Why everyone – LGBT or not – should watch Olly Alexander: Growing up Gay

BBC3's new documentary from the Years and Years frontman shows how we can all help combat the LGBT mental health crisis

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“I can’t really remember the rape, it’s only the crawl home I can picture.” 

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Sean speaks of that night slowly, his expression vacant, voice subdued. It’s the same muted manner he uses to describe how his mother swore he would go to hell for being gay and how his depression led to the drug habit that ultimately resulted in that sexual abuse by a gang who had provided him with crystal meth. “That night didn’t stop me though,” he says with slight hesitation, the sentence slowed by its own weight. “I still wanted more. In my head that darkness was my friend.” 

Sean is not alone. His experience is just one page in the story of a crisis in LGBT mental health in the UK, which sees gay and trans people 40% more likely to experience depression than the average person, twice as likely to commit suicide and seven times as likely to take drugs.

It’s these figures that provide the starting point for new one-off BBC3 documentary Growing up Gay. Part of the broadcaster’s Gay Britannia season, the show sees Olly Alexander, the charismatic frontman of British electronica trio, delve into the lives of Sean and others in the LGBT community who are battling a myriad of mental health disorders. 

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Sean, a subject in Olly Alexander: Growing up Gay

And it makes for a powerful watch. Alexander’s boyish charm eases open the subjects of Growing Up Gay, from Connor, a self-harming 13-year-old once thrown down a flight of stairs for coming out gay at school, to Tom, an LGBT student who spirals through six cycles of binge eating and vomiting each day. And although their final destinations are somewhat different, it doesn’t take long to see that all their journeys started with a battle with homophobia and their own sexuality. 

Rather than painted as sob stories, however, these accounts are treated with incredible sensitivity thanks to the plainly sincere presenter – Alexander handles each of his meetings with genuine warmth, not to mention a torrent of tears. But whatever toll it took on his emotions, it was just the show the singer was aiming for in his first foray into documentary making. 

“It was draining, but having all these conversations was so positive,” says Alexander at a screening of the film. “Mental health is such a difficult thing to talk about and the reality is we ignore it. My experience is it’s such a prevalent issue for LGBT people and it’s not discussed.” 

But he doesn’t stop at letting others expose their problems. Alexander confronts his own struggle with mental illness, opening his teenage diaries for the camera to revisit memories of self-harm scars and chronic bulimia. As he turns the pages, the same phrases are scrawled in capitals “I WILL NOT EAT BREAD. I WILL NOT EAT CAKE”. 

It’s not only an incredibly bold move to unpack his most personal demons for the world to see, but an incredibly purposeful one: Alexander isn’t bringing up his past to sway the audience’s sympathy or simply display his credentials for presenting the show, he’s inviting the audience to join the conversation – whether they’re LGBT or not.

“It’s so hard to share about these issues with people that are close to you: your families and your friends. And that’s often who you could really do with a talk with,” explains Alexander. “One of the biggest reasons I thought it would be a good [documentary] to make is that parents might watch it 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.” 

That’s just what Alexander does. In the most touching moment of Growing Up Gay, he opens up to his mother about his mental health struggles, a topic never spoken about between the pair. The conversation is peppered with striking honesty (and plenty of tears) as Olly’s mother laments the fact that she was previously too anxious to discuss her son’s sexuality. By the scene’s closing hug, you might even well up yourself.

Despite their talk featuring more tears than words, it’s one Alexander will want to remember forever. “It’s really helped the relationship with me and my mum. And it’s really moved things along for myself.”

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Olly Alexander with his mother Vicki Thornton

Yet Growing Up Gay isn’t only a personal journey for the host. The film examines the lack of youth LGBT-specific mental health support across the UK, with a sparse number of charities unable to prop up the lack of institutional care.

“We’ve seen [mental health] services get decimated in the few past years,” says Alexander, his usual smile shifting to a rare frown. “It’s painfully clear there’s no money in these vital services. It’s outrageous! They’re saving people’s lives and they’re being cut!”

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Simply rounding up stories of LGBT mental suffering would make for a touching documentary, but Growing up Gay goes well beyond that. Instead of dealing solely with the current crisis, Alexander explores what could be done to prevent the problem in future. He begins to ask ‘why is this happening and how can we stop it for good?’. Here’s where the show evolves from powerful to essential viewing.

We see Alexander go beyond the LGBT community, talking to schoolchildren – whatever their sexuality – as part of a queer role model program, shown to make participants more accepting of gay and trans people in later life.

This course radiates a clear message of inclusivity that Alexander argues should translate into a vital area of the curriculum. “LGBT inclusive sex education is one very clear way that we can help students who are struggling with their sexuality,” he says, suggesting this would prevent young gay people from being alienated at school. “It’s so obvious to me. And I know it’s not an easy topic for schools to address, but I think we need to do it. Everyone benefits.”

This message is at the heart of the film: that anyone – queer or not – can help by engaging in the conservation about growing up gay and mental health. 

And although Alexander currently has no current plans for another film, his message won’t stop at this documentary. “It’s the tip of the iceberg,” he says, his natural smile returning. “This isn’t the end.”

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Olly Alexander: Growing up Gay is now available to watch on BBC iPlayer