Culture Trips

George M Johnson: ‘Queer characters tend to die at the end of books’ | Autobiography and memoir

George M Johnson is a writer and activist whose first book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, is a memoir about growing up black and queer in America. The book is aimed at young adults and catalogues in candid style the author’s experiences of both trauma and healing, from childhood bullying to teenage sexual abuse, to their relationship with their family and changing understanding of their masculinity and sexuality. It was published in the US last year to widespread acclaim, reviewers describing it as a “gamechanger”, offering “a deep but clear-eyed love for its subjects”. It has been optioned for television by actor and activist Gabrielle Union. Johnson lives in Newark, New Jersey.

When did you know you wanted to write your story?
I knew it was time when Giovanni Melton was killed by his father, who said something to the effect of: “I would rather have a dead son than a gay son.” That was November 2017 and I was like: “This has got to stop.” So many black, queer young men being taken from us… We have to talk about it. People need to know that we are your sons and brothers, your non-identifying friends and family members, we are genderless people who exist among you – but we deserve to do more than just exist. It was time for me to write the story of what it is like to grow up knowing, from a very young age, that you do not fit into this mould of what it means to look like a boy in society.

You write with a great deal of honesty about traumatic experiences. How did it feel to share those publicly, and to manage the tone for young readers?
It was tough, to be that vulnerable and transparent. The ultimate goal was to give the reader the truth – how I felt at the time, how I feel now, how I processed it. I’ve been able to work through a lot of the trauma I’ve faced, so it was a decision to go at it through a lens of restorative justice: wanting answers, and healing, and for people to be able to leave with a road map of how they can work through their own healing process.

The book covers some horrendous events…
My cousins and I, we got attacked walking home from school when I was five years old – I had my teeth kicked out and it is something that I’ve carried with me throughout my life. I also go into a sexual assault that happened in a school bathroom, and a molestation from a cousin in my teen years. But the book spans different topics. I weave in letters to many family members, as well as telling stories about my dad, my mom, my grandmother, and the people who I grew up with – in a way, paying homage to them for being so supportive.

Why did you want to write for young adults?
In the history of queer writing, a lot of it has been for adults, and for many, inaccessible until you are an adult. If we’re going to start to change the narrative, we have to tell those stories to the generation who will be making decisions next.

Do you wish you had had a book like yours growing up?
Yes, absolutely. Growing up, there was no one that looked like me in the books I had. And if there was, they were often shamed. Queer characters tend to die at the end of a lot of books! Or have really, really traumatic stories that don’t leave you feeling healed or whole. I wrote a story that people can hold on to and know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I’m still here.

How do you think society might be transformed by a younger generation having greater openness and confidence to express their queer identity?
I think we’re already seeing it – these bright, brilliant 16-year-olds who can already identify as trans, non-binary, pansexual. They have the grasp of the language, and things that I am still working through at 35! We are already witnessing how powerful the next generation can be.

What was the response from your family when you came out to them?
Technically I didn’t really come out till I was 25. I never really had to come out, because they always knew – it was more like confirming to them. When I told my mom, she said: “We were pretty sure of it your whole life.” When I told Nanny, it was the same thing: she was just very adamant about how, in the same way every other grandchild had to bring home their dates, I had to too! Coming out really wasn’t like a major thing. I think on both sides we were hoping somebody would say something first.

Your father was a policeman. What discussions have you had with him around Black Lives Matter?
It wasn’t that he didn’t know that racism existed. My dad was the head of Ebony, a group for all of the black police officers – they knew they had to band together because of that system. When he joined the police force it was 1978, and he had been in the military before… I think he just saw it as a career, in many ways; I don’t think he went into it with the mindset that that’s a way that we can help our community. [But] when we talk Black Lives Matter, he understands it fully: he watches George Floyd, he understands the necessity of protesting. He fully understands why black people do what black people do when they get to that place.

What books are on your bedside table?
The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr, and Black Boy Out of Time by Hari Ziyad.

Which writers inspire you?
Da’Shaun L Harrison, Darnell Moore, Michael Arceneaux. And the greats, like Toni Morrison, Baldwin, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Angela Davis… those are the people I look up to.

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M Johnson is published by Penguin on 4 March (£8.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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