You Don’t Have to be Straight With Olly Alexander
Years & Years frontman on coming out and falling for straight men
By Beth Sullivan,
9:00AM, Thu. Oct. 18, 2018
It’s two days after National Coming Out Day when Qmmunity catches up with Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander, and the singer is still mulling over what the annual LGBTQ awareness day means to him this year.
Mainly, Alexander admits coming out – particularly to himself – is an ongoing process that never seems to end. “So many queer people come out constantly for the rest of their lives, ya know?” muses the Englishman over the phone, just a few hours before a show in Montreal. “To the people they work with, to people in taxi cabs. Whatever it is, it isn’t the one day.”
Alexander is one third of the popular UK synth-pop band Years & Years (though you may also recognize him as Cassie Ainsworth’s stalker from Skins or Greta Gerwig’s companion in Alison Bagnall’s indie flick The Dish & The Spoon). Years & Years, fleshed out by Mikey Goldsworthy and Emre Türkmen, is currently in the midst of a North America tour for their sophomore album Palo Santo, a follow-up to 2015’s Communion. In that time, Alexander has morphed into a queer icon, known for openly discussing his queerness and LGBTQ issues alongside his boisterous stylings. (Musically and visually, the latest album release was accompanied by an eponymous, futuristic short film, which, along with Alexander, stars the voice of Dame Judi Dench and a holographic Ben Whishaw.) And yet, he reflects, “I wish I could go back and tell my nineteen-year-old self – when I came out – that this was not the end, this is just the beginning.”
It’s hard to believe that there was once a time – or that there are still times – in Alexander’s life when he was anything less than the bubbly and candid frontman he is today, but he notes it took years for him to come to terms with the fact that he is gay. His 2017 BBC doc Growing Up Gay explored why the LGBTQ community is more vulnerable to mental health issues, like depression and anxiety. Through the documentary lens, the singer examines his own mental health struggles – rooted in his battle to “be okay with myself.” But if there’s one thing that Alexander wants to make clear, it’s that being queer didn’t make him depressed or anxious, it’s that growing up queer in a straight world isn’t without its horrors.
“We are traumatized by growing up in a world that doesn’t really accept us,” he explains. “Obviously, we’ve made great leaps and bounds, but I think there’s a tendency to force a narrative onto queer people that once you come out … you have to be really happy and really successful and proud all the time.” And that any “sort of admission [that] maybe you’re not doing so good” is sometimes difficult because you’re trying to be “this rainbow flag-wearing, proud motherfucker” all the time. “There’s sometimes a real split between those two things,” he concludes. “I encourage anybody [to] know where they are and how they got there, and what’s left, because we’re always growing and evolving.”
And since coming out and embracing his role in the queer community, Alexander has certainly evolved, but he notes he’s had his fair share of experiences becoming entwined with straight guys. “I’ve had a few experiences with guys that identify as straight, and I would meet these guys and initially we’d be friends,” he confides. “Then, after a certain point, our relationship would become romantic or intimate in a certain way. Often, it was under the cover of darkness or, you know, secret because the guy didn’t want anyone to know.” Alexander, being the songwriter that he is, fashioned that tornado of desire, secrecy, and drama into Palo Santo hit single “Sanctify,” which mixes religious imagery with gay sex. “I like how it presented this contradiction because traditionally gay people have been shut out from the church, so ‘Sanctify’ was claiming a bit of that back and saying, ‘My sexuality is holy,’” he explains, giggling at the word “holy.”
Watch Olly Alexander strut his stuff with Years & Years – plus openers CYN and Jess Kent – Sat., Oct. 20, 8pm, at Emo’s, 2015 E. Riverside. $25. Tickets available online.