Visibility and Representation: George M. Johnson Discusses their Novel, All Boys Aren’t Blue


-Brittany Eldridge

George M. Johnson said that, regarding the representation of LGBTQ+ people of color, there is a conversation that needs to happen. Johnson stated that “we need to stop making assumptions about other people,” and explained that  a person’s identity is not the label that they are provided with at birth, but the spiritual energy within them. 

The title of Johnson’s novel, All Boys Aren’t Blue, stemmed from this idea. During a gender reveal, color is used to identify gender: blue sparkles and streamers for boys and pink sparkles and streamers for girls. However, Johnson neither identified as female nor male, but something in between. As a non-binary black person biologically labeled as male, Johnson served as an activist and writer for black LGBTQ+ people. As an activist, Johnson worked to include black LGBTQ+ people in organizations at the micro level. This type of activism was accomplished by acknowledging that LGBTQ+ people existed in organizations, and then by ensuring that individuals of every recognized group were represented in these organizations. Activism would, according to Morrison, “keep the next generation from going through what we went through.”

As part of Black History Month, Fitchburg State is holding Community Talks. This event, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” was held on Feb. 17. The event began with Christopher Medley, host of the Black History Month conversations, providing a brief biography of Johnson. Then, a video of a dramatic reading of the first chapter of Johnson’s novel was presented on screen. Afterward, the activist discussed black queer life, challenges of living as a non-binary person within the black community, and the importance of activism and inclusion within the black community. Because the theme for the Community Talks was “the black family,” Johnson chose to focus on how families serve as a support system for LGBT+ black children. The event ended with a question and answer session. 

All Boys Aren’t Blue was one of the first, and only, young adult novels created for a black queer audience. The memoir consisted of several personal essays in which Johnson attempted to illustrate what the “weight of holding it all in” felt like. The Black Leadership AIDS Coalition worked with various black artists and organizations to create a dramatic reading of the first three chapters of Boys Aren’t Blue. The reading consisted of performances by famous actors, such as Jenifer Lewis from Black-ish, as well as art installations and musical performances by black and queer artists. 

The novel All Boys Aren’t Blue will be followed up by a second memoir titled We are Not Broken. This memoir, according to Johnson, will focus on the lives of Johnson’s cousins, as well. The cousins, Rall and Rasul, stood up for Johnson and were willing to fight anyone that went after Johnson. We are Not Broken is expected to be published on Sep. 7, 2021 according to Goodreads.

Johnson grew up in New Jersey during the 1990s. From the time they were two years old, Johnson’s mother and grandmother knew Johnson was different. Johnson displayed effeminate mannerisms and was attracted to males. Johnson’s mother and grandmother easily accepted these differences because Johnson had a transgender cousin. 

Despite these supports, Johnson said “I never knew I existed.” One of the opening scenes of the memoir described how a group of boys in the neighborhood attacked Johnson, Rall, and Rasul. At the time, Johnson was only five years old and could not fight back. One of the boys knocked out Johnson’s baby teeth. This was when Johnson lost the ability to smile. This led Johnson to ask “what other signs of trauma do we ignore in black queer children?”

Black queer kids, according to Johnson, often failed to find support in their families and classmates. They were often shunned as a result of their identities. In order to find support and acceptance, these individuals reached out to “created families.” These “created families” include organizations, such as sororities, fraternities, and churches. Johnson, as an activist, chose to reach out to these communities in order to ensure that LGBT+ individuals were accepted into these groups. 

When discussing supports that advocates need to ensure are available to black queer people, Johnson brought up Greek Life and spiritual organizations, such as churches. Greek Life is significant  to black people because black sororities and fraternities are viewed as a lifetime commitment. Johnson said that a member might change chapters, but they will still be expected to meet up with members of that group for the rest of their life. LGBT+ black people may find support in ancestral worship and more solitary forms of prayer. Johnson provided quotes from his grandmother in his memoirs in order to show how faith and family ties can aid those coping with trauma.

Role models, as well, helped Johnson, and other LGBT+ black people, become activists. These role models include Tony Morrison, Martha P. Johnson, and Silvia Rivera. Morrison inspired Johnson to write a memoir because Morrison stated that “if there is a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you should write it.” Martha P. Johnson and Silvia Riveria both participated in the 1969 Stonewall Riots.

One of Johnson’s goals as an activist, aside from ensuring that LGBT+ black people are represented in organizations, is to eliminate HIV. Johnson is HIV positive and fears that, if actions are not taken, 50% of black men who have sex with men will be HIV positive. While the HIV epidemic has left the white community, it is still quite prominent within the black LGBT+ community. Homelessness, as well, is a concern, especially for black LGBT+ youth.

Johnson stated that activism is not found in placing a single black queer person in an organization. We should not be proud of saying “they are the first black queer person to do fill-in-the blank.” That is visibility at the macro level, but society should focus on visibility at the micro level. This visibility involves, according to Johnson, “not picking apart people based on what we see.”

Johnson said that “safe spaces” in college classrooms would encourage students to openly talk about their identity. These sources would also help professors include LGBT+ black students in their classrooms. When including symbols of LGBT+ acceptance, Johnson stated that it is important to “hide it in plain sight.” Symbols could include a rainbow sticker, rainbow flag, or a poster of Martha P. Johnson. Sources that can help professors set up these inclusive environments include PFLAG, HRC, and GLSEN.