Fourth grader Jamel Myles came out to his classmates at the start of this school year. Four days later, Jamel was dead by suicide. He was 9. He was gay. He was bullied, tormented, and broken by the classmates he had trusted with his heart. He was 9. He was old enough to know exactly who he was and much too young to leave the world before we could get to know him, too.
Jamel Myles nervously came out to his mother this summer; according to her, she supported him and his desire to wear more feminine clothing. “He went to school and said he was gonna tell people he’s gay because he’s proud of himself,” Jamel’s mom, Leia Pierce, said. He was ready for a fresh start and he fucking deserved a better one than what he received.
Here’s the thing: This isn’t about stopping bullying. We need to do much better than that. We need to stop putting out fires; we need to prevent them. This is about normalizing what is different. Jamel’s story underscores the need to talk about all kinds of love, families, genders, gender expressions, and gender identities. Every kid should have access to an inclusive classroom. Every kid should have LGBTQ topics, terms, and people built into their educational narrative.
Creating affirming spaces is not hard. I promise it’s not. I am queer. I am an advocate. But I am also a parent. I have a transgender child. A large part of my advocacy is for my child and her siblings. They are vulnerable just by being my kids. They have two moms, one who is non-binary. They live in the margins of society. But that doesn’t mean they are less deserving of respect, acceptance, and the feeling of fitting in. Neither was Jamel Myles.
When I talk to educators and other parents about HOW to be inclusive, I talk about creating affirming spaces by addressing microaggressions against gender, gender roles, and sexuality, because these smaller aggressions will turn into hostile verbal attacks. Kids need to know they can be anything they need to be without fear of judgement or harassment. I also ask for representation of LGBTQ families and characters through books in the classroom. And I ask that people use language that isn’t gendered. Addressing kids as kids or friends instead of boys and girls creates equality and a feeling of being included vs. separated by an assigned label that to some children may feel like an itchy tag.
This morning I spoke to six employees of our town’s recreation department. They are the summer camp, after school, and school vacation camp directors and leaders. They work with elementary and middle school kids year-round. In two days they will be working with me, my kids, and my family. This was an easy meeting because they are all allies; they WANT to prevent bullying. They WANT to have conversations with kids that validate queer kids and that celebrate LGBTQ families. But I made it very clear that I have zero tolerance for even the slightest negative comment or indication of harm that may be directed at my child.
I cannot control the words or actions of anyone. But I can absolutely make sure positive conversations are happening that tell my kids, their friends, and kids like Jamel Myles that they are perfect just the way they are. And you can, too. You can talk to your kids RIGHT NOW about love. You can tell your kids that love makes a family and sometimes that means two moms or two dads. You can talk to your kids about gender identities and what it means to be transgender or gender nonconforming. You can talk to your kids about kindness and acceptance. And if you don’t know how to do these things, contact your local Pride center or LGBTQ Youth organization and ask for them to provide you or school staff with training on these topics.
Check in with your kid and ask them what they hear at school. Ask them to be allies and upstanders. And ask your libraries and schools for LGBTQ inclusive books. Ask them to teach LGBTQ history and explain Pride. Demand these things. Because this isn’t just about Jamel Myers. There is a chance your kid or your kid’s best friend will be gay and will need safe spaces to fall. They will fall. But the goal is to get back up. We need our kids to get back up. They need us to lift them.
I am sorry we didn’t lift you up, Jamel. We failed you.
If you or someone you know needs support or are considering suicide, please call the Trevor Project’s TrevorLifeLine at 1-866-488-7386. Or visit their website to talk with an online counselor.