Anti-LGBTQ bills in the Alabama legislature threaten the state’s youth and undermine the legacy of one gay teen, critics say

By | March 31, 2024

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Camika Shelby says 2019 was the worst year of her life.

“Never in a million years did I think I would pull up at home and find my child lifeless,” Shelby told CNN. Her only child, Nigel, died by suicide on April 18 that year. He was 15.

Nigel was gay, Shelby said, but she never knew the impact that had on his life at school. She only found out when the Huntsville City Board of Education opened an investigation into Nigel’s death — and what she heard prompted Shelby to sue the board and an administrator at Nigel’s school.

Nigel was constantly bullied by his classmates, both online and in person, for being gay — in some cases even in front of faculty members, according to the civil lawsuit filed in 2021. Nigel and his friends had reported that Nigel was harassed several times. time, but he was treated as “a joke” and dismissed as just an “episode” by the head freshman administrator, according to the lawsuit.

“The district’s lack of adequate policies and training significantly harmed Nigel and placed him at an unreasonable risk of harm,” the lawsuit said. “And now Nigel’s gone.”

It’s a growing concern for many: A series of bills are now advancing through the Alabama Legislature that would slowly chip away at the rights of the LGBTQ community, including by restricting LGBTQ discussions in classrooms.

An undated photo of Nigel Shelby - Courtesy of the Shelby family

An undated photo of Nigel Shelby – Courtesy of the Shelby family

Shelby ultimately reached an $840,000 settlement with the board and administrator, with the board agreeing to update its anti-bullying and harassment policies toward the LGBTQ community and to teach teachers and students ways to combat bullying and harassment toward LGBTQ prevent people. The board and manager denied that they had violated any legal duty, rights or “federal, state or municipal constitution, law, order or regulation.”

“Our job is to make kids feel safe,” Shelby said. “As a parent, any parent, whether your child is LGBTQ or not, no parent wants to have to worry about their child going to school while something is happening.”

The proposed legislation comes at a time when Alabama has already sparked debate over an anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) law that bans public schools and universities from maintaining or funding DEI programs, and a ruling by the Supreme Court that fertilized embryos are children, halting in vitro fertilization in the state until lawmakers passed a bill protecting the procedure.

The anti-DEI law, which went into effect in late March, also requires public universities to “designate restrooms based on biological sex” — which the Alabama law defines as “the physical condition of being male or female, as stated on the individual’s original health declaration”. birth certificate” – and not the gender that reflects how someone identifies.

‘Solutions in search of a problem’

HB130 – called a “Don’t Say Gay” bill by critics – is one of several bills currently before the state legislature. The intent is to broaden a 2022 law that limits discussions of LGBTQ topics in K-12 public classrooms to K-12 public classrooms. The legislation bans classroom instruction for public school students “related to gender identity or sexual orientation.”

HB130 would also remove current language that teaching LGBTQ topics “in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards” is okay for teachers, which in turn expands the scope of what is not allowed is. discussed in class.

For Neil Rafferty, a husband, war veteran and the only Alabama state lawmaker who identifies as gay, the changes could again create unintended consequences for the state.

“There’s a ambiguity that arises that then goes to the school districts to try to figure out how to comply with this (possible new law),” said Rafferty, whose bookshelf includes a Bible next to Alabama’s state code books. Even saying something like “Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean” could become problematic in classrooms, he said.

Rafferty questioned Republican lawmakers’ motivation for the bill. “Essentially, these are solutions in search of a problem,” the Democrat told CNN.

Rep. Neil Rafferty - Devon Sayers/CNNRep. Neil Rafferty - Devon Sayers/CNN

Rep. Neil Rafferty – Devon Sayers/CNN

The bill would also ban pride flags and LGBTQ badges from being displayed in classrooms or on school grounds. While it does not currently define penalties for displaying LGBTQ badges, the bill leaves it up to the state Board of Education to mete out oversight and punishment in these cases.

The author and sponsor of the bill, Republican Rep. MacButlersaid the goal of the bill is for schools to “focus on reading, writing and math.”

“There is some indoctrination,” Butler said earlier this month at a meeting of the state House Education Policy Committee. “We are destroying the family by teaching any of these things. Let it happen somewhere other than our schools… all it’s trying to do (is) to cleanse the school a little bit.” Butler later said he was mistaken when he spoke of the need to “purge,” but did not elaborate on his comments.

CNN contacted the sponsors of HB130, all of whom are Republicans. No one responded to CNN’s questions about the bill or was available for an interview.

In an interview with AL.com, Butler said the restrictions are intended to protect the innocence of children. “[Teachers] infringe on parents’ space” by teaching about gender or sexual orientation, Butler told the outlet.

In addition to HB130, the Legislature is considering HB111 and SB92: companion bills that would legally define what sex is, that the only genders are male and female, and that the sex on your birth certificate must correlate “where state law classifies individuals based on sex” as it is laid down in law.

The House of Representatives will meet again on Tuesday.

Alabamians broadly support certain LGBTQ rights, data show

Shelby wonders how the bills will benefit Alabamans of all ages.

According to 2022 data from the Public Religion Research Institute, a majority of Alabamians support same-sex marriage and anti-discrimination laws for LGBTQ people. The same survey shows that respondents are divided when it comes to allowing businesses to deny service to LGBTQ customers.

“If these bills come into play, what did I actually fight for?” Shelby said. “We all deserve protection. We all deserve to feel comfortable. We all deserve to feel love. So my question is: who are these bills actually protecting? Because they are clearly not the parents of my situation. They are not children from Nigel’s situation.’

Adele Kimmel, director of the Public Justice Students’ Civil Rights Project, which represented Shelby, also expressed concerns about the way the bills are worded and how “unconstitutionally vague” they are.

Kimmel said she believes this would make students “less likely to report bullying or harassment” like what Nigel faced.

“That would create a hostile learning environment for LGBTQ students and likely cause significant trauma for them, as the bills target them and will make them feel unwelcome in school,” Kimmel told CNN. “And since the entire purpose of the Shelby settlement, and all of these policies, training and procedures, is to ensure that LGBTQ students feel safe, welcome and included in school.”

A similar “Don’t Say Gay” bill that banned certain instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom was signed into law in Florida in 2022. Florida education officials and a group of LGBTQ advocates and families recently reached a legal settlement that clarifies the scope of the statute.

And Alabama and Florida aren’t the only ones introducing such bills; State lawmakers introduced a record 520 anti-LGBTQ bills in 2023, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Seventy were imported – another record, according to the organization.

Shelby grew up in Alabama and said she loves her state, just not the way people like her son are treated.

It’s been almost five years since her son died.

After his death, Shelby founded the Nigel Shelby Foundation to help young people who may not have a support system, provide scholarships to students and help families with LGBTQ children. She is working to obtain a business degree. She wrote a book about her son.

Camika and Nigel Shelby - Thanks to the Shelby familyCamika and Nigel Shelby - Thanks to the Shelby family

Camika and Nigel Shelby – Thanks to the Shelby family

In a letter to his mother before his death, Nigel asked her to forgive him and live, Shelby said.

“He said, ‘Mommy, please keep going,’” Shelby said. “So if I just gave up, it would feel like I was abandoning him.”

“He’s gone, but there are still a million (young people like) him who are here, and it does affect them,” she said. “I wouldn’t wish this on anyone. So if I can do something to prevent this from happening to the next person, then it’s worth fighting for.”

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