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Celebrating Pride: Janelle “Nelly” Smith

Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Michigan is proud to celebrate Local Pride throughout June. Sign up for our to get updates in your inbox and learn more about Pride in your community.

Janelle “Nelly” Smith, Kalamazoo athlete, administrator for the Kalamazoo Promise, and Varsity Assistant Basketball Coach at Kalamazoo Central High School, shares that she loves the way Pride Month has shifted over the last few years. She recalls that in the past, Pride Month and the celebrations surrounding it were generally avoided by the public, but that, “Now, with even more allies and just more folks going in general, it’s exciting.”


Like many LGBTQIA+ young people, coming out to her mom was one of Smith’s greatest challenges. She came out to her friends the summer of her junior year of high school, but wasn’t able to tell her mom until years later. When she finally was able to tell her mom, it wasn’t easy. She shares, “It took her some years. The love was always there, but she just needed to understand and get there on her own.”

It wasn’t until they watched the movie Pariah together that things really shifted for Smith and her mom. The 2011 American drama highlights the life of a 17 year old black female coming out as a lesbian. Smith explains, “There was this scene when the mom and the main character get into an argument, and the mom hits her. My mom paused the movie and had me stand up and give her a hug… This was the moment I could finally breathe.”

Smith, who plans on spending Pride Month in Texas with her mom and sister this year, hopes to experience a Pride celebration with her mom for the first time.

Her encouragement for young people who want to come out? “Live for you. Most people that are scared to come out … end up eating at themselves their whole life.”


We asked Smith about her thoughts on Big Brothers Big Sisters’ Big Pride program. Big Pride pairs LGBTQ+ youth with LGBTQ+ mentors who can relate firsthand to their experiences and provide a unique level of support for youth who are navigating the challenges that can stem from being an LGBTQ+ young person. She shares, “I think it’s phenomenal. If I had it growing up I definitely would have taken full advantage.

Smith explains that she didn’t have many mentors growing up. In many ways she had to look to media to help her navigate the world as a young black lesbian woman. She shares that because her experience felt so starkly different from the experiences of the people around her, she had to figure out many things on her own.

Not having many mentors growing up has not stopped her from being a role model for other young people, though. As a basketball coach at Kalamazoo Central High School, Smith has the opportunity to mentor many young girls. “I’m able to share my experiences,” Smith explains, “Having someone older who has walked this life and has experiences they are likely to go through … is huge.”