Olly Alexander: the Years & Years frontman discusses powerful new documentary ‘Growing Up Gay’

"I struggle to describe how horrified I feel about people like Piers Morgan and the damage they’re doing."

As frontman of Years & Years, Olly Alexander is known for championing LGBT+ issues, but his first experiences of his sexuality were marred by bullying and shame. In a powerful BBC3 documentary, Olly Alexander: Growing Up Gay, the 26-year-old explores why the queer community is more vulnerable to mental health issues – and candidly addresses his own depression. He tells NME it’s time to stop sweeping the lasting impact of shame under a rainbow flag.

Why did you decide to make this documentary, Olly?

“Many of my queer friends struggle with their mental health or aren’t here anymore, and I want to encourage conversation around a topic that’s difficult to tackle. As queer people, we’re used to the narrative that you’re in the dark in the closet, then you come out – which can be a traumatic process. Once that’s over, there’s a pressure to prove to everybody how happy and successful you can be and that you aren’t scarred and damaged. No one’s saying being gay gives you mental health issues – it’s growing up in a world that makes you feel like you’re wrong, disgusting or perverted.”

Like half of all LGBT teens, you suffered homophobic bulling at school. You self-harmed and developed an eating disorder. When did you realise you needed to get help?

“When I was going through bulimia, I was throwing up multiple times and getting sick because of the stress I was putting on my body. I had to go to hospital and have my heart monitored. That was a scary moment because I thought I’d done irreparable damage to my body – and I was only 15. In the documentary, I was lucky enough to attend a male-only eating disorder group. It’s a taboo subject for men to talk about.”

In the documentary you visit a school as a Diversity Role Model. What difference would LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education have made to you?

“A huge one. At school, it was as if LGBT people didn’t exist. They definitely weren’t talked about by teachers. Just having somebody LGBT come into a classroom talking about their experiences – or simply introducing LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education – is an obvious way to help young kids who are struggling with their identity.”

You also talk to someone whose hedonism has tipped over into addiction. You say you partied too much when you first went on the gay scene aged 18. What made you stop?

“I just realised I wasn’t happy. I was going out every weekend and didn’t feel like I was connecting with anybody. I was gradually feeling worse. Then I hit my head – I was sober – and got concussion before Christmas one year, which sent me into a spiral of major anxiety where I thought if I touched a drink or anything, my brain would explode. I think it retriggered my anxiety, so I stopped going out. I know lots of people going through a darker and darker spiral of drugs, sex and partying. I don’t know specifically why this is happening, but it needs to be addressed. For me, personally, I just don’t want to have any more friends dying.”

Do you worry that the language people like Piers Morgan uses around trans people [he’s called them “a fad” and “contagion”] will affect young people?

“I struggle to describe how horrified I feel about people like Piers Morgan and the damage they’re doing. They hide behind ‘It’s free speech, I can say what I like’. No, we have a responsibility to try to help people and encourage better forms of discussion. Young trans people are some of the most at-risk in our society and for Piers Morgan to say some of the things he does is wildly irresponsible. I don’t know how he sleeps at night.”

Facebook is now offering 72 different gender identity options. Are young people more willing to embrace experimenting with their gender and sexuality?

“What I see is a lot of Years & Years fans are more fluid with gender identity and sexuality, which is great. The media sometimes present it narrowly as ‘Gender’s over and everything’s fine now.’ There are more young people who accept and understand different identities and sexualities, but we have a long way to go to ensure they aren’t suffering abuse and discrimination.”

The documentary forms part of a season marking 50 years since the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. What advances still need to be made?

“Legally, we can feel good about how far we’ve come – but for trans people it’s fallen short. They’re not protected in many places, like the workplace, and that’s something we should all fight for. But it’s also about changing people’s attitudes, which is a tougher battle.”

How do you feel about Theresa May’s parliamentary deal with the anti-gay-marriage Democratic Unionist party?

“Don’t get me started on our human rights-hating government. I can’t even begin! We have to be vigilant and make sure they don’t try to rip up our rights – because they might.”

 Olly Alexander: Growing Up Gay is available on iPlayer now

 The Samaritans can be contacted free from any phone on 116 123. Call the LGBT Switchboard on 0300 330 0630