Huntsville mom Camika Shelby has a message for LGBTQ youth: If you live in an unaccepting household, she's your mother now.
Dressed in a white T-shirt adorned with rainbow letters and a rainbow-themed fanny pack, Shelby gave different gifts of encouragement during a Christmas event for black LGBTQ teens at the Birmingham CrossPlex on Saturday (Dec. 21). She took her time as she gave the youth long hugs, smiled as she gave them gift bags full of self-care items they can use to soothe themselves during a tough day and she typed her contact information into the youth's phone.
Shelby wanted to make sure the youth had all the tools they need if they ever get in a depressed space. Her openly-gay son, Nigel, was 15-years-old when he died by suicide in April in Huntsville. Although his mother was accepting of his sexuality, the family said Nigel was bullied. Camika Shelby said she couldn't talk about the school system due to legal reasons.
But Nigel's death birthed a campaign focused on suicide awareness and the importance of LGBTQ-acceptance in homes, schools, and churches. She makes sure she is accessible to any LGBTQ teen who needs a listening ear by maintaining Nigel's Instagram account and creating a Facebook group. Connecting with LGBTQ youth has become part of Camika Shelby's grieving process. Her son's spirit was made of sunshine and this is her way of keeping his encouraging legacy alive.
“I don’t want it to be, ‘the 15-year-old that committed suicide,’” Camika Shelby said during a Facebook live interview with Al.com’s Black Magic Project. “I want it to be ‘the 15-year-old whose suicide changed the world.’”
Multiple reports have expressed the need for more LGBTQ-friendly spaces, especially for youth who are vulnerable to racism, homophobia, and transphobia. The Human Rights Campaign reported that 90% of the more than 1,600 black LGBTQ teens surveyed said they have experienced racial discrimination. Along with this, 47% of respondents said they have been taunted or mocked by family members due to their sexualities and gender identities. AIDS Alabama, headquartered in Birmingham, has helped 33 homeless, black LGBTQ youth since 2016. While LGBTQ youth of color are more likely to experience depression and anxiety due to these stressors, the HRC survey pointed out the lack of LGBTQ-friendly and culturally-trained counselors.
The family-oriented nature of the holidays can amplify feelings of rejection and hopelessness in LGBTQ youth. This is why Camika Shelby was the main speaker during the annual Angel Toy Drive event in Birmingham. During the hour and a half celebration, black LGBTQ teens received $100 gift cards, self-care kits and listened to multiple LGBTQ mentors who talked about how they overcame bullying, suicidal thoughts and the services that are available to them.
During her speech, Camika Shelby stressed the importance of LGBTQ youth creating their own families if theirs is not accepting of their sexuality or gender identity.
"Sometimes family can be your own worst enemy. If they don't love you for who you are, they don't deserve you," she told the youth. "Don't let people tear you down for who you are. God knows who you are, and he makes no mistakes."
This wasn't Camika Shelby's first time speaking following her son's death. She has participated in two suicide awareness panels. The first one was at Alabama A&M University during a national suicide prevention month in September. She brought her message to a national stage when she appeared on "CBS This Morning" earlier this month.
While Nigel's death is being honored around the nation, Camika Shelby used the event in Birmingham to talk about his life. In between the pauses of pain and tears, she talked about her son's obsession with Beyonce and how he used to give her pop quizzes about Ariana Grande's life. Nigel is also her rainbow baby. Due to medical conditions, Camika Shelby said experienced multiple miscarriages.
"But it was something about Nigel. He was a fighter and he made his way into this world," Camika Shelby said. “From the moment I saw his smile, I knew this child was going to be special.”
Multiple celebrities also knew Nigel was going to be extraordinary. From Justin Bieber to Janelle Monáe, singers and actresses expressed their support for the Shelby family both emotionally and financially. Actress Gabrielle Union and her husband, former NBA star Dwayne Wade, helped pay for Nigel's funeral, Camika Shelby said. She appreciates how the couple has become cheerleaders for LGBTQ youth, especially when it comes to their own LGBTQ child, Zion. During an interview with Showtime's All the Smoke podcast on Thursday, Wade used Zion's preferred pronouns, she/her/hers, for the first time.
"For them to be in the public eye like that, that is amazing," Camika Shelby said of the couple.
Sunshine and smiles followed Nigel wherever he went, even into his final moments, his mother said. After he passed away, Camika Shelby found an uplifting text message on his phone that he was going to send to a friend who was going through a hard time. In the message, Nigel encouraged his friend to believe they are beautiful and not to let allow anyone to make them think otherwise.
"I cried and then smiled because it was a reminder of how much of an amazing child he was," Camika Shelby said. “When a person is having suicidal thoughts, they are thinking about ending it all. Before he made that choice, he stopped and took his time to uplift his friend.”
Creating a safe world for LGBTQ youth also means advising parents on how to support their teen's life. Camika Shelby demonstrates how to do this through her own story with Nigel. She said her son wasn't the first person to tell her he was gay, but her spirit did. So when Nigel admitted his sexuality to his mom at the age of 13, she treated as if it was a casual conversation and asked what he wanted for dinner. When Nigel was ready to tell his father and other relatives about his sexuality, momma sat closely beside him every time.
After Nigel's death, Camika Shelby said multiple family members asked her why she didn't tell them Nigel was gay. She said she didn't have that authority to tell his story.
"It wasn't my story to tell. Once he was ready to tell it, I sat right beside him," Camika Shelby said. “I needed him to know that I am right here. We are not sure how the person on the receiving end is going to take it. But as his mother, I am going to be right here.”
She also made sure Nigel felt very affirmed in himself. Proof of that can be seen in one of the most shared photos of her son - the one of him smiling and holding up the peace sign while wearing a rainbow-themed hoodie.
Camika Shelby and a friend spotted the hoodie while Christmas shopping last year. While Nigel lived in an accepting household, she got a feeling he was still uncomfortable with being himself outside of their home. So she bought him the hoodie as a gift, despite her initial hesitation.
"The rainbow flag will let the world know he is gay," Camika Shelby said. “Because I know how rejecting society can be, I was a little hesitant to buy it. But I went ahead and bought it anyway.”
She still cries over her son's reaction to the gift on Christmas Day. After opening the present, Nigel immediately dropped the hoodie and ran into his mother's arms. It was a moment of love, laughter and a lesson about the order of the stripes on the rainbow flag.
"He gave me the biggest hug ever because it symbolized to him that it was OK to be gay," Camika Shelby said, her voice quivering in pain at first, but then her voice booms into laughter. “He said, 'Momma, I really loved this gift. It is my favorite one. But by the way, the colors are not in order.'”
Tears pooled in her eyes again as she expressed her gratitude to those sharing the photo of her baby in the hoodie. She's still adjusting to her new normal where her emotions are constantly teeter-tottering between pain and peace. It's especially hard to find balance during the holidays.
The hoodie was her last Christmas gift to her only child. It was a tradition in their household to wear matching outfits to holiday parties. That won't be happening this year. One of Nigel's favorite holidays is New Year's Eve.
"I have my days when I don't want to get out of bed. I don't feel like I have a purpose anymore," Camika Shelby said. “For 15 years, I woke up every day with my mindset focused on what can I do to make Nigel's life better, and in a blink of an eye he was gone.”
Support from family, friends and her faith build the foundation of her strength. She must remain strong, she said. Not just for herself, but for the many other LGBTQ youths who have reached out to her across the country.
“I may have lost my own biological child, but I have gained so many more,” she said.
Nigel may be physically gone, but she knows she carries his spirit of encouragement with her. She allows him to speak through her as she tries to uplift the youth and give out her number and social media contacts.
"I'm to the point where I'm realizing that my baby had a purpose, regardless of whether it is here on this earth or not," she said. “So now, I'm his purpose. I am going to continue to speak out. I am going to continue to tell his story.”
And she is going to continue to reach out to other LGBTQ youth, she said.
She needs them to know that at least one mother is willing to sit beside them during their moments of need - just like she did with her son all those years ago.
Youth can use the following links to contact Camika Shelby:
-Facebook group: IamNigelShelby