I wonder when my deceased father first observed the singularity of my gender performance. Perhaps he saw it when he took me to my first concert (Janet Jackson’s 1993 janet. World Tour) and noticed how I knew every word she sang on the stage. He might have saw it when he observed how much I cried when my childhood best friend moved to another state. He could have also seen how I always selected Chun-Li, Sonya Blade, Kitana, Princess Peach and other female characters when I played video games. I imagine his observations deeply concerned him because he saw that I was not aligning with his aspirations for me. I am certain that he wanted a son that embodied and deified patriarchal masculinity as he was taught to do, but my identity could not embrace his idealizations. Stories like mine are all too common in the queer community, which Giovanni Melton was a part of.
On November 2, Giovanni was fatally shot by his father, Wendell Melton. According to reports, Giovanni's sexuality was strongly disapproved by Melton, who inflicted spiritual, mental and physical abuse upon his son. Evidently, Giovanni was not the son that Melton wanted. In fact, Giovanni’s former foster mother, Sonia Jones, said the following about the extent of Melton’s hatred, “I’m sure that inside of his mind, he would rather have a dead son than a gay son.”
Black queer folks have been suffering due to patriarchal masculinity for ages. Essex Hemphill’s 1991 collection of essays and poems, Brother to Brother, featured writings by black gay men who endured far-reaching damage inflicted by their families and communities. The patriarchal society in which we live has never valued those that deviate from social norms, such as heteronormativity and the gender binary. Such deviations, in the case of Giovanni Melton, can tragically result in stigma, abuse of all forms and violence.
In homes that idolize patriarchal masculinity, having an unconventional identity can be deadly. This death permeates itself in several forms: eradicating families and childhoods, along with compassion, respect and love. Jones articulated a harsh reality that some black queer folks already know too well. We understand the power of patriarchal masculinity and the risk it places on our lives. We recognize it in microaggressions such as “Man up.” We hear it in the disgust with which folks talk about the queer community. We read it on dating profiles when men write "Masculine dudes only." We see it in the faces of our parents and family members.
Consider this excerpt from Clay Cane’s book, Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race. He writes, “‘I want to be a girl’ is the first sentence I remember saying to my father. His eyes widened, his face contorted and his jaw tightened. With those six words, he instantly abandoned his son.” I wonder if my relationship with my father would have suffered the same fate. Would he have gave into his beliefs that called for the death of his own son as Wendell Melton did?
The murder of Giovanni Melton speaks to the power that we continue to feed to patriarchy. What did society teach his father that led him to value patriarchal masculinity over his flesh and blood? What exactly are we accomplishing by being infatuated with patriarchal masculinity? What did Wendell Melton believe he was accomplishing by abusing his son? Why do we uphold these systems that rob folks of their humanity and can ultimately result in death?
Hari Ziyad writes, “[Patriarchy] chops people up into little groups where they can easily be sorted and placed into their position, and ultimately supports this masculine, patriarchal society, which benefits people who can perform archetypes of masculinity and whiteness, which no black person can really do.” I would argue that Giovanni refused to be chopped as such and to perform these archetypes, costing him his life which society never cared for in the first place. He died fighting a battle that he never should have had to adopt. Let me be clear: Each of us added to Giovanni’s burdens.
You may not murder your child as Melton did, but we have all contributed to the death of black queer youth. Any time we reject a person’s identity, we do so. The queer community itself is also guilty of these contributions because of our obsession with masculinity, which activists, organizers and writers have been crying out about. Yet, the cries go ignored. Those who dare to reject the confines of masculinity continue to be met with discrimination, hostility and ignorance.
In the book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, bell hooks writes, “Since [patriarchy] is a system that denies men full access to their freedom of will, it is difficult for any man of any class to rebel against patriarchy, to be disloyal to the patriarchal parent, be that parent female or male…in patriarchal culture males are not allowed simply to be who they are and to glory in their unique identity.” Giovanni was not permitted to be himself and bask in his individuality. He died because he rebelled against patriarchy in the form of his father. We need to talk about how black men understand masculinity because our understanding is only benefiting whiteness and killing us, including our children.
Giovanni’s murder also calls into question how we are failing black children. Not only is the world we live in a patriarchal one, it is an anti-black one, making oppression unavoidable for black people. The trauma that we carry because of the oppression we experience requires intense work to heal from. We can inflict Black children with this same trauma if we are not endeavoring to do this work. Giovanni needed resources that recognized the trauma in his life and malicious environment that he lived in.
Preston Mitchum writes, “These issues are interconnected: Where were [Giovanni’s] resources? Access to help? Mentors? Young people must have all of that particularly in hostile environments. They need more than coming out because for many it doesn’t get better.” Giovanni needed advocates to defend him and his childhood from this anti-black world. He needed meaningful action towards providing help and safety to queer youth, particularly those of color. He needed the space to be a child.
That same space was taken from some of us who recognized our queerness in our childhood. It was also taken from those whose queerness was recognized by someone else. We thought we could protect ourselves by keeping our identities secret, but the fact is we were afraid to acknowledge the truth that we knew as children: patriarchal masculinity will always prevail in our culture. There is much to learn from black children like Giovanni who bravely stood up to these systems that tried to restrict him.
One of the greatest tragedies of Giovanni’s life is what he never had the chance to explore because of his queerness and never knowing what he could have became. How are we going to serve black queer youth like Giovanni who are still among us? How else are we going to recognize the ways that we contributed to the death of Giovanni and those before him? How are we going to work to dismantle the gender binary and patriarchal masculinity as he died doing? How are we going to keep black children lifted and heal ourselves from the trauma that should not be passed onto future generations? When will we stop worshipping patriarchal masculinity? We can start by learning from Giovanni and honoring what he fought for. Let’s not make his valiant fight in vain.