All Boys Aren't Blue, Sex Positivity, & How to Discuss
A couple of weeks ago, Fisher and the rest of the 5th grade split rooms -- boys in one, girls in another -- and learned about puberty. He told me this in the car, but I don’t remember where we were going or where we’d been. He said So-and-So clucked like a hen in the middle of the big talk and everyone laughed. Kids get extra weird when you talk about genitalia.
“Did they talk about sex?” I asked.
He said no. That it was just stuff about bodies and that he already knew it all.
Then I asked too many follow-up questions, and he got mad. I guess 5th grade boys don’t want to talk to their moms about penises and vaginas. Maybe 5th grade girls don’t either. I know I didn’t, which was not a problem, because neither did my parents. Everything I knew about my sexually maturing body I learned from school pamphlets and Mrs. Moore, my 7th grade biology teacher. It was all very science-y: human development right alongside tadpoles and chickens. And it was all horrifying.
I knew even less about sex. What I did know, I learned from paperback romance novels, a friend’s dad’s not-so-secret stash of Penthouse magazines, and Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews (please recall: sinister child abuse and an incestuous sexual relationship between a brother and sister), which I read in middle school.
Subsequently, I grew into a teenager and then an adult grossly uncomfortable with talking about sex. It was a hilarious twist when I took a break from school psychology and went to work for the Iowa Department of Public Health as the Program Evaluation Coordinator for the State of Iowa’s HIV prevention programs. I talked about sex all damn day. That’s where I learned the term “sex positive”.
Briefly, sex positivity means communicating about sex without shame or embarrassment and respecting others’ sexuality – including its diverse and fluid expression. Respecting others means, minimally: (1) Don’t yuck somebody else’s yum; and (2) Value consent.
Sex positive programs actually help prevent the spread of HIV and other STD’s. They have even been linked to a reduction in sexual violence. How? By reducing shame. Shame drives people into shadows; and that is not where healthy sexual behavior occurs. Instead… those who are taught that their sexuality is an innate and healthy part of being human, and who are not repeatedly told that they are sick and dirty deviants, are more likely to advocate for their own sexual wellbeing, respect the sexual wellbeing of others, communicate with partners, test regularly as a form of prevention, and use contraception. Also, those with healthy and supported sexuality don’t typically molest the neighbor kids or rape people at parties, in cars, or behind dumpsters. Bonus.
This brings me to a book called All Boys Aren’t Blue, the young adult memoir of George M. Johnson (they/them). It’s rated a 4 (Not for Minors) on the Book Looks scale, and according to NPR in October 2022, it has become one of the most banned books in school libraries.
All Boys Aren’t Blue is Johnson’s story about growing up Black and queer in New Jersey. They did not feel at home in their schools, their body, their gender, or their sexuality, and they did not have the language or resources to sort it out on their own. Johnson’s introduction to sex was being molested by a cousin.
Book Looks gives it a 4, and Moms for Liberty and other conservative groups, want it out of school libraries. They specify their concerns with this book as: …sexual nudity; sexual activities including sexual assault; alternate gender ideologies; profanity and derogatory terms; alcohol and drug use; and controversial racial commentary.
“You sometimes don’t know you exist until you realize someone like you existed before” (85).
In the author’s note at the front of the book, Johnson explains their desire to be authentic and truthful about their experiences. They tell the reader upfront that they will read about sexual assault, loss of virginity, homophobia, racism, and anti-Blackness. Johnson says, “These discussions at times may be a bit graphic, but nonetheless they are experiences that many reading this book will encounter or have already encountered. And I want those readers to be seen and heard in these pages” (viii). They preview the use of the n-word and f-word and their reasons for writing them completely at times. Johnson insists they did this with great consideration and asks that the reader use the same thoughtfulness when reading them. And finally, Johnson writes:
“Please know that this book was crafted with care and love, but most importantly to give a voice to so many from marginalized communities whose experiences have not yet been captured between the pages of a book.”
Are the topics Book Looks warns us about (DANGER! DANGER!) in the book? Yes. Yes, they are. Are they presented salaciously? No, they are not. In fact, they are described so plainly and directly that they almost read like a pamphlet. “Here are the facts." I believe this is what Johnson does in this narrative: Writes plain, straight-forward descriptions of events alongside thoughtful examinations of confusion and desire; and I think it's important.
1 - If we fear what we don’t understand;
2 – If we lack understanding because we don’t talk and listen openly;
3 – If no talking and no listening creates a sense of TABOO;
3 – If TABOO fosters shame;
4 – If shame drives us into the shadows; and
5 – If shadows are where harmful things happen…
… then Johnson is doing their part to eradicate fear and shame and taboo and therefore shadows and harmful expressions. Memoirs like Johnson’s are an important service – and not just for LGBTQIA+ kids. A middle-aged white hetero lady like me can read Johnson's words in my Iowa living room, find connection, and empathize. The move to censor access to stories like Johnson’s in the name of “protecting kids” reminds me of Amanda Ripley telling us that one symptom of high conflict is the ultimate destruction of that which we are trying so hard to protect.
By the way, Book Looks gave Flowers in the Attic a 2, so child abuse and sex between brothers and sisters is fine, apparently – as long as they stick with their assigned gender.
If I were writing this strictly as a critical book review, I would tell you that Johnson’s written timeline was difficult to follow in parts. I might say something about how the narrative didn’t always flow particularly well.
But all of those things miss the point nearly as much as banning it for its unadorned handlings of sex, gender, and race.
In another past life, I was teacher. If this book had been on my list while student teaching English-10 at Nimitz High School in Houston, TX (instead of the “dead white men” literature we were required to teach), I would have asked my students to look for the connective tissue. My discussion guide would have looked something like this:
ALL BOYS AREN’T BLUE: A Discussion Guide
1. Johnson suggests that mental health is taboo in the Black community, particularly among Black boys and men. Where do you think this might come from? What do you think the consequences are? Do you see this play out in contemporary culture? Where and how?
2. Growing up, Johnson was most comfortable socializing with girls. They describe mirroring girls’ mannerisms of walking, talking, and “sass”. Johnson writes:
“There are moments even now when I’m simply not sure of my mannerisms, femininity, and more. Are they derived from mirroring the Black women in my life, or are they naturally me, or a mix of both?”
Think about your own mannerisms. Do you walk like your mom/dad? Sit cross-legged like your grandmother/grandfather? Use the same language or inflections of your peers? Where do you think that comes from? And do you think it matters?
3. Johnson explains their experience with “code-switching” – being able to switch back and forth between “boy talk” and “girl talk”. What forms of code-switching do you see and/or experience personally?
4. “Navigating in a space that questions your humanity isn’t really living at all. It’s existing. We all deserve more than just the ability to exist” (75). What do you think of this?
5. Johnson gives up playing double dutch at recess so he can be more accepted by the boys. Have you ever given up something you enjoyed just to be liked or accepted?
6. Johnson talks about how history was taught in their schools. They write:
“The interesting thing about studying history is how much it starts to change based on the school setting and who is teaching it. And it’s not always about how those teachers view history, but how they view you. And your place in history” (91).
What do you think of this? Is history based more on facts or more on interpretation of facts? How might the teaching of history change based on the teacher’s perception of the student’s place in history?
7. Johnson writes about their family’s aversion to swimming – tracing it back to systemic roots (when public pools were integrated and pools in Black neighborhoods were closed, which made swimming lessons less available) as well as their more immediate family history (a cousin and Johnson’s mother both nearly drowned). What lore or systems in your family have perpetuated a phobia or aversion from one generation to the next? (E.g., Few learning how to drive; Fear of cats, natural areas, strangers, etc.)
8. Johnson shares that the national rate of homelessness for LGBTQIAP+ youth is near 40%, but “…the rate in my family has always been 0 percent. How could one family get so right what the world has gotten so wrong” (139)? Discuss Nanny’s role in this. What do you think it would be like if, as Johnson writes, “…the world existed with a ‘Nanny’ in each family” (138).
9. Johnson walks the reader through their confusion when trying to figure out whether they were transgender (like their cousin, Hope) or just a boy who liked boys. How did their lack of language differentiating gender and sexuality and representation contribute to this confusion? Where did Johnson eventually begin to find clarity? Where do today’s youth with similar questions find clarity? What happens when they don’t?
10. Johnson helps take care of Nanny when she is going through cancer treatment. They write: “…taking care of someone who took care of you is one of the most powerful and transformative things you could do on this earth” (191). How do you think we do, as a system, with taking care of the elderly in contemporary society?
11. As an adult, and after Thomas was killed at the age of 29, Johnson was able to find empathy for him. Johnson wrote: “You were a boy who wasn’t blue and for the twenty-nine years you were here, you lived in the gray.” What do you think about Johnson’s ability to find empathy for Thomas?
12. From pages 215-217, Johnson describes how they felt discovering their first crush, Zamis. Who was your first crush? How did it feel to be around them?
13. Johnson was not “out” yet when they met Zamis. They write: “How do you just trust someone with the biggest secret in your life? What if I told him I was gay, and he said that he wasn’t? What if he told all of my business to other people in school?” What are potential consequences of “outing” oneself to the wrong person? Has that changed since the 90s?
14. Johnson describes “culture vultures” in his private Catholic school as white kids who wanted to participate in Black culture. “My culture was a joke to them the entire time I was in high school – something that they could play with while never suffering the oppression that those who created it did” (226). What do you think of this? Do you see current examples of this? How might this relate to the idea of “appropriation”?
15. Regarding “coming out”, Johnson writes:
“Notice my varying confidence and discouragement throughout this chapter. Notice my confusion in how strong I was in some moments and how weak I was in others, because that is what coming out truly is. It is not a final thing. It’s something that is ever occurring. You are always having to come out somewhere. Every new job. Every new city you live in. Every new person you meet, you are likely having to explain your identity” (237).
Do you relate to this statement? In what ways?
16. From pages 199-209, Johnson describes being sexually molested by their cousin, Thomas, and then assaulted in the boys bathroom at school. Later (pp. 262-276), they write about losing their virginity by choice. In all circumstances, Johnson writes very plainly and with detail about what occurred. How do you feel about their descriptions of these events? Did they serve the retelling? Did the level of direct detail make it obscene? What makes something obscene? If Johnson had left out the retelling or had only mentioned it briefly and without detail, would it have changed the message or value of their story?
17. In the author’s note at the beginning of the book, Johnson tells the reader that they deliberately chose to sometimes write the n-word and f-word slurs in full. Other times they chose to abbreviate it. Was it difficult to read these when presented in full? Why or why not?
18. After describing losing their virginity, Johnson writes: “My greatest fear is that queer teens will be left to trial and error in their sexual experience. It’s worth me feeling a little embarrassed so that you all are a bit more prepared” (276). What do you think about Johnson’s intent here? Do you think the way they relayed their experiences will help other queer teens?