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This February, Nigel Shelby would have celebrated his 16th birthday. You might remember that this past spring, 15-year-old Nigel died by suicide after being bullied for being both Black and gay.

This Black History Month, it is important to recognize that the legacy of the Black Civil Rights Movement is one that has always included and accepted all Black people, regardless of actual or perceived sexual identity, gender orientation or expression at its center. Anyone who purports to care about Black people must account for all of us, and if we’re not yet willing to do this work to make space for adults, let’s do the work for children who did not ask to be born.

Violence, brutality and harm against Black children is so matter-of-fact that it’s often discussed around kitchen tables and television screens across the country. In December, we submitted a report to Congress ("Ring the Alarm: The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide") describing the sad reality that Black youth under the age of 13 are two times more likely to die by suicide compared to their white counterparts. The suicide death rate among Black youth is increasing faster than any other racial/ethnic group. This should concern all of us. We cannot grow numb to the loss of children whose names we have come to know — children like Michael, Trayvon, Tamir, Laquan, Darnisha, Aiyana. We must also make space for Black children like Jamel Myles, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, McKenzie Adams and Nigel. 

I remain outraged at the lack of attention given to Nigel and other Black LGBTQ/SGL people targeted by hate crimes and violence for simply showing up in the world. I am outraged that Carl was only 11 years old when he died by suicide. I am outraged that Jamel was only nine years old. I am outraged that these babies, in addition to dealing with the stigma of being Black in America, were subjected to constant homophobic bullying. It enrages me that even with increases in hate crimes and violence against both Black and LGBTQ+ members of our community, we still refuse to accept that as long as there have been Black people we have shown up in incredibly diverse ways.

More than 50% of high school students now identify as anything other than “strictly heterosexual.” To be clear, this is not a reflection of a “gay agenda.” If anyone has seen this agenda, please share a copy with me (at least the references). It’s a reflection of the fact that binary categories, like “gay” and “straight,” are no longer working for these children. The gag is, they don’t work for any of us. Furthermore, they are designed to affirm anti-Blackness and white supremacy.

As we reflect on Black history, let us rightly remember that the Civil Rights Movement was led by leaders like Barbara Jordan and Bayard Rustin — leaders who cared deeply about the rights of all Black people. Barbara Jordan, an educator and politician, was the first Black person elected to the Texas Senate after Reconstruction and the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Representatives in the South. Bayard Rustin is an architect of the movement, having organized a March on Washington with A. Philip Randolph and the Great March on Washington. Jordan and Rustin were both Black and LGBTQ+, and dedicated their lives to ensuring that each of us has the opportunity to be happy, healthy and whole.

This Black History Month, we should all be thinking about continuing the work of Barbara and Bayard. This work is imperative and it is part of the reason why the National Black Justice Coalition (NBJC) exists — to understand that we are better together.  

As Fannie Lou Hamer taught us decades ago: none of us are free until all of us are free. We owe it to our children to get this right.  This Black History Month, let’s commit to abandoning the tools and practices designed to separate and oppress. We owe it to Nigel Shelby and to all of our babies.


David J. Johns is the Executive Director of the National Black Justice Coalition, which works to end racism and homophobia so that all Black people can get free. He is an educator, researcher, federal policy expert and advocate.