George M. Johnson’s debut memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue is an exuberant series of personal essays about growing up Black and queer in the United States. In the book, the author describes their adolescent-self as “very sassy… a sissy is what the kids used to call me back then, before they got older and escalated to the word faggot,” and as one might expect, they floated, socially, towards girls. But their story frequently defies presumption: George also came to love American football, finding solace in the macho veil of sports (this chapter is aptly titled “Fags Play Football, Too”).
Love courses through All Boys Aren’t Blue. George’s story is punctuated by trauma, as is the reality for Black, queer Americans, but this is, more than anything, an ode to love. Take George’s formative relationship with their grandmother, known to the family kids as ‘nanny’, to whom George dedicates a chapter (another apt title: “The Caregiver, the Hustler, My Best Friend”). It’s a richly rendered portrait of a resilient matriarch, for one; it is, too, a deeply personal reflection on the importance of familial love and support.
Having already taken the US by storm – a TV option by the actress, activist and author Gabrielle Union is already in the works – George hopes that All Boys Aren’t Blue can be a valuable resource for young people who grew up like them; kids who exist outside of the heteronormative standard today. Ultimately, times are changing from what was once a norm of queer clandestinity, with one in six Gen Z adults from the US identifying as LGBTQ+. But anti-trans rhetoric is on the rise, and the prejudices that undergird homophobia are ever-prevalent (no matter who the president is).
Following the release of the book in the UK earlier this month, Huck spoke to George over Zoom about how queer youth are exploring their identities today, the state of trans politics in the US, and why American history is, as they write in the book, the “greatest fable ever written”.
What book was most revealing to you on a personal level when you were growing up?
Well, there wasn’t a book revealing to me. The true answer to that is that, unfortunately, the characters I was forced to read about, not only were they not queer, they were also not Black. Little Women, The Glass Menagerie – those were the books we had to read. Many of those books clearly had nothing to do with my existence, nor did they have any type of connection to who I was. We did read, y’know, certain Black literature, like The Souls of Black Folk and Three Negro Classics, but growing up there were no books – there was no visibility or representation for us.
A lot of queer literature, especially for Black queer males – James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill – they were adult books, and so, they never find their way to you, so that you know you exist out there and there is some kind of literature from a person you can relate to. So, unfortunately, there really were no books where I could feel seen.
Today there’s stuff like Pose that you talk about, and icons like Billy Porter… But was there any wider Black queer cultural visibility that you hooked onto growing up?
There were small blips of it. You could see it in very, very small ways in television and media. RuPaul existed, but it wasn’t something that you could easily latch onto. RuPaul seemed like a caricature of queerness in many ways, right –
Yeah. I always remember there was a Black gay character on the show Spin City with Michael J. Fox, about a group of people who worked in the Mayor’s office, and one of the Deputy Mayors, he was a Black gay guy. That was the first time I’d really seen a Black gay character on television. Most people remember Karamo [Brown] on The Real World – again, there were small blips of it starting to be seen.
The only other time that I would see any type of representation was in my own family, so that was kind of rare on a micro level, but I had it. And I always say Prince, the artist – Prince wasn’t queer, but Prince was different, and I think that difference was something that many of us could latch onto because we got to see someone who was visibly different – he was into fashion, he was into makeup, he was into hair, he was into grooming, and had a very clear effeminate side that people still praised and respected. That was something I could connect to.
How do you think broader visibility and representation has changed how Black queer kids explore their identities today?
I don’t know if we’re visible enough, yet. I think we’re starting to see it – I definitely know my book is starting to get to them, which is a good thing. And y’know, even with TV shows like Pose, they’re usually very adult, so does the parent let their eleven-year-old kid watch a show like Pose that’ll push boundaries of what we think is too mature for children? Or Euphoria – there are shows out there that depict it, but even still, I’m not sure if there’s enough of them, yet. Not that I’m not sure: I’m 100 per cent sure there isn’t enough of them yet. [Laughs.]
What I will say, though, is that you can see the shift happening – more and more, we’re starting to have visibility that kids can relate to, that kids can grab and touch. I think it’s also important to recognise that queer children, specifically Black queer children, are identifying much younger, and it is important to make sure that they have books and resources that we didn’t have, simply because they are identifying. We were a hidden generation in many ways, whereas they’re very vocal about it, and very smart – they know their pronouns, they know their sexuality, they just know so much.
I think this is what undergirds a lot of the anti-trans politics today, such a lack of trust in the agency of kids, to be able to self-identify, and it’s so interesting to see how that cultural shift is happening. But those important shows like Pose and It’s a Sin are still rare. Do you think there’s a reticence to commission queer art and literature?
Yeah, and to create it from a lens that’s not playing up, y’know, the HIV epidemic. I have lived around HIV, but that is not the central focus point of my life or my story, or my day-to-day, or most queer peoples’ day-to-day, right?
So, we start to see more art, but it also intersects with our most traumatic period. So when do we get to actually see what the lived experience of a person is outside of the macro-level traumas and things that harm our community, that have always been a part of our community? Yeah, I actually watched the trailer for It’s a Sin and I was intrigued by it, but also, like, ‘OK…’
It’s just more of the same?
Yeah, right, more of the same again. And here’s the other thing too, right, it’s not like queer people exist outside of heterosexual people – we all exist together. So it is very interesting to continue to see heterosexual shows that just don’t have a queer presence, because it’s like: well, most heterosexual people that I know have queer people who exist in their lives. So it is one of those interesting things where we’re still not really seeing enough queer art and even when we do get queer art, it’s often through our trauma – it’s not through our lived experience. They’re showcasing our death as opposed to our life.
In the UK there is this real tangible movement, especially in the last five years, to separate lesbian, gay and bisexual identities from those who identify across the wider gender spectrum. What’s the place of trans politics in the US today?
Oh my god – I mean, for the last four years we’ve been dealing with anti-queer, anti-trans policy; vocally expressed anti-queer, anti-trans policy. I always say: it doesn’t matter who’s in power, we’re still oppressed over here, like, that’s just a truth, right. Whether Democrats or Republicans are in power, it seldom matters to a trans person, to a non-binary person. Those overarching policies, a lot of times, don’t trickle down. Even policies that may be there to benefit us, they don’t trickle down far enough to benefit the actual micro lives of people who have to live in societies that don’t accept them.
And there are the broader prejudices that are woven into the fabric of America, and indeed England…
Right, because it exists regardless. No matter how the power transitions, I still don’t feel safe if I walk outside and I present a certain way, because I have the presentation of man, if I do anything that pushes a boundary of femininity in public, it doesn’t matter who is in power – I’m still a threat, quote-unquote, to society, and there are still threats that are going to attack me, regardless of who and what is happening on a major scale.
For the person who is genderfluid, the person who does not ascribe to men’s clothing versus women’s clothing, and the person who just lives their life as they are, it does not provide them with any more safety or protection.
There’s a really great line about a third of the way into the book where you describe American history as “truly the greatest fable ever written”. Do you think that the conversation around America’s racist past can happen more expansively, and is it moving towards public honesty?
It’s definitely not. America was founded by horrible people, and there’s a clear desire to separate their cruelty from the revolutionary myth of the nation’s birth. But they go hand in hand: racism is woven in.
We keep witnessing, [people saying] ‘There’s no such thing as systemic racism’ – it’s just asinine at this point. There’s a fear that the majority in this country is finally becoming the minority – it is true, white Americans are not reproducing as fast as other groups in this country, and they are slowly but surely becoming the minority population. We’re watching it as Southern states are now starting to become more blue than red.
Like Georgia, for example.
Yeah – less conservative, I think, is the best way to say it. And so, y’know, a lot of the push back of America’s racist beginnings is tied to that: this fear that the majority in this country is finally becoming a minority. Which means there is a loss of power. I would even say the next big issue in this country is going to be people of colour who identify as Republicans.
When you look at the landscape of American governance, on the Democrats’ side, you see people of colour holding seats. On the Republican side, you don’t. But what you are seeing, even in the last election with Trump, is Black men starting to shift towards the Republicans. You saw Latinos shifting. There are swathes now of people of colour who are going to begin to run for positions of power in that party, and that’s when it’s going to become interesting, because what does it look like – even if the ideologies aren’t the same, what does it look like when people of colour represent both parties?
That’s actually why you’re seeing the destruction of the Republican Party – there is a fight for whiteness. The only way for them to expand their base is to bring in people of colour, and you cannot do that if the political representation doesn’t match it. That’s the last option […] to give up power to people of colour. And that is something that, fundamentally, this country has historically repudiated. So, suffice to say, it is all tied to America’s beginnings, where we are now, and how this is all playing out.