Our choice of words matter with LGBT community
We have to change the way we talk about suicide and homosexuality in the black community. The death of 15-yearold Nigel Shelby begs us to do so.
Shelby suffered a suicide on April 18 after facing relentless homophobic bullying at his Florida high school. Did you see what I said there? Not “commit,” not “died by” — “suffered.”
“Suffered” offers compassion and understanding for the family and sees the sufferer as a victim. “Died by” is so neutral a phrase that it leads to normalization and lets us abdicate our responsibility to understand the root cause. And “commit” is a violent holdover from an age of religious zealousness, used to shame and convince believers that suicide — presumably caused by the person’s demons (read depression) — is a sin.
We can do better than this.
People suffer suicides for many reasons, all of which may be attributable to depression. Nigel’s likely depression was triggered by a broad inability, on the part of his community, to accept two basic things: 1) Sexuality is a spectrum that yes, even you, are on and 2) People can know where they fall on that spectrum as early as you knew you didn’t like broccoli. People don’t choose their sexual orientation. If you disagree, please send the date on which you chose yours.
Without accepting these two scientifically supported facts of life, we’re rendering ourselves incapable of offering any manner of support to young people who identify as gay and face societal backlash as a result.
I won’t participate in the struggle Olympics because I seldom think the “who’s got it worse” conversations are helpful. But through my brown-eyed, dark-skinned lens, some of the most sadistic homophobic rhetoric comes from the pulpits of Pentecostal churches. That rhetoric gets passed through the tongues of matriarchs and ends up baked into Thanksgiving dinners. It’s internalized and creates a maddening sense of dissonance and, in some cases, a self-hate that metastasizes to other parts of life.
The suspicion of a child’s deviant sexuality becomes the talk of the congregation. It’s whispered at the usher anniversaries and the women’s day luncheons. It’s practically broadcasted in the church’s announcements through names being added to the sick and shut-in or prayer lists, and it’s not so subtly weaved into the Sunday sermons — so sayeth the Lord.
By this point, if you’re a member of a Pentecostal or Baptist church, you’re either ready to stop reading or you’ve been snapping your fingers and yelling in agreement this whole time (I can’t hear you, so tweet me). One reaction means you’ve taken my words as an assault on the church. The other means you’ve seen the church’s insidious and unforgiving assaults on everyone else.
Both reactions are fine. But here’s what’s not:
Hate crimes against the LGBT community have risen in recent years, with hate crimes in general spiking 17 percent since 2016, according to a November 2018 NBC News report. What’s more, suicide rates for black children under age 13 are roughly double that of white children, according to a Nationwide Children’s Hospital study.
What’s not fine is Kevin Hart making anti-gay jokes about breaking a dollhouse over his son’s head for playing with his daughter’s toys.
What’s not fine is ‘City Girls’ rapper Yung Miami’s anti-gay tweets about beating her son should she see anything gay in him.
What’s not fine is the Rev. Franklin Graham demanding that presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg repent for being gay.
What’s not fine is Gospel singer Kim Burrell making no apologies for her anti-gay sermon saying that “the perverted homosexual spirit, and the spirit of delusion and confusion, it has deceived many men and women.”
All of that seems really high level and low impact — until you consider Nigel Shelby.
Every word pieced together to humorize abuse to the LBGTQ community eventually graduates to actions forged together to normalize that abuse. And even if you never personally assault a member of the LBGTQ community yourself, your words are internalized by young people like Nigel.
Sentiments toward the LBGTQ community have improved over the decades, sure. But balance that against a kid finding more solace in taking his life than living it, and it really makes me wonder how we can better solve these problems plaguing the youngest and most vulnerable among us.
If it doesn’t make you think, you’re likely the problem.
Kevin Hart and his family attend the Los Angeles World Premiere of Marvel Studios’ “Avengers: Endgame” at the Los Angeles Convention Center on last week in Los Angeles. Hart came under fire for making anti-gay jokes about breaking a dollhouse over his son’s head for playing with his daughter’s toys. Below, ‘City Girls’ rapper Yung Miami who tweeted about beating her son should she see anything gay in him.