the GENDER issue / INTERVIEWS
An Interview with
George M. Johnson
George Matthew Johnson is a writer, journalist, activist, and now published author. His debut is All Boys Aren't Blue—a young adult work of nonfiction dubbed a "memoir-manifesto." In the book he grants access to some of his most personal and private memories in his life.
Johnson explores topics such as gender identity, race, sexuality, and more in his coming-of-age story, but the emphasis on support from family and friends shines through the most. Johnson's grandmother, affectionately called "Nanny," served as a confidant, guidepost, nurturer, and friend throughout his life. Her presence is very evident and palpable to the reader. It is safe to say that the book is just as much of a memoir as it is a dedication to her.
The ultimate goal of Johnson's young adult memoir-manifesto? To help a younger generation of queer and gender nonconforming teens feel seen and, someday, tell their own stories. In the book, the following is stated: "You sometimes don't know you exist until you realize someone like you existed before." And by simply existing and documenting his experiences along the way, Johnson is leading the charge.
Photo Credit: Gioncarlo Valentine
"Blackness is inherently queer, which became my viewpoint as I learned more about language."
We had the chance to speak with George M. Johnson about the new release and what he hopes for in the future.
How was the process of writing All Boys Aren’t Blue?
The process was traumatic, while also being very necessary and healing. When I first started writing the book, I went to some places and spaces that I not been to in years. Memories were triggered and it was like my body was going through the experiences all over again. While I was writing about these very important moments in my life, my current life was still actively going on. In the midst of writing, my grandmother got sick and so that also changed the way I wrote certain chapters about her and how I ended certain stories; it made the process that much harder. But writing has always been healing for me, to just put it on a page and get it out of my system.
What was the greatest or most rewarding part about writing the book? What was the hardest part about the process?
The greatest part about the process was knowing that even though I had to go through certain experiences and would share them with everyone to judge and criticize, I was going to help a lot of people. I knew I was going to help queer people; but also, I knew I would help the parents, family members, friends, and classmates of queer people.
The book not only gives them a perspective into events in my life, but it also gives insight into what was going on in mind. This was the hardest part of the process for me because I was giving it all away at that point. I think it made it a better book.
Did you ever keep a journal or diary to help recall events in your life during this process?
I didn’t really keep a journal. Before I started writing the book, I was already writing my story as a writer and journalist and some of it was already out there in pieces. Anytime I needed to reflect or go back to a moment, I would revisit some of my articles and essays. It is interesting because when I was recording the audiobook, I was thinking of different stories that I forgot to include in this book. Everytime I re-read the book, it unlocks something else that I can write about in a future project.
Throughout the book you reference several intersecting identities that you possess (being Black, queer, and nonbinary) and how you had to navigate your life while coming-of-age and understanding these identities. In a way, it kind of recalls W.E.B. DuBois’ theory of double consciousness where he described a conflict that exists between the Black identity and American identity for Black Americans in an oppressive society. How have you come to view your multiple identities in your adulthood, in this current society?
It’s interesting because Blackness is inherently queer, which became my viewpoint as I learned more about language. Anytime I enter a room, I’m Black. The intersection of my identities, as someone that is queer and nonbinary can still be uncomfortable depending on the setting. I exist primarily in Black settings, so my queerness is what is seen in those spaces. When I am in white settings, the intersection of being Black and queer can show itself differently. I am always Black and queer and that’s how I show up in any room. The level of how it is expressed may change from time to time. For some, you can be Black and queer and show up in a room and no one may know that you are queer. At times I may show up in mascara, makeup, or in an outfit deemed too “effeminate” and that's when it’s like, Ok you’re all the way out there today. However, if I’m in a suit, no one bothers me. I show up however I feel like showing up, but I still think about safety. I still have to walk the streets that may be unsafe for how may be presenting. I’m conformable, but society still is not and I have to consider that.
Speaking of “safety,” what does the notion of safety look like and mean to you?
Safety is about systems for me. It is not just about the individual that has to walk home from the train, but it's about: How do we change systems so that everyone is safe, especially for folks that are not heterosexual? Nigel Shelby is someone I think about very often when it comes to safety and what we have to do moving forward. Nigel had safety at home, he was affirmed by his family, but because he was gay, he did not have safety at school. I think about systems that include laws that protect LGBTQ students. I think about colleges that only have policy for co-ed visitation. You do know that you have boys in dorms with boys that sleep with boys? You also have girls in dorms with girls that sleep with girls. So how you penalize them for a policy that is not written for them? Often times LGBTQ people get criminalized under laws that were not written for us and do not apply to us. I think about safety in those terms as well.
In the book we learn that your father was a cop. Did his profession influence or shape the way you view law enforcement?
My dad’s story is interesting. He was the head of the Black police union. He was very vocal about the racism in his department, and still is, but he still was a cop. I think it’s one of those situations where when you’re in a household, it can literally can go one way with one child and a different way with another child. Me and my littler brother, Garrett, grew up in the same household. I’m anti-prison, anti-law enforcement and embrace other principles in support of abolition, and my brother became a cop [laughs]. My dad's occupation as a cop influenced me to interrogate the system and really go deeper into how it doesn’t work for us. It also made me want to abolish systems that harm us, so yeah I guess it did influence me in some way.
Throughout the book, you are referred to by many names including “George,” “Matthew,” and “MJ.” You even desired to be called “Dominique” at one point. How comfortable are you with your name now? And what is your view of the use of pronouns as identifiers?
I am comfortable with George, it took a long time to get there [laughs]. I am still most comfortable being called Matthew. Not a single person in my family calls me George—everyone calls me “Matthew” or “Matt.” Even when some of my friends found out that my family calls me “Matthew,” they also switched to doing the same.
As far as pronouns, I hate it. The other day I was filing something out and you had to choose “Mr.,” ”Ms.” or “Mrs.” When people ask me my pronouns, I just tell them to use my name. Any place that you can use “he,” “she,” or “they,” you can use my name. Just call me by my name. But I am fine with “he,” “she” or “they,” because people respond to me the way they see. When with with my frat brothers, it’s “G,” “he,” or “she.” When I’m my friends who are women it’s “honey,” “sis,” or “girl.” They see me and they know that I am male presenting, but their spirit sees, feels, or senses “girl.” I am fine being a reflection of how a person sees me and this is not me disagreeing with the overall use of pronouns. For me, I am fine being a reflection of many different identities, which is why I identify as nonbinary.
In Chapter 3, you speak about creating you own word (“honeychild”) as a child. What is your relationship with language in adulthood?
Language is everything. I talk about it publicly a lot. I love learning new language. It doesn’t bother me that we keep adding letters to the LGBTQ acronym. Some people are like, “When are going to stop adding letters?” And I’m like, “We’ll stop when we figure it out.” I love discovering new language. I love shutting down old language. I love changing old language. I think it gives us power to dictate who we are and what we are to people. It helps us to learn who we are. The way a word is said is also important; it can be weaponized or used to affirm and empower. I’m also not a believer in coddling whiteness, so I’m not going to stop saying a word because it makes them uncomfortable and they can’t say it.
You briefly touch on this subject in the book, but what do you think when language that originates within specific marginalized groups is co-opted by others outside of those groups?
It’s not much you can do about it besides speak up when it happens, especially when it’s being used while the community that created it is being oppressed or harmed for using it. It’s not just the co-opting of the language, style, and other things, but it’s when others profit off of it. Some people think it’s not necessarily appropriation if someone acknowledges where it comes from. You can do both—you can appreciate and appropriate at the same time. You can pay homage to my community for creating something, while still benefitting from it. Once it gets to that level, then it is the duty of those that are co-opting to uplift the communities that are the creators and give them the same opportunities. With gay lingo, a lot of it comes from black trans women and black femmes. You can’t be within a community and shame where culture and lingo is being created.
What is your message to the trans community and nonbinary community, as it relates to the release of All Boys Aren’t Blue?
The main thing I hope the book can to do for trans people and nonbinary people is to open up an opportunity for them to tell their stories. I am not trying to be the gatekeeper for our storytelling. I think what happens often is that when you have a book like this one, that is very different for the market and may become successful, it becomes the barometer for everyone. I’m telling my story. There are going to be many people that my story resonates with, however, you still need other people to tell their stories, especially if they don’t see themselves. If they see themselves, I’m happy about that and that's the goal. If I can be the vessel for those, that’s dope. But I still want those that don’t feel seen to be empowered to tell their stories.
What is your hope for the future?
My hope for the future will always be Black liberation. I’ll probably never see it in my lifetime but I hope we start taking the steps and seeing some the work within communities. I am very big on community organizing and ways that the community can fix itself and take care of itself outside of state systems.