- “All Boys Aren’t Blue” is a captivating memoir-manifesto by George M. Johnson that explores identity, race, and sexuality with a unique and honest perspective.
- Dive into the pages of this compelling book to gain a deeper understanding of the LGBTQ+ experience and join the conversation in creating a more inclusive and accepting world.
All Boys Aren’t Blue (2020) is a memoir and a manifesto aimed at young people. The author shares their experiences of growing up Black and queer in the US, reflecting on family, identity, and sexuality.
Introduction: Growing up Black and queer.
Table of Contents
In 2021, All Boys Aren’t Blue was one of the most banned books in the US. It was censored or removed from school libraries across the country.
Why was it so controversial? Well, it’s because the author, George M. Johnson, goes into detail about their first sexual experiences – including how they lost their virginity, twice.
But Johnson isn’t oversharing for the sake of it. Their aim is to help young people – queer teens in particular.
Johnson, who grew up in New Jersey and Virginia, is Black and queer. They know what it’s like to have conflicting identities, and to discover your sexuality in the dark.
Their writing is inspired by a quote from Toni Morrison, which they now have tattooed on their arm: “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
So Johnson wrote it – an honest exploration of Black queer identity, including their sexual journey.
And yes, that means this Blink includes some sexual content.
First, though, let’s meet Johnson as a child, living in New Jersey in the 1990s.
Even as a young child, Johnson knew they were different. Somehow, they weren’t like the other boys at school.
They walked differently, moving their hips from side to side.
And they talked differently, too.
One day, when Johnson was gossiping with a group of girls, a new word rolled off their tongue.
“Honey-child,” said Johnson. They said it with sass, bending their wrist for emphasis.
Although they didn’t yet know what “gay” meant, they had just created their first expression in gay lingo.
It was fun, using this new word. It made Johnson feel powerful and free. Their female friends started using it too, and “Honeychild” soon caught on, spreading throughout the school.
But when the adults heard their kids using it – and realized that a boy had come up with the word – they became uncomfortable. “Honeychild” sounded awfully … feminine.
It wasn’t long before a parent complained to a teacher. The teacher then called Johnson’s mother, asking her to have a “talk” with her son.
“You have to stop using that word,” said their mother. “Now the other kids are saying it in class, and it’s become a distraction.”
“Okay,” said Johnson. They didn’t understand the issue, but they agreed to stop using the word.
Still, Johnson never forgot “Honeychild,” or what it meant. While it may have seemed like something small – a word made up by a child – it represented something bigger.
The sad thing is, even something as innocent as an invented word can seem like a threat – a threat to masculinity, and the identity of other people’s children.
When you’re a child who’s different, it’s as though there’s always something wrong with you – something you need to change… a piece of your identity that needs to be erased.
“You can’t say that,” they tell you. “You can’t act like that.”
Growing up Black and queer, Johnson knew that there was a “right way” and a “wrong way.” They tried to walk like a boy, without swinging their hips. They stopped saying “Honeychild.”
They understand that their parents had their best interests in mind. Mom and Dad wanted to keep their child safe, knowing that not everyone is so accepting of “sassy” behavior.
On the whole, Johnson’s family was very tolerant of the fact that their child was gay. The subject was never really discussed, but it wasn’t an issue, either.
Johnson’s grandmother, Nanny, made an extra effort to make them feel loved and accepted – especially when she saw that her grandson was isolated, having a hard time fitting in at school.
So what if Johnson didn’t have a best friend? She would be their best friend, taking them everywhere, and accepting all their little quirks. If her grandson wanted to wear cowboy boots instead of sneakers, so be it.
“I love all of you,” Nanny would say to her grandchildren. “But I love you all differently. Because each of you needs different things.”
That resonated with Johnson. It still does.
What a difference it makes when a child has at least one supportive family member, and an example of unconditional love.
That should be the norm, of course. But unfortunately, it’s not.
So many LGBTQ+ youth face homelessness, hostility, and even violence. All too often, the attitude is “I’d rather have a dead child than a gay child.”
Look what happened to 14-year-old Giovanni Melton in 2017 – murdered by his own father, allegedly for being gay.
Johnson’s childhood wasn’t perfect. But all things considered, they feel fortunate to have a family who accepted them. If only all queer children and teens could be so lucky.
Having some kind of support is crucial. So, if necessary, young people should aim to create their own support system.
And another thing – according to Johnson, LGBTQ+ youth shouldn’t believe the fable “It gets better.” How, exactly? Things don’t get better without action.
We need to make it better, and tell other people – particularly those who aren’t Black or queer – the same thing: “Make it better.”
Teenage years: Shame and secrecy
Johnson knows they had it easier than many other young people. But still, it was tough growing up Black and queer.
Johnson often felt conflicted. They wanted to fully embrace their Black identity, but that meant “acting straight,” and being more conventionally “masculine” – or so they thought.
At the same time, they couldn’t deny that they were different – queer. They had crushes on boys.
There was one boy in particular in school – a friend named Zamis. Johnson got butterflies around Zamis. They couldn’t ignore their crush. But they couldn’t act on it either – even though they sensed that Zamis was like them.
One day, chatting on AOL messenger, Zamis asked Johnson the question they always dreaded: “Are you gay?”
Instantly, Johnson felt a hot rush through their body. But they answered the same way they always answered.
“No, I’m not gay,” they typed back. “Are you?”
“No,” Zamis replied.
After school they lost touch. And when they bumped into each other again, years later, it was in a gay club, during gay pride weekend in Washington D.C.
Now, looking back, Johnson wonders what might have been. They and Zamis could have got together – they could have been prom kings…
But Johnson wasn’t ready to come out back then – not even to themselves.
In fact, while Johnson knew they were attracted to boys, they couldn’t allow themselves to be fully queer even in their fantasies. They would dream about having sex with boys, but as a girl.
For Johnson, the idea of anything else was unthinkable.
At the time, there wasn’t much queer representation in the mainstream media. Also, at the Catholic school Johnson attended, sex education was mostly about abstinence. And of course, the idea that two men could have sex wasn’t even acknowledged.
Although Johnson’s family was accepting, as we’ve mentioned before, the teenager still wasn’t ready to come out, let alone ask questions about queer love and sex.
And when Johnson had their first sexual experience, it had to stay a secret.
They were about 13 years old. Their cousin was older – around 17 or 18. One night, the two of them were sharing a bed, whispering and giggling … and touching each other.
“Promise you won’t tell anyone,” said the cousin. He was the one who’d started it, despite having a girlfriend, and being Johnson’s relative.
Johnson knew it was wrong – they were family, crossing a line that should never be crossed.
But then the cousin took things further, initiating oral sex. Johnson didn’t know what to feel. There was guilt, of course, and confusion, but euphoria, too.
That night left Johnson with the sense that their feelings were something to be kept secret, suppressed.
Now that they’re older, they realize how wrong it was. What happened was abuse.
Johnson can’t confront their cousin, who’s now dead.
But if he was still alive, Johnson would ask him about it. They would ask, “Did someone hurt you? Who taught you about sex?”
Because there’s something in Johnson’s gut – something that tells them that their cousin was a victim, too. All too often, abuse and violence become a cycle.
Still, although Johnson has reached a place where they’re able to have empathy for their cousin, they want to reiterate – it was abuse. And finding empathy for an abuser is not a requirement.
Instead, our priority should be holding abusers accountable.
By sharing their story, Johnson hopes to help someone – any other victims who might be holding onto guilt.
Telling the truth can be freeing. No more shame, no more secrecy.
College: Coming out and finding freedom
By the time Johnson graduated high school, they still hadn’t come out. And technically, they were still a virgin.
But as they got ready for college they were optimistic. They were excited for a new beginning – a fresh start at a historically Black college in Virginia.
And there, away from their family, they could come out at last, living like a character from Queer as Folk.
Unfortunately though, the reality was somewhat different. There was nothing magical about the air in Virginia – nothing that gave Johnson the courage to come out.
They began to feel depressed. Every morning, they woke up knowing that they still hadn’t become the person they longed to be.
But as Johnson made more friends, and became more integrated into college life, they discovered a new opportunity – another way to find a sense of identity. Not through their sexuality, but through their masculinity.
Johnson decided to join a fraternity on campus – Alpha Phi Alpha.
“Why?” you may ask. Well, to Johnson it represented belonging. It was a community based on masculine ideals and brotherhood, and this was something they also craved. They even saw it as a kind of self-love, embracing part of their own identity.
In this new brotherhood, Johnson thrived. They formed close, lasting friendships with other Black men. They became more secure in themselves, and their own masculinity.
Gradually, as Johnson grew in confidence, they realized that they were ready to define their identity. They could be queer, Black, and masculine – they didn’t have to choose or compromise.
Around this time, Johnson started to talk more openly about their sexuality. Not with their family – not yet – but with their brothers in the fraternity who were also gay.
Their confidence was bolstered not only by their friendships, but by their sexual relationships. You see, at long last, Johnson had lost their virginity. Not once, but twice.
The first time was in junior year. During the date, Johnson realized that the boy expected them to be the dominant one. And although they were nervous, they went for it.
For Johnson, it felt glorious – at last, they’d had kind, passionate sex with a man on their own terms.
But this was just the beginning of their sexual exploration. For one thing, Johnson wasn’t sure they wanted to be the dominant one in the bedroom. “Topping” had been fun, sure, but did they have to stick to that role?
There was only one way to find out. The next semester, they used an online app called Black Gay Chat, and met up with a boy who went to the same college.
At the apartment, things started to heat up. The boy told Johnson to lie down on the bed and turn over.
Drunk and nervous, Johnson didn’t know what to expect. But they’d watched porn, and knew that anal sex could be painful.
Which it was. Maybe the worst pain Johnson had ever experienced. And although they enjoyed it, in a way, they were also relieved when it was over.
The next morning, Johnson met up with their line brothers from the fraternity, as they were driving to Jersey together that day.
When Johnson told their friends what had happened the night before, the guys were proud and supportive. Before hitting the road, they bought Johnson a pack of painkillers.
“It’ll take time to get used to it,” they said.
Years later, reflecting on these experiences, Johnson wonders how things might have been different.
What if they’d had proper sex education beforehand? What if they’d been prepared? Sex is meant to be pleasurable, but Johnson was in pain for three weeks afterwards. And they sometimes ended up in risky situations out of ignorance.
This is one of the reasons Johnson feels so passionate about sharing their story – so other young queer people can learn from these mistakes.
Just consider the statistics: Queer people tend to have a higher risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases. According to the CDC, 50% of Black men who have sex with men get HIV at some point in their lives.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Young people should have proper sex education, and have access to the resources they need.
Johnson knows that this part of their story is going to get pushback. And yes, it’s a little embarrassing sharing such intimate stories.
But if it helps queer teens navigate their own experiences, it’s absolutely worth it. Johnson has no regrets.
Many young people struggle with their identity and sexuality, but it’s particularly tough when you’re Black and queer.
Johnson was lucky to have had a loving, queer-affirming family, and to have found supportive friends at college. Still, coming out and exploring their sexuality was a slow, and, at times, painful process, mainly due to societal stigma, lack of education, and a discriminatory culture against LGBTQ+ folks.
Luckily, as an adult, Johnson feels they can define their identity on their own terms and hopes that by sharing their story, they can give a voice to marginalized communities, and help queer teens.
If someone sees themselves in this story, they’ll realize that they’re not alone. And hopefully, just like Johnson, they’ll be able to grow and thrive.
About the Author
George M. Johnson
Biography, Memoir, Society and Culture
“All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto” by George M. Johnson is a poignant and powerful memoir that beautifully blends personal narrative with insightful cultural commentary. This book takes readers on a journey through the author’s life as a queer Black man, addressing themes of identity, family, and the complexities of navigating a world that often enforces harmful stereotypes and expectations.
George M. Johnson uses a series of essays and personal stories to explore their experiences growing up in New Jersey, highlighting the challenges they faced as they grappled with their identity and sexuality. The memoir is divided into sections, each corresponding to a different color of the pride flag, symbolizing the diverse aspects of the author’s life and the LGBTQ+ community. It reflects on the author’s coming of age, from early childhood to young adulthood, and the struggles they faced in understanding and accepting their true self.
The book also delves into the concept of masculinity, challenging the harmful stereotypes and expectations placed on young Black men, as well as the intersectionality of race and sexuality. Johnson candidly shares their experiences of dealing with homophobia, transphobia, and racism, shedding light on the systemic issues that plague society.
“All Boys Aren’t Blue” is a remarkable and necessary addition to the literary world. George M. Johnson’s writing is both emotionally charged and intellectually stimulating. Their memoir-manifesto invites readers to not only empathize with their personal journey but also to critically examine societal norms and expectations that impact marginalized communities.
Johnson’s storytelling is incredibly engaging, and they have a unique ability to capture the essence of their experiences and emotions. The author’s personal anecdotes are relatable, making it easy for readers to connect with their journey and struggles. Their honest and unapologetic approach to storytelling is both refreshing and inspiring.
This book is a call to action, urging readers to challenge preconceived notions and stereotypes, and to create a more inclusive and accepting world. It’s an essential read for anyone looking to better understand the intersection of race, gender, and sexuality, and how these aspects of identity can shape one’s experiences.
In conclusion, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” is a must-read for anyone interested in the LGBTQ+ experience, race, and the ongoing struggle for equality and acceptance. George M. Johnson’s memoir-manifesto is a powerful testament to the importance of embracing one’s true self and fighting against the discrimination and biases that persist in our society.