How suffocating ideas of masculinity took the precious life of Giovanni Melton
Let me be clear: Each of us added to Giovanni’s burdens.
by Maximillian Matthews
I wonder when my late father first observed the singularity of my gender performance. Perhaps he saw it when he took me to my first concert during Janet Jackson’s 1993 Janet tour, and noticed how I knew every word she sang on the stage.
He may have seen it when he observed how much I cried when my childhood best friend moved to another state. He might have also seen it in 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 and heteronormative ideas of masculinity, as he was taught to do, but my identity could not embrace his idealizations.
Stories like mine are all too common for folks in the queer community. Folks like Giovanni Melton. On November 2nd of this year, fourteen year-old Giovanni was fatally shot by his father, Wendell Melton. According to reports, Giovanni’s sexuality was strongly disapproved of by Wendell, who in turn inflicted spiritual, mental, and physical abuse upon his son.
Evidently, Giovanni was not the son that Melton had wanted. In fact, Giovanni’s former foster mother, Sonia Jones, said the following about the extent of Wendell’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 heteropatriarchal masculinity for ages. The patriarchal society in which we live has never valued those of us who deviate from social norms like heteronormativity and the gender binary.
As with the case of Giovanni Melton, such deviations can tragically result in stigma, abuse of all forms, and violence. In homes that idolize patriarchal and rigid heteronormative masculinity, having an unconventional identity can be deadly. This death can manifest in several forms; eradicating families and childhoods, along with compassion, respect, and love.
Sonia Jones articulates a harsh reality that some Black queer folks already know too well. We understand the power of patriarchal expectations of masculinity and the risk it places on our lives.
We recognize it in microaggressions like, “Man up.” We hear it in the disgust with which folks speak about the queer community. We read it on dating profiles when gay men write “Masc 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: “‘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 own father would have suffered the same fate. Would he have given 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 heteropatriarchy. What did society teach his father that led him to value patriarchal forms of masculinity over his own flesh and blood? What did he 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.”
Giovanni refused to be chopped up. He refused to perform the masculine archetype, and it cost him his life, though society at large never truly cared for it in the first place. He died fighting a battle that he never should have had to enter into.
Let me be clear: Each of us added to Giovanni’s burdens. We may not have pulled the trigger as Wendell Melton did, but those of us who uphold a violent heteropatriarchal standard have all contributed to the death of Black LGBTQIA+ youth. Any time we reject a person’s identity, we are killing them.
The LGBTQIA+ community itself is also guilty of these contributions because of our own obsession with masculinity. An obsession which many activists, organizers, and writers have been crying out about. Yet, the cries largely go ignored. Those who dare to reject the confines of masculinity continue to be met with discrimination, hostility, and ignorance.
bell hooks writes in The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, “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. His murder not only requires us to interrogate how Black men understand masculinity, but also calls us to look at how we are failing Black children.
Not only is the world we live in a heteropatriarchal one, it is an anti-Black one. The trauma that we carry from the anti-Blackness we experience requires intense work to heal from, and we inflict Black children with even further trauma when we do not endeavor to do any work against the violence of heteropatriarchal masculinity.
What Giovanni needed was resources that recognized the trauma in his life and malicious environment that he lived in. Ruminating on this, 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 LGBTQIA+ youth, particularly those of color. He needed the space to be a child.
That same space which 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. Some of us thought we could protect ourselves by keeping our identities secret, but the fact is we were afraid to acknowledge the truth that we knew even as children: heteropatriarchal masculinity seems to always prevail in our culture.
There is much to learn from Black children like Giovanni Melton, who bravely stood up to these systems that tried to restrict him. One of the greatest tragedies of his life and his death is that the world will never know what he might have become.
I implore us all to consider these things: How are we going to serve Black LGBTQIA+ youth like Giovanni who are still among us? Are we ready to recognize the ways that we contributed to the death of this child and those before him? How are we going to work to dismantle the gender binary and heteropatriarchal masculinity? How are we going to keep Black children lifted while working to heal ourselves from traumas that should not be passed onto future generations? When will we stop worshipping heteropatriarchal masculinity?
We can start by learning from Giovanni and honoring what he fought for: his right to exist. Let’s not let his valiant fight be in vain.
Maximillian Matthews is a Black queer writer based out of Durham, NC. His work has been featured on Blavity and The Body Is Not An Apology. He holds a M.Ed. in Higher Education Administration from North Carolina State University and a B.A. in English Literature from Elon University. He has worked in education for over eight years and will begin studying Counseling at New York University in 2018.