From Nigel Shelby to Zion Wade, America must protect Black queer children

While we are waiting for people to grow out of homophobia, kids are losing their lives.
Illustration of Nigel Shelby.
No child should feel like they are being erased. Anke Gladnick / for NBC News
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By George Johnson

“It gets better.”

This may very easily be one of the most dangerous slogans ever used to in an effort to support LGBTQ people. For many of us — Black queer children who made it into adulthood — we can tell you that the “it” isn’t getting better nearly fast enough. And it certainly doesn’t just happen over time without action. Report of a completed suicide by a young 15-year-old Black gay boy named Nigel Shelby sent shockwaves through the LGBT social media community last week. Now many of us are left with the guilt that we have failed him, and with him a generation of young Black LGBTQ children who still face violence at alarming rates.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, nearly 77 percent of LGBTQ teens report feeling depressed and upwards of 40 percent of youth who experience homelessness identify on the LGBTQ spectrum. According to the HRC, LGBTQ youth also experience violence and bullying nearly twice as much as heterosexual children. And they are five times more likely to attempt suicide in comparison to heterosexual kids.

Now many of us are left with the guilt that we have failed him, and with him a generation of young Black LGBTQ children who still face violence at alarming rates.

Nigel isn’t the first queer child to have contemplated suicide due to homophobia, and at this rate he won’t be the last. Last year, a nine-year-old by the name of Jamel Myles died by suicide following reported anti-gay bullying just months after coming out as gay. His mother was quoted as saying: "My child died because of bullying. My baby killed himself.”

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To be queer and brown or Black in America is to fear your own state and fear your own home. Two years ago I wrote about this very fear. I wrote about how in addition to fighting against a society that constantly reminds me I am not welcome, I am often fighting those same battles in my community. And although safe spaces exist, too many still see our queerness as a threat. Queer children face challenges regardless of their race, but the intersection of Blackness and queerness in one of an especially layered oppression. And it’s important to remember how this reality creates unique risks factors for non-white LGBTQ people.

Juxtaposed against these statistics is a silver lining. The beautiful story of power couple Dwayne Wade and Gabrielle Union-Wade’s public support for their queer 11-year-old son Zion. Zion, who publicly identifies as gay, has received an affirming wave of support since his parents came forward with their family's story. But unfortunately, he has also caught a lot of backlash, from social media users especially. Some have even questioned if a boy can know their sexuality at such a young age — a question never posed to heterosexual kids who are allowed and even encouraged to have “crushes” very early in life.

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In the face of bigots who claim Zion should not have agency over his own sexual identity, the Wades have pushed back — hard. Sadly, this is not something that many LGBTQ experience. But this family’s response is truly a blueprint for how one should raise a queer child, and especially a queer Black child. Black queer children live with increased risk factors regarding their health, safety and overall livelihood. All children deserve unconditional love, especially when the conditions don’t fit society’s acceptable norms.

Several years after the legalization of gay marriage, neither the culture nor the government has truly embraced equality. In some ways, the legal and political climate is actually moving backwards when it comes to LGBTQ rights. It was announced on April 22 that the Supreme Court would be looking at whether employers have the right to discriminate based on someone’s sexual orientation and identity. Meanwhile, the transgender military ban that was blocked several times by the lower courts has finally been enacted, putting nearly 13,000transgender troops in jeopardy. What happens at the highest levels of Washington often trickles down into the community, and sometimes vice versa.

This is not to say progress isn’t being made. It just isn’t happening fast enough. So far, two states have introduced and passed legislation that would require LGBT history be taught in school — New Jersey being the most recent. Everyone deserves representation, and LGBT history is an important part of U.S. history. Without an understanding of our past failures how can we avoid making the same mistakes? And without an understanding of the sacrifices our predecessors have made for equality, how can we understand the cost of freedom?

The heterosexual community has long been silent when it comes to the violence our children are facing.

Advocacy needs to look like action and change. Cute slogans or PSA’s are not enough. The heterosexual community has long been silent when it comes to the violence our children are facing. The queer community cannot rely on them — we must be vocal and willing to stand up to the threats we know exist in society.

Nigel deserved to be alive. He deserved the support many of us are fighting to make sure young Zion has. Nigel had his family, and an extremely supportive mother who has been very open about Nigel since his passing. But that wasn’t enough for a society that continues to erase the existence of people that aren’t considered “acceptable.”

While we are waiting for people to grow out of homophobia, kids are losing their lives. The “jokes” have never been just jokes. The homophobic lyrics of songs and the public condemnation of queer kids and adults can have deadly consequences. No child should be made to feel that their life is not worth living. That they are being erased.

We failed young Nigel. In doing so, we also have failed ourselves.

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.