The excellent It’s A Sin, brilliantly reviewed in Solidarity 580 here, has propelled queer pop star Olly Alexander — Ritchie — into greater fame. The deeply moving 2017 documentary Olly Alexander: Growing Up Gay (directed by Vicki Cooper, available on BBC iPlayer) has got greater coverage.
The documentary looks into the experiences — mental health difficulties, and bullying — of young gay people today, growing up three or four decades after the people of It’s A Sin.
The contrast between Olly and Richie is perhaps starker even than the unimaginably different contexts. Where Richie was secretive about personal issues, and inexplicably a Tory voter, the real Olly in the documentary is emotionally open, is an LGBTIQ advocate, and a Corbynite.
Through various heartrending conversations — with other queer people, and with people from Olly’s childhood — the documentary looks at depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, bulimia, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts.
In the world that Olly’s and my generations grew up in, we find society congratulating itself for no longer being openly homophobic, for things having been much worse in the past. Yet insidious homophobia — not to mention transphobia — remains pervasive, as the stats and anecdotes in the documentary testify.
This, coupled with a desire to celebrate our sexualities and gender identities, to maintain a positive face, builds barriers to recognising the emotional experiences many of us faced and continue to wrestle with.
Even where LGBTIQ children and young people are “fortunate” enough to not face much bullying, a straight and homophobic world can leave its scars. Queer people have been intentionally and systematically written out of history, sliced out of literature and painted out artistic representation. For many, LGBTIQ issues were — and are still — not covered in “sex education”, or are covered tokenistically and badly.
People like you don’t exist; or if they do, their dark secret is unmentionable. And if this message isn’t clear enough, countless subtle wider cultural cues go one step further. “Gay” is used synonymously with “bad”: being gay must be bad.
In a formative stage of our emotional development, a growing awareness of sexual and romantic feelings comes hand in hand with a growing recognition that there is something wrong with you. You have this deep, character-defining and dirty secret which no-one else knows, and which you can talk to no-one else about. Which you must do your best to hide. Any slip or revealing of your inner feelings risks severe rejection, and worse.
Even if we make up, say, one in ten people, growing up each of us may be all alone on the planet. In a context where everyone is assumed straight, where anyone who isn’t must go above and beyond to pretend that they are, the inner turmoil of others with similar feelings is no more visible to you than yours is to them.
The documentary does not offer much deep analysis. Nor has it got a huge amount in detail to offer on what we should do now. It is personal, centred around the gay male star, not aiming to be “comprehensive”. It does not explore the experiences of trans and non-binary people, or queer women, extensively.
Yet it is deeply emotive and sensitive, and I found it very relatable. It is worth 60 minutes, particularly for queer people, for parents, and for school workers.