Nigel Shelby was 15 years old with a personality bubbling over with enthusiasm. He was always singing and dancing, his mother recently told a local television station. The Huntsville, Ala., high-schooler wished to one day be a performer.
“Nigel was the sweetest child,” Camika Shelby told WAFF.
Nigel was also gay, coming out to his mother two years ago. The freshman’s sexuality made him the target of bullying inside the hallways and classrooms at Huntsville High School. That abuse, combined with depression, propelled Nigel to take his own life last Thursday, according to his mother.
“Coming out at such a young age, it can be hard. You don’t know if you are going to be accepted. He didn’t know if I was going to accept him,” Shelby said. “And when you have a kid who is already depressed and going through a lot emotionally, for you to call him names that you shouldn’t call him or say stuff to them, it sometimes has a worse effect than it would on a child who is not struggling with depression.”
Nigel’s death sparked a larger conversation in his community and beyond about sexual identity and bullying. Huntsville City Schools Superintendent Christie Finley on Monday urged the school board that “as adults, we have to do more than simply teach these values; we have to model them.” Presidential hopeful Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) tweeted out that his “heart breaks for Nigel and his family.”
But the same intolerance that may have played a role in Nigel’s death also has cropped up in the wake of his suicide.
A local sheriff’s deputy is accused of leaving comments on a social media post about Nigel’s suicide that not only mocked his death but the wider LGBTQ community — a sign that even a teenager’s tragic death is not off limits to angry reactions in the current powder-keg political climate.
The deputy — identified by NBC News as Madison County Deputy Jeff Graves — has not publicly commented on the situation and could not immediately be reached for comment.
The deputy’s post began by mocking the LGBTQ label.
“Liberty Guns Bible Trump BBQ,” the deputy wrote, according to an image obtained by WAFF. “That’s my kind of LGBTQ.”
The comment is similar to a Kentucky barbecue food truck that stirred controversy last week when it advertised a T-shirt featuring the same LGBTQ abbreviation.
Graves’s now-deleted post allegedly continued: “I’m seriously offended that there is such a thing as this movement. Society cannot and should not except this behavior. I have a right to be offended and will always be offended by this fake movement which requires no special attention but by people with an altered ego and fake agenda.”
Graves is on administrative leave pending the outcome of an internal audit. In a statement obtained by The Washington Post, Madison County Sheriff Kevin Turner confirmed the deputy’s behavior was under review.
“Bullying of any group or person in or outside of schools is unacceptable, and I welcome any and all efforts to raise awareness to bullying and bring bullying to a stop,” Turner said.
According to the statement from the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, Graves’s Facebook comment was brought to the attention of his superiors.
“The Sheriff’s Office has assigned these allegations to be audited with the information that has been provided to us,” the statement said. “The Sheriff’s Office holds all its employees to high standard, and the public can be assured that a thorough and complete audit will be conducted and appropriate action will be taken.”
Nigel’s death points to a larger demographic trend, with suicide rates among young African Americans increasing while dropping for white peers. Researchers reported last February in the Journal of Adolescent Health that LGBTQ teens are also more likely to die by suicide than heterosexuals of the same age, NBC News has reported.
Nigel’s mother told WAFF she hopes her son’s memory rises above the details that led to his death — and the controversy now surrounding the deputy’s actions.
“I don’t want him to be remembered as a kid who was bullied for being gay and who took his own life,” she said. “He was so much more than that. He was sunshine. He was just a great spirit to have around, and it just breaks my heart, because I feel like he had so much more love to give.”
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