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One of America’s Most Banned Authors Is Appalled by Conservative Censorship — and Liberal Silence

17 minute read

In 2020, George M. Johnson was still settling into a new life as a published author, more specifically a memoirist with a book that people were reading. They had spent the preceding years working as a journalist and before that a graduate student. But their book, All Boys Aren’t Blue, became a best seller and wound up on several best books of the year lists. Johnson had even begun conversations with the actress Gabrielle Union about turning the book into a television show.

Johnson can remember setting up their very first Google alert to keep track of their book and name mentions in the news. The task of reading the three or four stories Google would present each day was totally manageable. Then, in November 2021, Johnson’s alert drew their attention to a Florida story. A woman in Flagler County, Fla., a member of the local school board, had filed a criminal complaint alleging the book violated Florida’s obscenity law and its presence in high school libraries amounted to a crime.

All Boys Aren’t Blue is aimed at readers 14 and older. It describes a whole range of Johnson’s experiences growing up Black, queer, and nonbinary. It uses common slang for human anatomy and sex acts. To Johnson, the description of their first sexual experience when they were 20 years old is only a part of their story and the book’s text seems tame compared to what most teens know how to find on their phones or TV. But All Boys Aren’t Blue troubled some parents enough that the year it was published, Johnson’s book was banned in eight different states and removed amid a renewed wave of similar activity.

Johnson’s Google alerts started growing more plentiful. Today they arrive in batches of 12 or more several times each day. They are studded with comments about the book from people who inaccurately use words like “grooming” and what Johnson says are false claims the book aims to “indoctrinate children.” After an investigation, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office determined that the book does not violate the state’s obscenity law. However, All Boys Aren’t Blue remains near the top of the lists of most challenged and banned books tracked by both the American Library Association and PEN America, a nonprofit which works to defend free expression.

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For many Americans the idea that banned books represent a mushrooming threat to freedom and an inclusive democracy may sound like hyperbole. But in the years since All Boys Aren’t Blue was published, Johnson has watched book and curriculum bans spread to multiple states. Efforts to block the participation of trans kids in sports and to bar accurate history in K-12 classrooms, gender-affirming medical care, certain types of college coursework, and now drag performances have all followed. These things, Johnson says, and the slow, often timid, sometimes entirely absent, response from people who don’t support them are all related.

I spoke with Johnson, now at work on their third book and almost constantly in motion, when they visited New York last month and finished the conversation by phone this week while Johnson was in California. The text below has been edited for clarity and length.

A selection of banned and challenged books during Banned Books Week 2022, at the Lincoln Belmont branch of the Chicago Public Library on Sept. 22, 2022.
A selection of banned and challenged books during Banned Books Week 2022, at the Lincoln Belmont branch of the Chicago Public Library on Sept. 22, 2022.Chris Sweda—Chicago Tribune/TNS/Getty Images

Take me back to 2021 when you learned someone had named your first book in a criminal obscenity complaint?

That was November of 2021. And the week before the criminal complaint. I [sent out a] tweet that just said my book has been pulled in eight different states. And so because I had a lot of people following me who were journalists, they started to reach out like, “Wait, what is going on with this?” So people started to kind of follow it and then it was that next week I got the Google alert. Criminal complaint filed by a school-board member. She was on the school board but wanted to bypass the school board’s process, because she didn’t like how it was going and decided to file a criminal complaint. She was trying to get me charged with something, but it never happened.

But that was when I knew this isn’t going away. And they’re trying to use the criminal-justice system, which is often the route that they go when they feel like things aren’t going their way. They try to criminalize you.

Well, in a way, that leads us to today and these drag-performance bans in multiple states that are taking shape. A source told me that when he reads the Tennessee law, it’s so broad as to possibly make the very act of being a trans person in the presence of children illegal. What do you make of the fact that this is where we are in 2023?

I mean, we’re going back to the days of like, when you could be arrested for cross-dressing, right?

What’s so interesting about this is we already have a legal system that is a hot mess where you could barely get a court date anyway. You know, get a ticket and it takes months to go to court. We have a cash bail system so you have got poor people literally sitting in jail for months and sometimes years. So I think that is the part where for me, I’m like, “Who the hell is gonna prosecute drag queens?” Like, what in the world?

From your perspective, does it feel as if the nation’s comfort with censorship has actually grown over the last three years?

We’re reaching a place where there is censorship happening for certain artistic expression, right? And I think that’s really what’s at the base of the matter.

When it comes to the book banning, most of the books are primarily Black or Black and queer. It doesn’t mean that other populations don’t get caught up in it, but you can tell what the target population is.

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It sounds like you see a direct connection between the book bans, the curriculum bans, and now the drag-performance restrictions and bans. Is that fair to say?

Yeah, it’s all connected.

What makes you say that?

I think just this year, lawmakers have attempted to pass over, what, 300 anti-LGBTQ measures. None of this is happening in a silo. Clarence Thomas, in many ways, I think, accidentally showed his cards when he discussed Roe v. Wade, and stated [in his concurring opinion issued as a part of the Dobbs decision] how contraception and gay marriage was still up on the table, but didn’t bring up Loving v. Virginia, [a case regarding] interracial marriage. And, of course, he is in an interracial marriage. I think that was like the moment where we could see, oh yeah, this is personal to them. This has nothing to do with law, legalities, safety of people, anything, any attempt at consistency. So that lets you know that OK, when you’re dog whistling about gay marriage, and we’re seeing all these anti-LGBTQ bills and we’re seeing Black queer books be banned and we’re seeing drag performances be banned, we already know what this is really about.

We already know that the newest generation is starting to identify as more queer and they’re about to be the next leaders. And that scares people who have that irrational fear of change. It’s like how do we roll the country back to a time where LGBTQ people kind of had to live in the shadows?

And you believe that is the goal, rollback?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. And you just look at politics, right? I think that what we’re witnessing is when they overturned Roe v. Wade, the Republicans had nothing else left to attack, to rally their voters.

That was their big thing. Keep voting for us because we have got to stop it [abortion]. Then when it happened, it was like, oh, what are our other issues?

Do you question the sincerity of the beliefs? Or could this be the next set of things conservatives sincerely feel they need to take on now that Roe has been overturned?

You can’t tell me that evangelicals can somehow have some moral compass to vote for certain politicians, because Donald Trump got elected. We all know Republicans are hypocrites. And Democrats can also be hypocrites, right? But it’s like, that’s where we’re at.

I don’t know if you saw the recent Jon Stewart interview with one state lawmaker. He’s one of the ones on the ban-the-drag-shows bandwagon. And he [Stewart] brought up the fact of the matter like you ban drag shows, you ban books, but you won’t ban guns. But you keep saying that your argument is that this is for children, but you know that guns in this country are the No. 1 killer of children. So you’ll “protect” them from drag shows and you’ll “protect” them from books, and facts, but you won’t protect them from the actual No. 1 cause of their death.

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Yeah, I think that a lot of times it’s just used, in my opinion, as fundraising.

When’s the last time you ever heard a Republican say “Antifa,” right? Now three years ago, you could not stop them from saying that word. Now what’s their new word? It’s “woke.” But now young Republicans are telling the older ones to stop saying it. I just read a really good article about that, where the young Republicans have literally been begging the older Republicans to stop going on TV and saying “woke” pejoratively.

So, sometimes, I wonder, what day they will realize that the book bans are not getting them any more money. Just like when’s the last time you heard them say Black Lives Matter? They don’t care anymore.

You mentioned to me that you have wondered why more people have not taken a larger public, overt stance against book bans and other forms of censorship and control.

Yeah. I still stand on that.

What kind of pushback is needed, in your view, against this sort of censorship?

More coverage. I just saw Amanda Seales, who used to be on the show Insecure, did a post about like Black books that were banned. And all of the comments were like, “Wait, ban? What she talking about?” And she had to do a second post to be like, “Yo, I’m shocked that this many people do not know that all these books are getting banned across the country.”

And I was like, but that’s been my plight. And even the places that are covering it, or trying to now, it’s like, but we’re three years in. This took a little bit long for y’all to actually realize like hey, this is a problem.

And why do you think that it has taken so long?

Honestly, I think it’s because, especially in this country, it’s like, what is trending?

Do you really think it’s too esoteric, complicated, or unexciting for the average person to recognize as a major and important issue?

For some people, yes. Like books are being removed across the country, but we also got this news, this crisis, this fire, this scandal today and the people producing the news themselves are competing for ratings, competing for views, versus prioritizing actual journalism.

Demonstrators protest Florida Governor Ron DeSantis plan to eliminate Advanced Placement courses on African American studies in high schools outside the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., on Feb. 15, 2023.
Demonstrators protest Florida Governor Ron DeSantis plan to eliminate Advanced Placement courses on African American studies in high schools outside the Florida State Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla., on Feb. 15, 2023.Joshua Lott—The Washington Post/Getty Images

You aren’t wrong. Those pressures are pervasive. But I also wonder if – and maybe I’m being too cynical here – but might your explanation be too generous? As you pointed out earlier, the vast majority of the books challenged or banned and the curriculum restrictions, for sure, were books and classes and materials by and about Black people, and now other groups too. Might the issue also or instead be that many people do not care, assume it will stop there, or they themselves don’t want to have to hear or read or see those materials?

Of course that’s also what it is.

Like, I always say, when people are like, “Oh, yeah, I’m pro choice.” It’s like, “OK, but are you pro abortion?” You have to be pro that this thing should exist. And if you can’t say this thing should exist, then that’s where the problem lies. Because then when the thing is removed, you are not going to fight for it. And I think that’s the same thing with the books. It’s like, oh, yeah, that book should, it should be in the library. OK, but are you in favor of the book? You agree with teens being able to read these books? If you can’t say yes to that, then you are just as bad as the ones that want to remove them.

A lot of the left won’t go on the record, don’t think this will affect them and the things they want to do or read so they don’t think they need to. And the right, Republicans, whatever you want to call them, conservatives, they will say how they feel about the books.

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Conservatives are loud about it. But what I feel is liberals also agree with them secretly.

And I still have not seen enough, especially on the level of prominent government officials, defending the books and other rights in the same ways in which someone like [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis has [opposed them]. They’re not vocal about protecting the books that are being banned. So I also think that many of them feel like our books shouldn’t be there and are just kind of letting it ride out in a way where they’re almost like, well, I can retain your vote but I’m not going that next step to protect the rights of students, to protect the rights of those writing these books.

Are you asking where is the anti-DeSantis?

Exactly, someone who is just as loud defending the right to books, to ideas, to expression.

Are you asking why the Department of Education, the Department of Justice, or other aspects of the Biden Administration have not used the power of the federal purse or civil rights enforcement power to contain some of this activity?

They’re not rising to the occasion, the way that conservatives are banning the hell out of books. It’s like the loudness of conservatives is only being matched by the quietness of those who pretend to be our allies.

Students do have rights. Librarians have rights. The Supreme Court ruled on that in the Pico case.

What has that void, that silence has allowed to proliferate?

What happens is something major happens and everybody’s up in arms and like, “What do you mean they are shutting down all the public schools, clearing all the library shelves?”

And some of us are sitting here like, “What did you think banning books was going to lead to?” Like, the first thing you ban is books. The second thing you start to ban is the kids that look like the kids in the book.

It just seems so small in the grand scheme of things to some people. But we know where it goes from here, right?

Has the relative silence allowed extreme ideas to become normalized? For example, the silence around the war against accurate history and the labeling of it and the idea that many books are part of a campaign to make white children feel bad about themselves has such a stronghold now that millions of people will not hear the facts. Books on Jackie Robinson and Rosa Parks are now banned from schools.

No, because it’s real easy for us to push back when that kind of argument is made. We always say, “I’ve literally been forced to read and watch heterosexual programming and books all my life and it has not turned me straight. I don’t know how that works on your side unless y’all are already having feelings of doubt or questioning your own identity. But I can tell you that me reading straight stuff never once made me question my identity and only affirmed it, right?”

Literally every time we say what I just said, it’s always like dead silence.

Being silent about censorship simply because it may not be affecting you right now isn’t particularly smart.

The group of people who think, “Well, you know, that’s it. They only mess with Black queer people.” Add the words “right now.” When they’re done with us, there’s another group that has a little bit more privilege, and that’s called Black heterosexual people, right? They will come for you, your books, your rights next. And it will continue.

So, yes. Your silence will not save you. I think that was Audrey Lorde that talked about that. So I think that’s the message that I want to put out now is that now is the time to talk about this and to share about it. I mean, there are places where they have banned Toni Morrison.

That just let us know that this fight is not about what they say this fight is about. This is what it is about: The demographics in this country are changing and they do not want this next generation to be wise to the history of this country and to where we are today.

And I do feel at some point people are going to start to see through it. I feel like some people are already starting to see through it.

Do you worry these book bans will also have a chilling effect on both what people pitch and in what publishing houses are willing to invest?

You know, at first, I would have thought that, but I’ve been getting blurb requests for books that talk about racism and homophobia and things. My next book is a young adult book about Black queer people [during] from the Harlem Renaissance. I think most publishers are just thinking, well, they can’t ban every book.

Would you put yourself in the camp of people worried that we’re creeping toward fascism?

I think our country has always operated under a form of fascism. We just have called it democracy. The person with the most votes doesn’t always win [the presidency], right? That’s actually anti-democratic. What we do here is not really different from other countries, just maybe, like they say, you put makeup on a pig, but it’s still a pig.

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