George M. Johnson is a busy bee. Their best-selling memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue, has made numerous must-read lists and is being developed with actor/producer Gabrielle Union into a show about Black gay youth. And if that wasn’t enough, at the time of our interview, the deadline on the draft of their second book was fast approaching (Johnson recently tweeted that they’d finished the draft).
At 34 years old, Johnson has accomplished quite a bit: The Plainfield, New Jersey–born writer and activist attended Virginia Union University and went on to get a master’s degree from Bowie State University. Close to graduation, they were diagnosed with HIV. But that diagnosis didn’t stop Johnson. They went on to become an HIV activist and worked in community-based organizations in Washington, D.C., while they began blogging and writing, taking on topics such as HIV stigma, anti-Black racism, toxic masculinity and gender, and began to gain traction as an influencer on social media. This helped connect Johnson to publications who wanted them to write about their experiences and analysis. Johnson has written for TheBody and TheBodyPro, and also for many other publications, including Essence, The Advocate, BuzzFeed News, and Teen Vogue, and is a columnist for AFROPUNK.com.
As busy as Johnson is, it will come as no surprise to readers of the book that they are as generous with their time as with sharing details about their life. On July 21, we sat down to dish about what it meant to write the memoir—and the joy in giving this generation of queer kids encouragement to live their fabulous lives fully.
Juan Michael Porter II: Something that really resonated with me was when you wrote about the kids who tried to jump you and your cousins and the effect it had upon your smile. I love that you really jump into the violence and unseen scars that incident left on you. What was it like reliving that moment?
George M. Johnson: This memory in particular never left me. I’ve always had this one memory of that day; what it looks like, what it felt like. And I think it never left me, because the issues that I’ve had with my teeth and my smile have never left.
And so the one point that I can always connect it to is that very point—and I think that’s why it stayed with me. It’s not easy, that particular memory. I will say it’s not hard, because I guess I’ve relived it so many times in my head that for me to tell that story wasn’t hard. And I hate that it wasn’t hard. But maybe it means I’ve processed it. Maybe it means—I don’t know—I’ve just coped with it.
But what I will say is that I have Invisalign, and I actually feel empowered to finally go to the dentist. And so I have Invisalign, I had teeth pulled, and like, I actually spent a lot of money. But I have started to do the work fixing my smile so that I’ll be happy with it.
And so I think in many ways that story—and all of the stories in the book—in some way, shape, or form, healed me from things that I thought that I had moved past but I had never really moved past. Where I’m at now is certainly not where I was when I began the book.
That story in particular was healing for me. And seeing how it’s resonating with so many others is how I know I did the work. If I didn’t do the work, the book wouldn’t be doing what it’s doing everywhere and wouldn’t be as critically acclaimed as it’s been. I know I did the work, and I think that that’s the most important part for me.
Going to that place of vulnerability, no matter how hard it was, I knew it was necessary if I was going to free someone else, and prevent someone else from going through that same unnecessary trauma. And so, you know, in many ways, I think it was just like cathartic and healing and necessary. And I’m happy I did it. It’s still tough, because I’m writing the next book and it’s tough to relive some things, but it’s necessary. And I’m OK with that.
JMPII: You’ve catalogued how queerness was outlawed around you as a child—even though your family loved and nurtured you—as well as feeling as if you had to hide in plain sight. What do you think it would have meant for the younger version of you to have heard the words, “Yes, your family loves you, but there is something going on that prevents you from feeling completely accepted”?
GMJ: Yeah, it’s so interesting because it’s almost like, “Would you have changed your path?” And it’s like, if I changed the path, this story couldn’t be. I’m very spiritual. When people ask, “What would you tell your younger self?” I wouldn’t tell my younger self something to change, or, “Be like this,” or, “Do that.” No [I’d say], “You’re gonna go through a lot of shit, but you’re going to survive it. But trust, you have to go through the shit to help other people so they don’t have to. You are the vessel that has to go through the shit.”
My job is to prevent other people from going through trauma, but my job is not to give my younger self the tools to prevent him from going through it. Because if I teach my younger self that, then a whole generation of people will miss out on what my actual purpose was here.
I hope I’m explaining that right. I’m very spiritual, so sometimes when I’m trying to explain things people get a little, like. …”
JMPII: You explained that perfectly. It’s like you processed it for other people and you’re taking those lessons and sharing them. Anyone who doesn’t get that is just not listening.
GMJ: Yeah. No, because there’s a lot of people that are like, “Wait. So you would let yourself go through …?” It’s like, yes! If you really, really know what your spiritual purpose is in the work that you do, then you don’t question it.
You know, when Nanny (George’s maternal grandmother) passed away in December, it would have been very easy for me to question, “Why her? Why this? Why that?” But I knew I needed somebody on the other side that was very powerful, because of what I was about to enter into.
You don’t have a lot of Black queer people who sign multiple book deals. You don’t have a lot of Black people who get their own television show based on their life. Like, that’s just not a thing. So I am a first. And it would have been great for her physically to be here with me, but I knew that sometimes energy’s got to shift.
Because if she was still here fighting cancer, in many ways I would have probably not been able to do it. Because I would have put my life on hold to take care of her. And so that’s why I’m very, very accepting of how the universe operates. That’s why I don’t wish to change the things in my past. This is how it was supposed to happen. And she’s still here, in my opinion.
JMPII: For many people, it’s radical to speak about our existences as Black queer folks instead of blending into the background. Could you talk about why it was important for you to assert those things in the book?
GMJ: Like you said, people see that as, like, radical. I have no desire to assimilate, and I know that’s all we’ve been taught, and I get it. It makes sense; code switching. All of it makes sense. I made the conscious decision that if I was going to go into spaces, I was going to go as I was—and also be very proud about who I am.
I think that there is a fear oftentimes of being too Black. Right? Of being “too Monique.” And I think what we all have learned from watching how Monique has had to navigate is, number one, Monique was right. Number two, it does nothing to live your life and not be unapologetic about who you are. Like, who does that benefit? It doesn’t benefit you in any way.
It may benefit you monetarily, but what is it doing to your spirit? What is it doing to people who are trying to get to know the real you versus the version of yourself that you are delivering to people? I never want to deliver a version of myself to people. There are parts of myself that are flawed and that I work on, but I need people to know that I am flawed. Right? So if I’m always showing up perfect in every room, in every situation, turning down my Blackness here and turning it up there; that to me is not living.
I am Black. I think that’s the biggest thing. There are people who deny my Blackness because I’m queer. There are people who deny my Blackness because they’re white. So it’s like you get it from both sides. Sometimes you get it intra-community too. And I just have no desire to not exist as all of the pieces that I am. And so I felt it was important to make it really plain. I am this; I am that; I am proud of that.
There’s nothing you can say that’s going to stop any of the ways that I show up for Black people and support Black people and support myself. I thought it was important because there was this saying: “Pro-Black doesn’t equal antiwhite.” And I got to the point where I was like, “But what if it does? What if being pro-Black was antiwhite?
Is being antiwhite a problem? Like, you own everything. You owned my people at one time. What is the problem if I’m antiwhite? Yeah. Maybe I am antiwhite because I’m tired, right? Maybe I am anti-whiteness. Maybe I am anti-white supremacy. So, why am I saying that the only way I can fully show up as I am is if I also am making you feel comfortable? That’s absurd. That’s where my mind has shifted over the last few years around pro-Blackness and showing up fully as I am and not being concerned about how that makes other people feel.
The other day, when John Lewis died, white people were like, “If you want to honor John Lewis, go vote.” And I was like, “White people need to mind their business, because maybe I should be talking to white people about going to vote.” Because clearly they’re going to vote for Trump. So in many ways it’s like, “Y’all have your own business to mind and y’all are minding Black folks’ business. So, again, go manage your business. Because y’all’s stuff ain’t straight.” So I think that’s why I show up in that way. Because why not? Like our ancestors. Why not?
JMPII: What else are you going to do? What else are you going to be?
GMJ: Yeah, to not show up as fully as I am; what does that mean in the grand scheme of things? I think at the end of the day, everything is a construct, right? Hood is a construct. Ghetto is a construct. Your name is ghetto; you act too ghetto. Right? It just kind of moves down a level when you get to queer people, and I just have no desire to “other” people. And I have no desire to other myself, so I’m not going to be other. I’m going to show up some days masculine; I’m going to show up some days femme; I’m going to show up some days loud; I’m going to show up some days quiet. And I have every right to show up how I want to show up, where I want to show up, as Black as I want to show up.
JMPII: Your family is remarkably progressive and diverse. A lesbian aunt, a gay half-brother, a trans godmother.
GMJ: I didn’t realize how fortunate I was, because I thought that was normal. I experienced homophobia, but I wasn’t around enough other people’s families to see if that was a thing or not. So I just assumed that everyone had gay cousins or trans cousins.
It wasn’t until I got to high school that [I realized], “OK, my family must be different.” Like, that ain’t normal for people. By the time I got into college, people would be like, “Yo. Is your cousin transgender?” And friends start to come to our family cookouts or line brothers start to come to stuff and they’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. What’s going on here?” That’s when [I] started to realize, like, a lot of people aren’t blessed to have so many different types of Black folks in their family and to not have it look like a thing.
I now realize how fortunate I was and how fortunate I am to be able to tell these stories to the world, because I think it becomes a possibility model for so many Black families to take a step back and be like, “Why am I shunning this person? Why am I harming this person? Why does their sexuality bother me that much? Does their gender bother me that much that I could hate someone in my actual family?”
I know it’s starting to do that, because I’ve had conversations with people who may have held bigoted thoughts and ideals [but] who are now like, “You know, I read your book, it gave me a lot to think through.” I think that once they read the book our experience no longer becomes a caricature; our experience is no longer the alien in the room. When you read the book you then have to actually be like, “Wow, this was a Black human that we made disposable.” And when you listen to my thoughts as a kid and everything I was processing, it’s like, “We really were terrible to a kid who was struggling. Who was just trying to exist. To survive. And we were part of the problem that this kid may not have survived.”
I think that my family is a possibility model, because I think about how Nigel Shelby had a great family, for all intents and purposes, and we’ve seen what society did to him. It’s like, you could have this wonderful family but society could still take you out. So I think how I am fortunate to be part of a family that is so extraordinary, but also grateful now that the world gets insight into some of my family’s workings. So there may be some positive action, and change could happen for the next kid like me.
JMPII: That makes me think about your compassion when discussing your cousin who did something harmful to you, and how you show that one bad action does not define a person.
GMJ: The biggest thing for me was I had no desire to make anyone in my family a villain. The world is villainizing Black people enough. I’m a practicing abolitionist, and that’s not just about abolishing systems of oppression. It is about abolishing constructs and how we’re taught that the only way to get justice is through punishment of a person for how they harmed you, even if the punishment does nothing for you.
Me putting my cousin in jail; what [would] it actually do for me? That would get me nowhere closer to feeling any different. If I would have put my cousin in jail and then my cousin got out of jail, what would happen then? Does he come back around the family? Do we shun him for life? That to me made no sense in terms of how a person actually gets healing. Because that wouldn’t have healed me.
It was complicated, because I was a kid who didn’t have tools and resources to even fully understand how your body could be reacting one way, even though your mind knows something is terribly wrong with the situation. If I am truly for the protection of Black folks and truly for the protection of Black kids and truly for all of that, then I also have to speak for the Black queer child that he was; that had no space; that felt unloved by his father; that felt disposed of by many of his family members.
I have to speak to that, because there’s a trauma there too. And he won’t get to tell his story. So if I’m going to tell our story, then I have to tell it in totality, which means I have to include those parts too. I think people get fearful that when you include a person’s full story of their trauma that it reduces their accountability for harm they may have caused. I just see that people are full of good and can be full of bad. It’s just like the philanthropist that may also be a sexual predator. People like to be like, “He did all these great things for Black people.” Yeah, but he also did these terrible things. We have to name that.
It’s like the sanitizing of life, and I have no desire to be sanitized. When I die, if I harmed someone, let them say that. It’s not going to do nothing to me, y’all, when I’m dead. Because when I’m dead, I’m dead. However, what I hope it does is encourage people to rectify whatever harm I did on my behalf. That’s how you honor me. You honor me by doing what I would have done. And what I would have done was held myself accountable.
George M. Johnson is holding everyone accountable while showing up fearlessly for Black queer youth in All Boys Aren’t Blue. The acclaimed young adult memoir is available for purchase at all major outlets. For more information about Johnson, follow them on Twitter.