Why Olly Alexander’s ‘Growing Up Gay’ Matters So Much

Olly Alexander: Growing Up Gay is an important programme. Expect smiles, tears and heartbreak, as Alexander explores the effect being gay has had on his mental health over the years.

“Growing up gay in a straight world has really affected me,” he explains. Since rising to stardom in recent years, he has opened up about struggles with anxiety, depression and eating disorders: in Growing Up Gay, he explores this past – going back to his family home in sleepy Coleford, Gloucestershire – and meets with several young men currently facing similar struggles.

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The scope of issues covered is phenomenal: while many might seem commonplace to members of the LGBT+ community who engage with them, some statistics and stories are still startling. Connor was bullied out of secondary school and became suicidal in his teens; two-thirds of LGBT+ teens have self-harmed and one in four have attempted suicide.

After being rejected by his family, Sean got involved in cruising and the chem sex scene; he admitted himself to a rehabilitation program but, over the course of the film, relapses. A recent study estimated that one gay man dies every twelve days in London from G (GHB (gammahydroxybutrate) and GBL (gammabutyrolactone)); drug use is thought to be seven times higher than average in the gay community. For a time, he was homeless, sleeping rough in Soho: almost one in four homeless youth are LGBT+.

Tom, a student in Brighton, has been bulimic for several years, which disproportionately affects gay men; together with Alexander, he attends the UK’s one men-only eating disorder group, MGEDT (Men Get Eating Disorders Too). In one of the most heartbreaking moments of the documentary, he admits that he can’t imagine a life beyond his eating disorder.

The honesty and frankness that these young men exhibit is incredible and admirable: to be able to talk so openly and candidly on camera – one of the problems that so often hangs over mental health is the difficulty to talk – is astonishing. Each of these issues deserves a whole documentary, but here they are woven together elegantly, if slightly rushed. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” Alexander admits.

He’s a fantastic presenter: honest, candid, raw; we see his childhood home, his diaries, embarrassing home videos from school. He was bullied throughout primary and secondary school and started to self-harm in his teens; he soon developed an eating disorder: “I will not eat bread, I will not eat cakes, I will not eat chocolate.” Aged 19, having moved to London, he began to lose himself in parties, drugs, sex. Talking about drug use in the gay scene, he breaks down in tears, having lost several friends to overdoses. He tries to explain the acceptance and intimacy that lies amidst the darkness of the gay scene, which many vulnerable people succumb to. “In my head, that darkness was my friend,” confesses Sean.

Having struggled to open up in the past – even with his mum and best friend, both of whom we meet – here he doesn’t shy away from any issue. He has hopes that “parents might watch [Growing Up Gay] or families might watch it together.”

“Lots of families would like to support their LGBT child, but they don’t know how. I think it’s really hard for everyone to talk about it, but we have to engage in the message. We have to open up conversations.”

He is sensitive and affectionate, engaging with the young men he talks to on a personal and compassionate level: there’s no air of celebrity, his lets his vulnerability show through. Interviews with his bandmates reveal the severity of his anxiety – sometimes he doesn’t want to go on stage and perfor – but footage from the Mighty Hoopla shows the positivity that queer culture can produce, with Alexander giving an inspiring and heartwarming speech to the main crowd.

So what can be done? One of the recurring themes is difficulty at school: encouragement and positivity within education, as well as adequate Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in schools, would be a huge step in the right direction. Alexander and Paris Lees take part in a Diversity Role Models class, helping pupils at a school confront the difficulties and realities of growing up LGBT+.

“LGBT inclusive sex education is one very clear way that we can help students who are struggling with their sexuality. It’s so obvious to me,” he says. “And I know it’s not an easy topic for schools to address, but I think we need to do it. Everyone benefits.”

Alexander also hosts a Big Gay Mental Health Night at The Glory in East London, with performances, readings and confessions about mental health from across the LGBT+ spectrum. I hope this wasn’t a one-off event; the London gay scene needs more events like this.

It would be nice to see more of Lees, to hear more from L and B and T individuals – but the film is called “Growing Up Gay” and Alexander, as a gay man, is trying to understand his own position. What we now need is a series of “Growing up…” films, each exploring different aspects of the LGBT+ spectrum.

This is a vital film. Not just for young LGBT+ people struggling with their identity and their mental health, for whom it will be invaluable: it shows them that they’re not alone when they might feel suffocatingly so. But it’s also significant for parents and friends of LGBT+ youth: seeing others openly discuss the guilt they might feel, the rejection so often experienced, how difficult it can be to simply talk about these issues.

And this is incredibly important for straight people: to help them understand what so many LGBT+ people have to deal with simply for being LGBT+. Matthew Todd’s Straight Jacket: How to be Gay and be Happy is also a phenomenal exploration of these ideas. Plus, it demonstrates the value – straight or gay – of talking about mental health.

Growing Up Gay is available on BBC iPlayer – but will also be broadcast on BBC One Wednesday 2nd August at 22:45.

Information and support for all the issues discussed is available via the BBC.