Washington, D.C. has perfected the happy hour. Right after work, tons of politicos leave their desks and head to various bars to talk politics and policy. So it was no surprise that I found myself at happy hour discussing the Equality Act, a bill that will amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to explicitly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in education, employment, housing, credit, federal jury service, public accommodations.
We knew that history is on our side. We toasted polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans support banning discrimination against LGBTQ people. Despite the current hateful rhetoric, LGBTQ folks are making progress in our country.
But there’s sadness, too. David Johns of the National Black Justice Coalition once posted a smiling young Black teenager on Instagram with the caption: Black gay boys deserve to grow up too! #NigelShelby #SickOfThisShit #ProtectTheBabies ALL of them!”
Nigel Shelby was a 15-year-old high school freshman in Alabama who committed suicide because of homophobic bullying. I wonder, “Who will cry for the little boy?”
Bullying and hateful rhetoric have become increasingly normalized and suicide statistics and the dire consequences of bullying can get lost.
I want people to cry for Nigel.
Black children—and gay teens of all races—are taking their lives because of bullying. Nigel’s story is not unique. I personally know Black boys and young men who have contemplated suicide and are in the closet to avoid bullying. I was picked on for being “different” in middle and high school, too, and as much as I try to bury those memories, Nigel’s story reminds me that not only is bullying on the rise, but the consequences are tragic and fatal.
Recently, YouthTruth released statistics showing that most teens are bullied because of their appearance, their race or skin color, and/or because other students thought they were gay. Last year, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Pediatrics published a heartbreaking 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 exceeded that of white children. More than a third of elementary school-aged suicides involved Black children.
Stunned, outraged, I am still hopeful. For years, members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), often called the “Conscious of Congress,” have recognized that many LGBTQ youth around the world face bullying and harassment daily and has committed to finding a remedy. They CBC have cosponsored legislation such as the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would require colleges and universities to develop policies to fight harassment and the Therapeutic Fraud Prevention Act, which would ban for-profit, so-called “conversion therapy,” which seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Shortly after introducing the Equality Act, the House of Representatives passed legislation reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act. During debate, CBC Members highlighted that transgender people, particularly minorities, suffer from some of the highest rates of violence and sexual assault and noted that the bill would ensure guaranteed protections for them.
Recently, the CBC launched a new, emergency task force specifically focused on the growing problem of suicide among Black youth. This newly formed task force will (1) convene experts in Washington, DC and around the country; (2) raise awareness among Members of Congress and staff; and (3) identify legislative recommendations to address Black youth suicide.
As an LGBTQ advocate, I applaud the CBC and their leadership on Black and LGBTQ issues. However, as a congressional staffer, I also know that the best public policies are informed by the communities and individuals that are most affected by the issue. Policy made in isolation from affected communities can lead to unintended consequences or, worse, do harm, while active participation from those affected can help. The evidence shows that first-hand awareness aids in identifying strong policy solutions.
Issues like mental health are discussed in various capacities every day on Capitol Hill, in the White House, in federal agencies, and by state and local decision-makers. However, without the voice of those who possess both expertise and experience in suicide among Black youth, legislation, regulations and other policy decisions may not reflect what is best for our youth.
In addition to the CBC’s Black youth suicide task force, individual advocacy is key. Ally Sen. Edward Markey says it best: “Every policy issue goes through three stages: education, activation and implementation. Congress is a stimulus-response institution. And there is nothing more stimulating than having hundreds of public health professionals, families and caregivers meeting with you about an important issue.”
But I believe that my late mentor, Willis Edwards of the NAACP, says it even better: “Do what you can, from where you are, with what you have.”
I don’t expect that the silent crisis of Black LGBTQ youth suicide will be resolved overnight. However, I do know that a person can either shape policy, or policy can shape them. I believe that with some of our most vulnerable Black LGBTQ youth at stake—we must get this right. We all must lift our voices, whether we know a “Nigel” in one of our communities or personally, secretly identify as a “Nigel.” Our stories are needed.
So here’s my short call to action: the next time I ask myself, “who will cry for the little boy?” – my answer will be simple: Congress will. Experts will. Advocates will. I will. And you will. Will you? You must.