REVIEW: Olly Alexander ‘Growing Up Gay’ Documentary

REVIEW: Olly Alexander ‘Growing Up Gay’ Documentary

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Four Times I Watched It, Four Times I Experienced It Differently

If you haven’t watched the documentary, please do.

The documentary hits close to home for many LGBT+ folks. It highlights all the important issues that the community is currently grappling with including mental health. Olly touches on a point that is worth repeating when he says that ‘being gay does not mean you’re going to be sad or depressed’. He gets it right again when he says that there is a link between being gay and experiencing sadness or depression. One of my siblings who cannot even ‘tolerate’ my sexuality has told me that there are no gay people who are happy. Being deeply religious, he believes that homosexuality is a sin and so anyone engaging in same gender relationships is very likely to live a life of suffering as a form of punishment from the deities. After watching Olly’s documentary, it is clear my brother is not the only one who thinks being queer is tantamount to being unhappy. I’m sure there are many more who think so too. Queerphobia and the many challenges that come with living in a world that expects us to subscribe to (cis)heteronormative standards are what make it hard for many LGBT+ folks to be truly happy. We need to understand that link when we talk about queerness and sadness or depression.



Olly is one of the privileged few who can say that being gay has made things better for them. It is good that things have gotten better for him, especially after his own experiences with bullying at school. It is good that when he recognised his mental health problems brought on by his own struggles with and being bullied because of his sexuality, he managed to get help. He is fortunate to even have access to (quality, LGBT+ inclusive) mental healthcare services. He lives in a country where he knows he can enjoy some form of protection living as an ‘out’ gay man. Olly is a lead singer of what looks like a thriving band, Years and Years. On top of that, Olly has a loving and supportive mum, Vicky, who would not allow any beliefs to stop her from loving her son and accepting him for the gay man he is. Indeed, he is privileged.

The same cannot be said for many of us. Sean and Connor’s experiences are probably the most relatable to many LGBT+ folks. Sean’s story is also very important because it brings attention to the role religion plays in fuelling queerphobia in our communities. Of course, some religious institutions are becoming more inclusive or less fundamentalist but for many of us, religion continues to be the driving force that keeps us from being granted our right to exist freely. Many of our families cannot bring themselves to accept a child or sibling as being queer because of their religion-based beliefs on gender and sexuality. It is sad to note that the power of religion continues to trump love for and acceptance of queer folks. The hatred targeted towards the queer community means most of us are forced to live in closets for our own safety. If we come out, it is a risk as our visibility only increases the likelihood of facing a backlash from those folks who are queerphobic. We stand to face discrimination in various ways and to varying degrees. In the worst-case scenario, death lies in wait for those of us living in countries where the ‘offense’ is punishable by death.

I have watched the documentary four times since I got access to it. And in those four times, I have experienced it in four different ways. The first time, I teared up. My eyes got teary whenever Olly cried. I was crushed listening to Connor’s story and my eyes watered when Connor’s mum cried because she felt she had not able to do enough to protect her son from homophobia which resulted in him being suicidal and self-harming. I felt sorry for him and what he went through at his old school. I felt so angry at the girls who spread such a malicious and dangerous lie that could have gotten him killed. I thought Sean’s mother’s grounds for refusing to accept her son’s sexuality were ludicrous, at best and worrying, at worst. How could she not accept her gay son because of what she thinks might happen in the afterlife? How could the afterlife take precedence over this life? How is it that some folks value the afterlife so much that they’d even reject loved ones if they thought it was in line with religious teachings and was what it would take, amongst other things, to secure a desired afterlife? Another manifestation of the power religion has on those subscribing to it.

The second time, I was beginning to slowly move from watching the documentary to scrutinising it. I was very observant of the environment. At the onset of the documentary, Olly talks about LGBT+ folks having equal marriage. Connor takes Olly to an LGBT safe space which his mother had found for him where the youth meet and find support in each other.  There is also The Glory, most probably one of several bars for queer folks to hang out and let off some steam. Olly and another friend attend a workshop at a school where they talk with some of the students about LGBT+ issues. At the end of the documentary, a concert for LGBT+ folks is screened. Clearly, that is a progressive environment. The kind of environment many of us can only dream of living in. The kind of environment that some of us are seeking refuge in. I also paid attention to the relationship Olly has with his mother and the amount of love Connor’s mum has for him. I wondered how much of a difference it would make in the lives of LGBT+ folks if we all had even one person show us that much love and support. That support would go a long way in safeguarding our mental health and protecting us from resorting to harmful actions as a form of escapism or seeking acceptance (as was the case with Sean). I wondered how much more amazing it would be if those people who would love and support us were our families because, most of the time, it is familial love that we crave for the most; familial love which, when absent or withdrawn, can send some of us into deep down into the pits of depression (or other mental illnesses).

I thought about how partying, drugs and sex which usually make up the queer night life could also be related to the queerphobia that most of us experience in varying degrees. We need a respite from enduring all the hate. We need a place where we feel like we belong and can just be our authentic selves. I couldn’t help but wonder if (toxic) masculinity is the reason why Sean seemed to have a hard time confronting his battles in a way that would help him heal after he was raped. He put on a brave face and would not allow himself to show any emotions that would make him look ‘weak, vulnerable or like he was damaged goods’. Even though he forged a smile, one can’t help but feel that he is hurting but just won’t show it. His eyes also betray him every now and then, even when he smiles. Again, Tom’s battle with bulimia made me think about how the LGBT+ community needs to stop policing each other as this tends to have harmful effects on us. On top of dealing with hatred towards our community, people are also under pressure to look a certain way and behave in a certain, prescribed way. This usually forms the roots of or exacerbates our mental health problems. On top of the pressure to exist in a world that is still pretty much (cis)heteronormative. When we police each other, we stop being the safe space that allows us to BE.

‘I’m supposed to steer clear of queer company’. One of the performers at The Glory said this and I’m sure many of us have been told that. I know I have; my brother told me to stay away from gay folks. Hearing the performer say this made me wonder why most folks believe that we are influenced to be queer. Such thinking is what also results in (cis)heterosexual folks being intolerant towards the idea of (much-needed) queer representation on TV lest the appearance of queer folks ‘influences’ their children. Such folks probably think queerness is like a plague that can be spread or that it can be enabled. To them, staying away from queer folks is somehow, supposed to help curb the spread or make them reconsider their decision to live an authentic life.

The third time, I began to take more notice of the lack of queer folks of colour people in the documentary. Besides Sean and another Black person with a cool hairstyle (who may not even be queer) spotted at The Glory, every other queer person was white. Queer or not, there was a clear lack of racial diversity and it was unsettling. A lot of questions crossed my mind regarding this- some serious, some not so much. I wondered about the kind of area Olly must live in.  How many people of colour live there? How many of them are queer and of that number, how many are out? The men’s eating disorder group had white folks only. Did men of colour have their own group? Did they experience eating disorders? How did they deal with such issues? The bar was too white. I wondered if there were other bars where queer folks of colour got together because they felt more welcoming. The concert was even overwhelmingly whiter and this could be because the group was larger than all other groups shown. Were the safe spaces Olly talked about not so racially inclusive? Did people of colour have their own spaces and hold their own concerts? Were the ticket prices for the concert out of reach for queer folks of colour? Did they live too far to be part of the safe spaces, the bars and concerts highlighted in the documentary? Where were queer folks of colour?

The fourth time I watched the documentary, I decided to write an opinion piece on it because while it did a splendid job of overtly highlighting the issues many LGBT+ folks are facing, it may have covertly shown us the racial segregation that is prevalent among queer folks and which continues to drive a wedge in the LGBT community. It is a sad reality to confront that even in our collective struggle against the hatred directed towards us as queer folks, we are still divided (mainly) by the colour of our skin. Safe spaces stop being safe for ALL queer folks unless one is able-bodied and has the ‘right’ skin or in some instances, belongs to the ‘right’ class. The documentary may have given substantive proof as to why it is justifiable that the Pride flag was altered and the colours black and brown were added.

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