“One of the reasons I wanted to make this documentary was the hope that families might watch it.”
Forget Game of Thrones, if there’s one TV show that’s essential viewing this summer it’s Olly Alexander’s debut documentary Growing Up Gay.
In this eye-opening film, the Years & Years frontman explores why the gay community is more vulnerable to mental health issues than any other, opening up about his own long-term battles with depression, self-harm and bulimia.
Recent figures show that more than 40% of LGBT+ people will experience a significant mental health problem, compared to around 25% of the whole population, and that LGBT+ people are more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide.
In an exclusive Gay Times interview, we scolded Olly for making us cry with Growing Up Gay, but also thanked him for opening everyone’s eyes up to the harsh realities still facing our LGBT+ youth.
Olly! We watched Growing Up Gay and it made us cry. Twice. So thanks for that.
[Laughs] You’re welcome! It was quite hard to watch back for me too. It was a bit like an out-of-body experience, in a way. The things happening on screen brought back a lot of memories.
In the documentary you talk about your history with bulimia, self-harm, being bullied as a kid… Was making this a cathartic experience for you?
It really was! It’s funny, because mental health is such a massive topic to cover in just 55 minutes and there’s only so much you can really do in that time. I’ve never spoken about some of the stuff on there before. I think especially for my mum it was a really positive experience and it really helped me understand a bit better what it was like for her while I was going through all this shit as a teenager. I never really asked what it was like for her, so to have a better perspective on that really helped our relationship.
It was the stuff between you and your mum that really got us going. I think a lot of gay men will be able to see parallels with their own relationships with their mums.
Oh God, yeah. I met Connor, who’s a young lad in the film from Norwich who’s being bullied at school for being gay. I remember meeting his mum and she was talking about how she was just trying to look after her son, but she didn’t know what to do. I was just like, “Oh God, this hits home.” That was really emotional.
It seems like it’s a real common thread for a lot of us. Our relationship with our mums is a very important relationship for gay men.
It feels like the kind of documentary that any parent of an LGBT+ kid should watch just to get a better understanding of what we go through. It’s such an eye-opener.
I hope so. One of the reasons I wanted to make this documentary was the hope that families might watch it. If we’d have had something about LGBT+ life on TV when we were growing up it would’ve made a huge difference. When I was growing up all we had was John Paul in Hollyoaks and Queer as Folk. I do have a soft spot in my heart for John Paul, but there wasn’t a lot around though! There still isn’t, really, but it’s getting better. If anything, I’m hoping this will encourage more discussion in the public. Get people to say, “this is my experience” or “this is my story”. I’m hoping it’ll encourage that.
In the documentary you visit an LGBT+ youth group. How did you find that?
Just to be able to talk openly about what’s happening in a safe environment is massively beneficial. I wish I’d have had that. We need to encourage more of these kinds of groups, but so many services like this were shut down because they didn’t have the money. But the ones that are still here are so important, that’s really obvious.
Whether it was because of austerity or budget cuts, it’s such a shame there’s no money for more of that kind of thing.
Exactly. I feel like every day I’m going to have another rant about our horrendous Tory government, but it’s plain to see year on year that the cuts have demolished our health services – especially our social care. I don’t trust anything Theresa May says.
It’s good that she’s talking about mental health now, but I think she says anything to try and gain some kind of political ground.I feel like everything that comes out of her mouth is a lie at this point. I’ll be happy when I actually see some results from that, but I don’t feel too confident about it.
So seeing as the documentary is called Growing Up Gay, what were your own experiences like? You talk about being bullied in school quite a bit…
Yeah, well, throughout school I got picked on. Other kids would call me “fag” or “poof” or whatever. At the time I was telling myself that I wasn’t gay, or I was really hoping that I wouldn’t turn out to be gay. I came out to a friend when I was 19 after I moved to London. That kind of gave me the courage to call up my mum and tell her. She was just like, “Oh, that makes sense Olly. No worries!” She was just the most chill ever. It was very un-dramatic, my coming out experience.
But isn’t that how it should be?
I think so, yeah! Coming out is difficult though and it’s a different experience for everybody. It’s kind of depressing that that it’s still so hard for so many people. I think it is changing, though.
Can you imagine a point where young kids are just able to say, “Well, I might be gay. I’m not sure. I’ll see how it goes”? That would be a beautiful place to get to.
Exactly. We aren’t there yet, though. In the documentary I went to a school in Wood Green and they’re a really great school – they’re really pro-inclusivity and they have a lot of positive messaging around sexuality and gender identity. Still, I was just really nervous in that environment because it was like being back at school. I still really feel for queer kids in that environment because even in a school like that which is very inclusive, it still feels like a hard environment to be open in.
Click here to watch Olly Alexander: Growing Up Gay on BBC iPlayer now. The documentary will also air on BBC One later in July. Read the full interview with Olly in the new issue of Gay Times, in shops and available to download on 27 July.