen who died by suicide hopes his death encourages tolerance

Nigel Shelby, an aspiring performer, was a freshman at Huntsville High School. He died on April 18.
By Janelle Griffith

The mother of an Alabama teenager who died by suicide late last week wants his legacy to include more than just the circumstances surrounding his death.

"I don't want him to be remembered as a kid who was bullied for being gay and who took his own life," Camika Shelby told NBC News on Tuesday. "He was so much more than that."

Nigel Shelbyvia Facebook

Nigel Shelby, 15, was sweet, respectable, well mannered and had a heart of gold, his mother said about her only child.

Shelby said she always embraced her son, including when he came out to her two years ago.

"I just grabbed him and hugged him and told him I already knew," Shelby said. "I told him I would never turn my back on him. I always told him, 'Whatever you want in life, you can have it.'"

Nigel, an aspiring performer, was a freshman at Huntsville High School. He died by suicide April 18.

In recent years, he struggled with depression and told his mother his sexuality made him a target of bullies who would say hurtful things to him, Shelby said.

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"We live in a world where now … well, it’s always been, everybody is different," she said. "So to make someone feel less than because they are different, it’s not OK."

Huntsville City Schools said neither it nor Huntsville High School had received any complaints of bullying and harassment of Nigel prior to his death.

"Nevertheless, as is customary when there is a tragedy like this, Huntsville City Schools’ administration is investigating the circumstances of Nigel’s time at Huntsville High School," a spokesman said. "The school system will use this information to evaluate its current supports for students who have been bullied and to make changes if appropriate."

The school district also said the administrators and counselors at the high school "had a close relationship with both Nigel and his mother" during his time there.

Huntsville City School Superintendent Christie Finley told the school board Monday evening the community needed to do more to teach children "the values of acceptance, generosity, kindness, helpfulness, and, simply put, the value of just being human."

"It’s clear to me that the simple word of the golden rule has become difficult for many to understand and to practice," Finley said. "It is time as a society to value, respect, and uplift one another."

In 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a report that found that for the first time in the history of such research, the rate of suicides for black children between the ages of five and 12 has exceeded that of white children, and more than a third of elementary school-age suicides involved black children.

A local deputy was placed on administrative leave this week for writing a homophobic comment on a Facebook post about Nigel, whose death has sparked a national conversation about acceptance, bullying and sexuality.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., tweeted that his “heart breaks for Nigel and his family.”

"We have to build a world where LGBTQ kids feel loved and affirmed in their identities," Booker said.

Singer Justin Bieber also reflected on Nigel's death in an Instagram post, telling his 110 million followers, "stop the hatred please! I don’t understand how people can be so ignorant and hateful."

Shelby said she hopes her son's death can highlight the harmful effects of bullying and encourage tolerance.

"I definitely want to bring awareness to the bullying because when kids are struggling with their own identity, if they’re going through stuff already and you have other kids who are making them feel bad about themselves, it has an even bigger impact than if they weren’t struggling with those things," she said.

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 for additional resources.

Ali Gostanian contributed.