George M. Johnson was diagnosed with HIV when he was 25. Within a few years, he had established himself as a leading voice for Black queer empowerment and HIV advocacy.
In 2016, Johnson shared the story of his diagnosis with us. He also got in front of a camera for our “Memo to Me” video series, in which people living with HIV shared their story, reflected back on their diagnosis, and offered advice to their younger selves through the prism of the lives they’ve lived since then.
This felt like an important time to bring his words to the forefront. So here, for the first time, is a transcript of Johnson’s interview with us in 2016. It has been edited for length and clarity.
My name is George Matthew Johnson. I'm from Plainfield, New Jersey. I graduated from Virginia University with a bachelor's degree in finance, from Boise State University with master's degree in human resource development.
Some of the work that I have done, it used to be primarily in higher education, working at an HBCU [historically Black college or university] in the financial department. I then followed my passion and transitioned over into HIV prevention work.
I walked into activism backwards. I didn't seek to be an activist, I just knew I had a story to tell. So I started writing. I started my own blog—it was, like, georgemjohnson.com or something. And I just started writing about myself. My first piece, I think, I wrote about myself was called, like, "I Am Not My Hair." And it was basically talking about how to wear my hair and how it shouldn't be a symbol of how gay I am, or, you know, how hair can be an expression, and how freedom of expression is important.
There are a lot of times where people call themselves activists, and other people were calling me one. And once I accepted that that was my purpose, I then knew that I was going to take it a notch further, and go a little bit deeper into the truth of not only who I was, but the truths that go on in our community. That I was going to have to be, you know, a modern-day freedom fighter for not only African-Americans, or Black people—Black men, Black gay men, Black queer men—but a community as a whole whose voice had been missing for so long. And so, that's what I did.
The biggest thing that I hope to do within advocacy is continue to live in my voice to a younger generation of people who are now coming out, so to speak. When I say "coming out," I mean like coming out of the womb: a little bit more gay, and a lot more transparent about who they are and their sexuality at such a younger age that I wasn't able to do. To be able to reach that generation to let them know that they're OK, and you're gonna be OK, and that there are some gatekeepers up here that have your best interests at heart who are more than willing, like myself, to be called a faggot, and to be called every name in the book so that you don't have to be.
If I could talk to my younger self, one thing I would definitely—well, not one thing, but several things.
I would tell my younger self to always appreciate who you are and who you're becoming. Every day you're gonna grow wiser, every day you're going to grow smarter, every day you're gonna learn something new about yourself. You're going to learn something new about the community.
You're gonna learn that you're not always going to be in a stagnant place. Today you may feel like dressing up in a [dress] suit, and tomorrow you may want to dress up in the sun hat and bathing suit, and then the next day you may want people to refer to you as ''he'' and then that evening you may be OK with someone referring to you as ''she.''
And that all of it is OK, because you're being genuinely who you are. You truly feel the pronouns that people call you. You truly feel the clothes that you wear. You truly feel the way that you're expressing yourself. As long as you just stay genuine and true to who you are, you won't have problems.
The biggest thing I could tell myself is to never let what someone's thoughts of you for 5 or 10 minutes of their day affect the way that you live all 24 hours of yours.
A piece of advice that I would give my younger self is to never be afraid to share the total truth. You're gonna be a person who is going to intersect with a lot of different people and a lot of different segments of the community. There are going to be certain parts of the community where you're gonna fit in with muscle boys, and you're gonna fit in with the smart guys, and you're gonna fit in with the rioters, and the positive people, and the HIV prevention workers.
There's gonna be so many elements to who you are. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth about all of those elements. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth about how those elements intersect. Remember that you're the whole person, and that you're made up of a lot of different pieces, and not just the ones that people or society choose to accept.
A piece of advice that I would give my other self would be to let my younger self know that there's going to be a narrative that only you can tell. This narrative is gonna include many different storylines from the different segments of your life, and only you are going to be able to spin them in a way that makes sense. You're going to have to kick down some doors because your narrative has been told by so many who have never lived it.
Your narrative, even now, is still being told by people who have never had to walk a day as a Black, gay, positive person. And it gets told so many times incorrectly simply because no one chose to take a stand, and that is gonna be your job: To tell our story the way it needs to be told.
And not only tell it, but when you hear other stories from people who may be trans or may be bisexual, who don't have that same intersection that you may have, you're gonna have to be the one to provide them the platform to get those stories across. Because we all have a narrative. And if our narratives are a highway, it's not as important who's in the lane as the fact that all the lanes are available for us to be able to speak through.
Some advice that I would give to my younger self would be to know that everyone has a purpose in life. And so, whenever we have a hurdle or a stumble, or something adversely happens, just know that it was already written that the script was supposed to be that way, and do not necessarily look at it as something to falter or something to be crippled by, but from something to grow from.
Having a purpose in life is basically what is going to wake you up and drive you every morning to say something else, or to be more fearless, or to talk about the issue that people are scared to talk about, even though you know it goes on.
If I could speak to my younger self, I would tell myself to trust in the process, and trust in everything that you're gonna go through in life. Every mistake, every misstep, every wrong turn, every misfortune, it's a lesson. And with that lesson, you're supposed to take it in, analyze it, and then go back out and tell other people what you've learned from that lesson, and tell other people how you grew from that lesson. And in turn, help somebody else either not make the same mistake—or, for someone who may have already made that mistake, use the tools that you've given them to be able to get past whatever that point was in their life.
Everything that happens to us is just a lesson to help us become greater. Because we're always in this state of becoming.