Dear Gemmel & Giovanni

Life should never have to be this way

by George M. Johnson

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I wake up every day and I do about ten minutes of prayer. I sit on my yoga mat with my legs crossed, light some sage and do some chanting. I do it to center myself. I do it to ask the universe to provide cover for all my friends, family, and people unknown to me. I do it to pray for the lives that we lost like Gemmel and Giovanni, and for the hopes that we one day will lose people like you no more.

There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about the two of you and what you both could’ve meant as change agents to this anti-black world. How since your birth as Black queer people on this earth, the odds were stacked against you with a layered oppression. How this world should’ve been better to you and for you—for you to have the ability to live, and thrive, and be loved. Most importantly that your names shouldn’t be headlines nor hashtags, but that you both should still be here with us in the physical world.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you view it, I and others spend our lives fighting for your names to always be remembered in an effort to create a society where the next people like you are never met with your fate. We fight against the systems of oppressions that continuously make Black queer folks choose the lesser of two evils—death in an instant or death by 1,000 paper cuts.

I often reflect on the circumstances around both of your deaths and am reminded that although you both left this world in two very different ways, white supremacy played the ultimate role in your untimely murders.

For you, Giovanni, it was the unfortunate circumstance that many people who are Black and Other face when trying to navigate the confines of our own community. A community that has for hundreds of years struggled with the conditioning that was passed down through colonization that taught us to hate our own. Hate our own based on color, and sex, and gender, and approximation to whiteness.

I often struggle with the why of your father. Why you couldn’t have been born to a family with a father like mine, who cared for me despite my identity. A family that surrounded me with love and care and based everything they felt for me on that emotion first. Your father’s words to the world will be forever etched into my mind
“I would rather have a dead son than a gay son.”

There is no place for that type of hate in our community, or any community for that matter. There is no reason nor excuse that could make it ever okay to take the life of another Black person based on their identity.

And Gemmel. I am angry at the way the world treated you, especially in the media. Made you out to be something you were not. Made you out to be something devalued because of the correlation made between sex work and dehumanization. Powerful white men have used Black people as pawns forever and they should have never been able to add your name to that list. Now a man walks free, your killer, and we have no justice for you.

There are still so many others like you who continue to walk the streets, and deal with these same powerful men who can inject your body with poison for their pleasure and never be held accountable for their actions. Never concerned about your sexual health, let alone if you will survive the drugs. They made you disposable. No human should ever be that.

Unfortunately for people like us, this world is set up with hurdle after hurdle of a layered oppression that comes when you are Black and Other—with that Other being Queer. Higher rates of homelessness, bullying, and violence often plague our community. HIV is often correlated as our community’s issue. Our numbers are at epidemic level and there doesn’t seem to be any relief in sight. The odds are that one in two of you would’ve acquired the virus in your lifetime—a number that should never be that high.

I often think about how even if we as Black queer people cross one hurdle there always seems to be another waiting to trip us up. The dangers that awaited you both should you still be here with us today—the dangers many of us continue to deal with and struggle through. It’s unfortunate that for people like us, it is either death in an instant or by 1,000 paper cuts. Life should never have to be this way.

I wake up every morning, Black, Queer, HIV-positive, and about fifteen other things and the two of you come to my mind. How your deaths will not be in vain, and how despite the constant attacks from this anti-black world we must continue to fight for boys like you.


George M. Johnson is a journalist and activist. He has written for Entertainment Tonight, Ebony, TheGrio, TeenVogue, NBC News, and several other major publications. He writes the Our Story, Our Time column for A&U. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @iamgmjohnson.