Identity

Olly Alexander: LGBTQ Education Isn’t Radical, It’s a Necessity

Read an exclusive extract by the Years & Years musician from the new anthology "We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on Future of LGBTQ+ Rights".
June 8, 2021, 8:00am
Olly Alexander Years & Years LGBTQ Education Queer PrEP
Photo: Hugo Yangüela

‘We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ Rights’ is an anthology looking at the most important issues facing queer people today, from criminalisation and HIV stigma, to trans healthcare and the closure of LGBTQ+ spaces – and what we can do about them. The book features essays from Mykki Blanco, Peppermint, Beth Ditto, Juliet Jacques and Wolfgang Tillmans. Here, Years & Years musician Olly Alexander writes about why teaching kids about queer sex and relationships in schools lead to better mental and sexual health for LGBTQ+ adults.

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Gay sex was mentioned once at my secondary school; it was during a history lesson about the Second World War. My teacher described the gruelling conditions the soldiers faced, how hard and dangerous life was on the battlefield, before revealing that so far from home and without any women “some of the men had sex with each other”. Of  course, we were all scandalised. Amid the giggles and screeches of “GAY!” and “That’s GROSS!” I remember sitting in stunned silence, imagining these men reaching for each other in the filthy, perilous trenches. It was both sexy and terrifying. Other than this indelible moment, my school taught us that queer people did not exist, but we knew they did. They lived as rumours and stories about this teacher or that pupil, they hid in crumpled notes and names scratched out on the battered desks. 

Homophobia was both explicit and casual. I learned that almost any person, thing or situation that was embarrassing or wrong could (and would) be called “gay”. Any boy’s behaviour deemed suspicious enough got them named and shamed in marker pen on the toilet cubicle wall. I dreaded seeing my name among them. I started secondary school in 2001 – two years before Section 28 was repealed across the UK, so it’s not surprising the  environment was the way it was. As a teenager, I embarked on my own reluctant queer education of sorts, taking a one-foot-in-one-foot-out approach. I convinced myself the odd furtive exchange in a Habbo Hotel chat room, or reading Giovanni’s Room and watching My Own Private Idaho didn’t necessarily mean I was actually gay, it just made me interesting. I watched a lot of television too, sneaking in Queer as Folk at a friend’s house and obsessing over John Paul and Craig’s storyline in Hollyoaks. I remember a song from an episode of Family Guy called “You Have AIDS” that got drunkenly repeated at a party. I sang along. When I did start having sex with other men, it was with huge anxiety and I feared any sexual encounter would result in me contracting HIV. Looking back, I see that shame was at the heart of this anxiety, but at the time I didn’t understand it. I felt implicated in something terrible and that the inevitable punishment would be deserved. I was afraid. 

Just before my 19th birthday, a year after I had left my mum’s house and moved to London, a GP prescribed me antidepressants and advised me to start therapy. After years of concealing how I was feeling, too ashamed to admit I was self-harming as well as bingeing and purging food, I started wanting to take better care of my health.  In the beginning, I had many encounters with different doctors, counsellors and therapists; it took me a while to figure out what worked for me and what didn’t. 

For the longest time, I was convinced something was intrinsically wrong with me. Growing up gay in a world that prefers straightness can do that to you, but it’s not just my sexuality that made me feel this way. It was my daddy issues, my brain, my body, my DNA. Shame is toxic and it likes to get in the way of almost everything. My mental health did improve though, and my hyper-anxious trips to the clinic became less stressful. By the time things started taking off with Years & Years I had put my most damaging self-destructive behaviours to bed. I’m not pretending that my mental health is glorious all the time, though. I have the occasional dark patch, I still take meds and I speak with my therapist once a week. 

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My relationship with another medication has been just as fraught, and just as informed – I think – by what you might call internalised homophobia. In 2017, PrEP – which  stands for pre-exposure prophylaxis, and is a daily pill  that can help prevent HIV – was made available through an NHS trial to about 10,000 people in England. This caused quite a bit of contention. Some people were not happy that the NHS would be funding a drug that  supported what they saw as a “certain lifestyle choice”, and  talked about how “the gays having dirty unprotected sex” should really know better.

There’s a lot to unpack in the responses to the PrEP trial and why giving people more options to protect themselves and each other is so controversial, especially when you consider that studies have shown PrEP to be “highly effective in preventing HIV as long as the drugs are taken regularly”. I think it suggests we haven’t come as far as we might hope since I was at school, in terms of social HIV stigma. For this reason, when I started taking PrEP in 2018, I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not speak with a healthcare professional first.

At the time I told myself I was just too busy but I came to realise that I was afraid to talk about it. Despite all the trips I’d taken to the  doctor’s office for my mental health, talking about sex and prevention filled me with panic, and at the time I didn’t know about helpful websites like prepster.info or iwantprepnow.co.uk, and the incredible organisation the Terrence Higgins Trust, which disseminates information about PrEP where it can sometimes be lacking.

Recently, I played a gay character in a TV show created by Russell T. Davies called It’s a Sin. Set in the 1980s, the story unfolds as a group of friends’ lives are turned upside down by the arrival of a deadly virus. It’s a fictional drama but much of it drew on Russell’s own life, and hearing him speak about that time and researching the stories and  lives was an experience I’m profoundly grateful for. It helped me understand a bit better where we’ve come from, where we are now, and how the LGBTQ+ community was  impacted by HIV.

Today, HIV is no longer a death sentence thanks to effective treatment, better understanding and  PrEP. It’s difficult to overstate what a huge difference this has made. Looking back on how much I learned from the  show, and how many conversations the programme sparked, I can see how much room there is for improving public awareness – not just about what happened in the 1980s, but about HIV today. 

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The barriers to greater understanding and awareness are many and significant – given that there’s still a huge stigma surrounding HIV and queer people that is often perpetuated by the media. In 2019 former Welsh Rugby captain Gareth Thomas was forced to publicly announce his HIV status before tabloid journalists did so being just one example. However, changes in the availability of PrEP are a positive sign. In March 2020, the UK’s health secretary announced that PrEP will finally be made widely  available on the NHS in England. It has been provided in Scotland since 2017, and there are plans to have the same in Wales and Northern Ireland very soon.

I’d like to see this happen everywhere. Too many people deemed at risk still don’t have access to treatment, care or prevention. This has to change. I want queer people and people in high-risk groups in all countries to know what their options  are and feel able to talk about them.

All of us suffer the scars of adolescence no matter how we identify – awkwardly navigating sex and how to take care of ourselves and our bodies is part of growing up (I’ll let you know when I figure all that out). Learning  how queer people have been marginalised, medicalised and politicised throughout history has given me a context for my own experiences and to better understand those of others. There’s a lot about what we’re taught in schools that needs to change (learning about the legacy of the  racism and destruction of British colonialism, for starters). If I had a child, I would want to show them that lots of  different identities and relationships exist and that they all  deserve respect. In secondary school I would absolutely want them to be educated on how to look after their mental health and how to have sex safely and enjoyably.  

If we were equipped with better education as kids and teenagers, then as adults we’d feel more comfortable speaking about our mental health, our sex lives and our sexual health. 

Teaching kids that queer people are real is not radical, neither is including LGBTQ+ experiences in sex education – it just makes sense. We don’t arrive at adulthood armed with all the knowledge we need to thrive in the world; making mistakes and learning is a lifelong commitment, but we can try and help young people give it their best shot.

We Can Do Better Than This: 35 Voices on the Future of LGBTQ+ Rights’ is out now, via Penguin.