Olly Alexander says homophobia stopped him from talking to a doctor when he started taking PrEP
Olly Alexander has spoken of the devastating effects of childhood homophobia, revealing how he carried the stigma with him when he began taking PrEP.
Homophobia was “both explicit and casual” at school in the era of Section 28, he said, and the constant fear of being outed fed directly into his mental health.
“For the longest time, I was convinced something was intrinsically wrong with me,” he admitted. “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.”
This rose to the surface when he started having sex with other men and became wracked with anxiety, fearing any encounter would lead to HIV.
I felt implicated in something terrible and that the inevitable punishment would be deserved.
“Looking back, I see that shame was at the heart of this anxiety, but at the time I didn’t understand it,” Alexander said. “I felt implicated in something terrible and that the inevitable punishment would be deserved. I was afraid.”
In 2018 he began taking PrEP, a daily pill which can prevent the transmission of HIV. By this time his mental health was vastly improved, but his “fraught” relationship with the pill was hugely influenced by the internalised homophobia of his youth.
Unable to shake the stigma of HIV, he’s “embarrassed to admit” that he didn’t speak with a healthcare professional before starting PrEP.
“At the time I told myself I was just too busy but I came to realise that I was afraid to talk about it,” he recalled.
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“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.”
His reluctance to face the disease mirrors his character in It’s a Sin, though thanks to PrEP and other treatments HIV is no longer the death sentence it was for Ritchie.
The lessons Olly Alexander learned from the show and the conversations it sparked showed him “how much room there is for improving public awareness – not just about what happened in the 1980s, but about HIV today”.
“Teaching kids that queer people are real is not radical, neither is including LGBTQ+ experiences in sex education – it just makes sense,” he said.
“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.