Alex Leon is a BAME, LGBT+ and mental health awareness activist. When he's not working for the Kaleidoscope Trust, a leading charity working to uphold equality in human right for LGBT+ people across the world, he's also a journalist, campaigner, and YouTuber.
As well as talking about Alex's work, Simon and Alex discussed their experiences of being gay, racism, intersectionality and the effects navigating these things can have on mental health and wellbeing. They also chatted about the power of kindness, learning to love yourself, and why we've had enough music about heartbreak.
We'd love to know what you think so far! If you could take a moment to rate and review wherever you get your podcasts we would very much appreciate your feedback. Don't forget to get involved on social media using #JACPodcast!
More on Alex:
Follow Alex on Twitter (@alexand_erleon) and Instagram (@alexand_erleon)
Alex's vlog on the Manchester Pride Flag: youtube.com/watch?v=tK-A6Blo6qU
The Kaleidoscope Trust: kaleidoscopetrust.com
More on Simon: twitter.com/Simonablake
Simon Blake OBE is the Chief Executive of Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) England. His mission is to improve the mental health of the nation and help build an inclusive and society where attitudes and behaviours around mental health are normalised. Simon received an OBE in 2011, is Deputy Chair at Stonewall, and enjoys running, equestrian eventing, and walks with his dog.
Simon: 00:00 Hi, I'm Alex Leon, activist, writer and campaigner, and I'm Just About Coping.
Introduction: 00:05 [Music].
Simon: 00:09 I'm Simon Blake and this is Just About Coping. Last week I spoke to Ruby Wax and this week my second guest on Just About Coping is journalist, campaigner and activist Alexander Leon.
Simon: 00:24 Featured in the Guardian, BBC News, the Independent, and Pink News, he describes himself as an LGBT+, anti racism, and mental health awareness activist. In the daytime Alexander works for the Kaleidoscope Trust, which is a leading charity working to uphold and advance human rights and equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people internationally. Alex and I had a fantastic conversation about his experience as a gay man, about his ethnic identity, about prejudice, about racism, about activism, about mental health and wellbeing. If those topics are things you're interested in, then I think you're going to enjoy this one.
Introduction: 01:03 [Music]
Simon: 01:09 um, so Alex, I am going to start with uh, asking you a bit about how you describe yourself. So you describe yourself as an LGBT+, anti-racism, mental health awareness activist in your Twitter bio. Just say a little bit more about why those are the words you use to describe yourself?
Alex: 01:24 Yeah, sure. I mean it's really hard because I think, I mean this is a completely different point, but it's sometimes quite strange that I have to self identify as an activist. It took me a long time to feel comfortable in that word. It's quite a bizarre word to kind of self-describe as. It's like, 'Oh, I'm an activist'. Like what are you doing on the street? Are you holding a placard or whatever? I guess when it comes to, I think that description of me is like the distillation of things that I'm interested in. Right? So there's obviously some parts of those of my identity. So I'm gay, so I'm kind of under the LGBT umbrella. Um, and I do a lot of work campaigning on, uh, issues and writing and speaking about issues that involve being gay essentially. Um, but also kind of a, the LGBT movement, the politics of the LGBT movement, um, health and the LGBT movement.
Alex: 02:10 Um, and then also looking really specifically in this is like, I guess where the anti-racism thing comes in, um, what it means to be gay and brown, which is how I would self-identify amongst many other things. Um, and the intersections between what it's like to live a life where you are subject to racism as well as being subject to homophobia and how you navigate the experience of kind of dealing with both of those at the same time. How that links into mental health awareness or mental health generally is that, uh, as you can probably imagine navigating those two things at the same time can have a pretty massive effect on your mental health or on your wellbeing if you're constantly, um, navigating, uh, spaces and rooms, um, and uh, contexts in which people are kind of throwing that at you. It's not always easy to necessarily be kind to yourself, um, and to make space for your own wellbeing and care. So that's the very long winded version of me talking about how I identify and how I, um, speak about myself online.
Simon: 03:06 and I'm really, that's, thank you. I guess what I'd be really interested in is to talk, yeah. What does it mean to be an activist to you? Having claimed it, having owened, what does it actually mean?
Alex: 03:13 I don't really know if I'm, if I'm perfectly honest. I think it's just that I identified as an advocate for a long time because I felt that, um, advocating for the issues that I cared about were things that I did in my spare time. There were things that I tried really hard to, um, find time and energy to do. Um, but now I think, I think the main reason that I call myself an activist is that it's sort of my entire life. I mean, I work for, uh, an LGBT human rights organisation and literally almost every ounce of my spare time - we will talk about self care in a second - but almost every ounce of my spare time is spent reading and writing, um, and developing campaigns with other organizations, um, and really fighting for the issues that fit underneath the umbrellas
Alex: 03:55 that I'm passionate about, but I don't know what is an activist? I think the definition has changed probably quite a lot. And I also find that sometimes I'm struck by people who self identify as activists that I'm not necessarily sure that I would myself call an activist, if that makes sense. I think sometimes we are erring into this idea that having a social media account where you post a selfie and then underneath the selfie you're like, 'Oh, gay rights', um, despite being lovely isn't necessarily a form of activism. So I think interestingly, we're actually caught in a conversation, which doesn't really have an answer. I don't really know what an activist is, but I kind of hope that the work that I do and the things that I put out into the world are leading to positive change. And so I guess that in my mind constitutes change constitutes activism sort of. Right?
Simon: 04:42 Yeah, absolutely. I mean that is what activism is about, creating, creating change. And I, I guess one of the first times that I ever, um, heard something that you, uh, had done was your YouTube video, aboutthe black and brown stripe on the Pride flag. And I, yeah, that to me is very clearly activism. You're saying yeah, it's, uh, uh, 'you need to get a grip'. You need to think about and understand these issues and how it impacts on, on people's wellbeing and I guess, yeah, just using that as an example of
Simon: 05:15 something which you care about. You're talking about experiencing racism and experiencing homophobia, uh, yourself and about the impact of that on wellbeing. Can you, what did it feel like when you saw people's outrage about these stripes on, on the flag?
Alex: 05:31 I mean, I wish I could say I was surprised, um, but I wasn't, I think it was, it was actually quite, um, when I was making that video, I mean, I spent an entire weekend writing a script. I mean, I'd bern thinking about it for a long time and then I thought into, put my thoughts into action, writing a script, filming, editing. Um, I actually had a point when I was writing the script where I began to sort of break down, like really break down crying. And I think the reason was that I realised that I wasn't even surprised. I wasn't, you know, I'd seen all this kind of anger and vitriol around the fact that um, the brown and black stripe flag was going to take over the original Pride flag and that and all this kind of like hullabaloo about something which didn't feel to me like anything controversial.
Alex: 06:15 I mean the flag exists in order to give people, uh, who are people of color and LGBT+ plus a symbol, like a, a symbol just to acknowledge our existence and the fact that people were getting so worked up over its existence was actually quite upsetting to me. But at the same time, I wasn't surprised. There's a kind of resignation that comes with, um, having to deal sometimes with the same people telling you the same thing over and over and over. I.e you know, even any kind of symbol of your existence is somehow affronting to me or somehow, um, taking up space in my world. Um, that being said, I found the video a very empowering piece of work to do because it allowed me to vocalise my thoughts, um, and it allowed me to kind of work through, I guess that resignation and turn that resignation into something a bit more productive, which was, um, I guess a conversation.
Alex: 07:04 so two 'ations', you're welcome. Ah, but you know, turn that resignation into a conversation. I need to work in politics or something. Um, that's brilliant. Um, but yeah, I guess it was, it was hard, but it was, I've gotten to a place now where I at least feel like I've contributed towards, um, the kind of plethora of things out there that are people trying to educate on what that flag means. Um, and on what, um, what purpose it has for the people that it's for. Um, and I had a fairly good response actually. I was really, I was actually really taken aback by the response cause I didn't think it was going to have the impact that it did have and obviously I was very grateful and thankful that it did, cause it meant that people listening, um, from the horse's mouth, right? So they were getting it from people who it was most affecting. And I think that's really important. Um, rather than many of the wonderful allies that we have. So trying to fight on our behalf, which is still important. Sometimes it's good to just be like, here's someone who's affected by it, talking about why they think it's important, done. So,
Simon: 08:05 and investing a huge amount of emotional labor in that process. [Indeed, indeed]. And really I'm doing, but I think, yeah, it's, so it must be, I guess for those people who don't know, this was, um, brown and black stripe being added to the rainbow flag, which symbolises Pride, which er, first adopted in Philadelphia. Um, and in a fairly short time from Alex being one of the first people to, um, to talk out about why including it was important that I saw, certainly. And, and, um, uh, in the UK too, actually being, uh, then part of the London Pride March.
Alex: 08:44 I've been really struck by it actually that Manchester Pride decided that they, I mean the whole reason that conversation came up again, cause you're right, it was in Philadelphia in 2017 a whole reason that the conversation came up again and the whole I was compelled to the video was that Manchester Pride said we're gonna make this our flag. But when I was in Pride in London this year, I mean, I don't know about you everywhere, everywhere I saw brown and black stripe flags. And I thought, wow, like to go from what seemed like a really contentious and difficult and crunchy and, and at some points quite, um, unkind debate around this to everyone just deciding that this is the most inclusive and lovely thing to do, to kind of acknowledge that racism is a problem within our community and to kind of show support. I thought that was an amazing turnaround. Almost suspicious. I was like, who's been talking to who? This is great, but you're right. It's kind of become a lot more commonplace now, which I think is a good thing.
Simon: 09:35 Yeah, absolutely. And I guess, you know, the, the really interesting bit of course was Amber Hikes who was behind it in Philadelphia, also experienced some of the backlash and yeah, that massive shift and then also that, that turning point. Yeah. Um, so just going onto the, um, the sort of emotional labor and the resignation, uh, becoming a conversation. Um, you talked about your working life being, um, very much about LGBT rights. You talked about your waking hours being connected into mental health, to anti-racism, to LBGT movements. When, where do you, um, escape from some of that in order to replenish yourself to recover from the re, the resignation to know the next bit?
Alex: 10:20 The listeners can't see this, but I am beaming because I had this exact conversation with my mum last week who very indignantly was like, 'Alex, I love you and you doing a great job. Do you do anything besides LGBT rights?' And I was like, 'Oh, that's a really good point.' Um, it's a good question. It's a really good question and I actually think it's a really pertinent question for anyone working in, in any kind of change-making or any kind of activism or anything that, um, where they feel that their work, um, you know, connects with their sense of social justice or, or their identity or whatever. You know, it's important to have that time and space, um, outside of the issues. I go to therapy, I mean, well I don't go to therapy in order to not be involved in LGBT things. In fact, a lot of the time I'm talking about my LGBT kind of, um, themed life. Um, but therapy is one of the things that I do.
Alex: 11:08 I think it's really, uh, important. It gives me time and space to just kind of, I guess come back to sort of, sometimes it's also just coming back to why I'm doing it. Sometimes the therapeutic space gives me that. It's that I can kind of take a big step back away from getting involved in the minutiae of everything that I'm involved in and kind of think how am I actually feeling and what am I doing and what's my brain saying to me at the moment. Um, I meditate fairly often. I wouldn't say that I meditate every day. I'd like to say that I meditate every day, but I live in London and everyone is running around like a bloody - I was gonna say horse on fire. That's absolutely not the expression, like a house on fire! I have a terrible habit of getting expressions wrong.
Alex: 11:48 Horse on fire is one of the most graphic. Um, so yeah, I try and meditate fairly often and when I can't meditate, I at least try and, um, I do kind of like, I don't know what you would call it actually. I've never really had to describe it, but maybe like mindful listening or just listen to the sounds around me and try and tune out of my own thoughts. Um, and also, and I think quite importantly, I have really deliberately, um, pursued meaningful friendships actually, which might sound a bit strange. You don't really often think of your interpersonal relationships as a form of care or self care or, or giving yourself time and space to kind of chill out. But I think that's actually something really, there's been something really rewarding for me in, um, developing, uh, friendships where I've been really up front with my kind of wants and needs.
Alex: 12:40 Um, and cultivating a very intimate and I guess loving friendship, um, with people who I feel like I can rely upon in the same way that I would a family member or than I would with a significant other in a romantic sense. Um, and I actually find that a lot of my space and time away from, from the, the noise and my head comes from those relationships and comes from the validation that, that, that is involved in, in reaching out to people and hearing about their lives and caring about their lives and showing that kind of mutual care. Um, and that's probably for me, the biggest one. I have some really, I'm really lucky to have some really lovely friends who I can be 100% myself with and who I can be vulnerable around. Which I think is actually difficult for a lot of us, myself included. Right. [Yeah.] Um, so yeah, I try and meditate. What did I say? I've already forgotten. I try and meditate. I go to therapy and I just have great relationships, that I invest in as well.
Simon: 13:35 Yeah. Um, and uh, you, uh, I read an article which you had written, uh, or had been written about you with your permission and your, you're being interviewed. [Right.] Er the other day where you talked, um, a lot about being kind to yourself and to others, um, and not forgetting to laugh. Uh, and I guess, uh, yeah, just be interested to pick up on that a little bit more. You, you talk about without kindness we can't go anywhere. Yeah. Tell us a bit more about that.
Alex: 14:03 Yeah, I think the, I think the kind of obsession that I have with kindness because it is a, it is an obsession. I find myself thinking about whether I'm being kind or not all the time comes from a place of having not been taught to be kind to myself. Right? So as an adult I've had to kind of look back and part of this has been through therapy and part of this has been through reading up on the issues around sort of queer politics and, and um, queer psychology and things like that. And realizing that I kind of grew up in a world where I was constantly internalizing, um, ideas around myself that were not kind, right? Uh, whether that was because I was the only brown boy in my class, whether that was cause I was the only gay kid in my class, you know, irrespective of what it was, I think that my childhood was, uh, was a barrage, you know, kind of resisting and trying to hold fast in a barrage of, of what was a lot of kind of societal pressure for me to think that I wasn't enough or I wasn't good enough.
Alex: 14:57 And so I have kind of stumbled through my adolescence and my adulthood having to train myself to - from really what felt like from sub-zero, right - to train myself to be actively kind to myself. And I'm certainly not at a point now where - sometimes it's funny because I talk about mental health so much that I think people think that I've got all the answers and I don't right, I'm, I'm very frequently unkind to myself and having to stop, take a big step back, contextualize, reach out to my friends and, and they help me to kind of reunderstand, uh, reunderstand, not really a word, but they helped me to kind of figure out, um, my own worth again. Right? But I think, I think I realised that people that I, that I have admired the most and that I value the most have been people that have been unfailingly kind even when it's really difficult for them to be, right?
Alex: 15:48 And I think there's a real strength and a resilience that comes from people who, you know, maybe someone's wronged them or maybe someone's done something really bad to them, but they still find forgiveness. And in forgiveness I think is kindness, right? In underlying forgiveness as a concept is kindness because you're allowing that person to kind of, you know, letting go of any of the resentment or anger that you might feel. So I think for me, yeah, it's just, it's just such a simple life philosophy. And you know, I can't say that I'm at 100% killing it, you know, 10 or 10 kindness all the time. But I just think that if you fall back on that, am I being kind right now? It kind of, for me it keeps me in check because often I'm not right. Sometimes I'm like, Oh yeah, *grumble* and then I have to sort of take a big step back and think, actually that's probably not kind, why am I not being kind? And then it's kind of like a gateway through which I can then interrogate maybe some of my own feelings or thoughts. Um, but yeah. How do you feel about kindness?
Simon: 16:45 Um, I have a postcard, just in that corner that says 'kindness is power'. I think it's one of the, um, and interestingly, of course, photos of horses. So the idea of horses on fire was also - *laughter*
Alex: 16:56 I did see you shut up! Yeah, whoops! I'm going to get kicked out aren't I?
Simon: 17:00 Yeah. I think it is. I think it's absolutely true that one of the hardest things to be, sometimes is kind to yourself. Um, and yeah, having, you know, growing up as a gay man, uh, and, and absorbed all sorts of reasons why you are not good enough. [Yeah.] Yeah, I completely empathise with that. But I also think the pace at which we process information and get, erm, inputs can sometimes just mean that you do have to actually say what's the right response here rather than what is my automatic response? And of course, you're new Exec Director I think probably role models, kindness, uh, Phyll Opoku-Gyimah. Um, yeah, just role models it in all sorts of situations. So erm lucky you.
Alex: 17:47 Very lucky. You make a really point about the pragmatism of kindness because I think you're right. You know, we can't all be holding hands singing kumbaya, looking at the flowers every day. Right. And I don't think any of us, well, I mean there are people, but I don't think many of us purport to, to live a life that way. I think sometimes you sort of do have to be a bit unkind or sometimes you can't be kind. Um, and that's also okay talking about, I mean, one of the things that just struck me when you were talking is when I first moved to London - so I'm from, if you haven't heard my janky accent, I'm from Australia, I'm from Sydney - and um, one of the things that first struck me when I moved to London was the kind of, um, I guess what's, what's the opposite of kind of coldness and distance a lot of people, um, place on strangers operating in kind of central spaces.
Alex: 18:30 And I, I get that right. Sydney is not a small town. There was plenty of people, but I was struck by how little people were able to give to each other off the bat. One of the things I love about Australia, I mean, it's, it's, you know, it's smaller. It's not physically smaller, but it's smaller in mentality, let's say. And a bit parochial and a bit kind of country town-ish. But I do like striking up conversation with strangers like at the supermarket. 'Oh, Hey John, how are you going?' And you know, I love that because I think that that's a sign of kind of shared common humanity. And I was really struck when I first moved to London. I was like, this is insane. People don't even look at each other. But then since becoming a quote unquote Londoner, I kind of get it now because there is a pragmatism to you can't be, you cannot possibly give 100% of yourself to everyone all the time because then what happens to you?
Alex: 19:17 You deplete yourself of your own, of your own sort of love and care. Um, and one of the things that I find that a lot of queer people suffer from, which is I guess tangentially related to this is I know a lot of queer people who are, who are really kind, they're really, really kind, but they don't allow for that kind of 10, 20, 30% of kindness to stay in their tank to absorb into themselves. They just give and they give and they give and they give and they push their kindness on to others. Often to great benefit of the other people, but they don't allow any of it to kind of sink in. And if you don't allow any, any of it to sink in, that kindness is kind of empty, right? It doesn't come from a place, it doesn't come from a solid foundation. It comes from a shakier one. So there is a pragmatism to kindness. It's not, it's not, erm, as easy as just like be lovely to everyone all the time. You can't, right? You just can't.
Alex: 20:05 Well, but you can also do some really difficult things, but with kindness. [Yeah.] So I think there's, there's that bit isn't there? Which is, um, being kind and looking through a prison of kindness does not mean never making difficult decisions or having difficult conversations. It just means - I remember doing a training course, um, uh, where we often talk about confidentiality and you know challenges, but actually someone just said, um, the best way of describing this is 'look at each other with kind eyes for the next five days, and we'll be fine.' Yeah and it's like, actually that's probably one of the best ways of thinking around some of that. You talked about Australia, about Sydney and I, I interest - so I grew up in, in Cornwall but interested, um, when I was in Sydney for a month, I knew a lot of more people than I knew after nine, ten years in London. It was really striking. Um, talked a bit about or you hinted towards masculinity. And I guess in, in some ways, uh, Australia and the UK have some similar [totally] uh, traits around what they expect around gender and gender norms.
Simon: 21:10 Do you, do you, just, you know - any observations that you have around that mas- that sense of masculinity, where there are things that we're saying things that might be different from, and its impact on wellbeing, I guess.
Alex: 21:24 Yeah, I mean, um, yeah, one of the things that I was really, so, um, you referenced before, uh, a piece that was done, um, by Colourful, who, who, um, profile queer people of color doing interesting and cool things if I may so self-describe, um, and one of the things that was - I was really struck by in that conversation was we talked a lot about gender norms and gender roles. And when Dee who was the interviewer was asking me about, um, you know, when did you first knew you were gay, I had to really think about it because I actually didn't probably know until I was, you know, if you take gay to mean like same sex attracted, I probably didn't really realise that until I was kind of 10, 11, 12, but much earlier than that I realised that I kind of didn't fit in or I didn't belong. And that was to do with the expectations placed on me because of my gender.
Alex: 22:09 Right? So I had this very kind of vivid memory of walking around the playground and not wanting to play with the boys because they were kind of playing handball or something. And I was like, I, I want to do that. But knowing that I probably shouldn't play with the girls, right? And I'm like five at this age and knowing that maybe that's not the right thing to do and maybe that's not what's expected of me in a very simplistic way. Um, and that also, I think that sort of, that speaks to at least, um, how often the idea of being uh actually LGBT or LGBT+ is kind of, um, mixed up in or related to gender as, you know, gender conforming-ness, conforming to your gender. Whether you're trans or not I think a lot of, um, you know, butch lesbian women, a lot of effeminate gay men have to really grapple with, um, the expectations placed upon them by their gender and how they kind of resist against those, um, without dealing with a whole barrage of just... stuff.
Alex: 23:08 I was going to say a rude word, but just bad stuff, right? Um, as for whether Australia is any different to the UK, I think, yeah, I think it's really hard for me to know because I think I've lived different periods of my life in the different countries and I think I really grew up around some really traditional understandings of what masculinity means. Funnily enough, not from my father. My father is quite, I mean there are, there are some kind of pillars of masculinity that he definitely kind of stands by. He's very stoic and he is very unemotional, but he certainly didn't, um, conform to a lot of stereotypes simply because he wasn't a white man. And so he had a slightly different understanding of his masculinity based on kind of his cultural touchpoints I think? Um, but also he was very, spi- is very spiritual. Uh, he's a massage therapist and a yoga teacher and doing all these things, which I think in, in Western culture might sort of, well I don't know, it's hard, I'm trying to think of the last yoga class I went to and how many men were in there, you know, a lot of these kind of spiritual spirituality seems to be, um, often understood as kind of a more female, um, thing, which I think is quite bizarre actually if you think about things like the Dalai Lama, but whatever.
Alex: 24:13 One of the things that I'm really struck by, and I'm struck by this because I, I had experienced it and continue to experience it and a lot of my male friends have the same thing is, and I don't know if you will, if you will relate to this, is that I think as men we're taught to be unemotional and stoic. And so when we're in need of, um, emotional support, or, or,
Alex: 24:37 um, desperate to kind of emotionally express, we find ways of kind of holding it all in. Right? Um, and I think that is genuinely one of the most damaging, um, uh, expectations that we can place on actually any human being. If you think about it, you know, your, your ability to emotionally express or your ability to have kind of that self awareness if your an emotions is one of the things that makes us distinctly human and it's a turn around and police it and to say, but actually you're not allowed to let out that feeling in X, Y, Z situation, or you have to go around the corner. If you want to cry, you have to, you know, to kind of place limitations on that, it's actually, you know, of course it's profoundly damaging, right? Um, and it would seem, unfortunately, and I guess this would be nes- possibly reflected in, in, in statistics around suicide that, you know, men, men do suffer more from the, from the consequences of those expectations.
Alex: 25:31 Um, and often don't feel that they have the route to, um, to solve, to make that better, right? Which is I would say, uh, anecdotally so often why um, you know, the, the rates of suicide amongst men seem to be higher than the rates amongst women. I think it's because we don't get told or taught how to emotionally express. We don't get told or taught how to be open and to let go. We always get taught that you have to hold it all in. So there is definitely a very profoundly, I think probably between gender expectations and masculinity as a kind of traditional masculinity as a concept, um, and, and, and mental health and wellbeing.
Simon: 26:10 Um, and, I guess if you were to just then think about some of that experience and the experience of racism and, and how you have processed some of that as an, as an adult, if you were, if you were talking to, uh, you know yourself, I don't know how old you are, but if you were talking to yourself 15 years or so ago, you know
Alex: 26:34 When I was three (no I'm just kidding) *laughter*
Simon: 26:36 That old? *laughter* If you were talking to self 15 years or so ago, what, what would that kind talk sound like?
Alex: 26:47 You know, I actually have been asked this question before and I really struggled to answer only because I think this comes down to my life philosophy. I don't, I think that in order for me to have gotten to the stage where I am enormously grateful and lucky to be sitting here speaking to you as some kind of expert, I mean, I'm really not an expert, at least when it comes to books. I'm really an expert in my lived experience. But as someone who has authority on this topic, let's say, um, I couldn't have gotten to where I am without having gone through the, the very difficult times that I went through as an adolescent and as an, uh, as a young adult, I think that, um, you know, where, were I to jump in a time machine and be able to go back
Alex: 27:26 I don't know that there's anything that I would've been able to say to say, you know, I think I kind of had to get to where I am now in order for, do you know what I mean? But I think one of the things that has been the most empowering for me is understanding that a lot of the, a lot of the difficulties that I faced in accepting who I am and being able to kind of fully, uh, fully kind of use and fill out the space of, of what it means to be Alex Leon, what it means to be a queer person of color, what all of that means, um, has been an understanding that, that, um, it's not my fault, if that makes sense. I think a lot of the time, you know, moving through my life, I thought that that experiencing homophobia was my fault.
Alex: 28:15 Experiencing racism was my fault. You know after I came out of the closet and I was in sort of gay nightlife spaces and being either just dealing with straight up, you know, proper angry, rude racism or dealing with things like fetishisation, which are kind of more insidious and subtle forms of racism, I still thought even when I was like in my early twenties, like, but this is on me. Like this is up to me and this is because of me. Um, one of the reasons I really like the word intersectionality beyond it being a really important word to understand the experiences of people that sit on intersections of marginalised identities, was that it gave me, it gave kind of formality and um, what's the word? It gave a kind of realness to an experience I'd always felt and it made me understand that I was, although I was situated in the middle of it, I wasn't causing it to happen.
Alex: 29:07 You know, that discrimination can be institutionalised and that it can be structural and that it can be systemic. And that it's not up to me, one human being, Alex Leon, navigating through the world to solve it all, or to fix it all, or to make it all happen or not happen. So I think, you know, let's say I'm driving the time machine, I think I would try and impart something along the lines of, you know, these things are happening to you. You're not making them happen and it's not your fault that they're happening. It's unfair that they're happening. It's really not fair. It's just not fair! But, um, but you know, there, there is, I guess it's, you know, it's society. It's not, it's not on you. That would probably be the thing that I'd try.
Simon: 29:47 And that just reminds me of, um, Matthew Todd in the book Straight Jacket, which is, um, yeah, that sense of, uh, when you're being told it's you and you're trying to get away from you and you can't. And that impact on wellbeing and [Yeah.] mental health [massively, massively].
Alex: 30:04 Really, really experience that still. I mean I still have moments like that. Yeah. I think it's, it's sort of, I think there is, there is again, like a kind of unfairness to it, I guess sometimes. You know, when I'm in my kind of deep dark kind of hole, I'm like, this is unfair that I have to deal with this. It's not, you know, I happened to, to grow up in a world that wasn't particularly kind to people who, who look the way that I look and love the way that I love. Um, but yeah, I think for some reason I find it quite liberating to understand that although it's not particularly optimistic to think that that's, it's kind of society's fault, it kind of at least takes the burden off yourself. Right? You're like, this didn't come from me. Um, and it sucks that I might have to kind of navigate the rest of my life doing it, but at least, you know, I don't know.
Simon: 30:49 At least you've got the starting point.
Alex: 30:51 Yeah, exactly! At least understand how, how I'm situated within this and what I can do and what I can't do.
Simon: 30:57 Um, so, uh, utopia you, uh, if you were, we're not going to get there, but if you had a magic wand that would give you one thing to try and, um, create a better world in terms of people's mental health, in terms of their wellbeing, what would you, what would you go for?
Alex: 31:14 I think this is a really really easy one for me. I think it would come down to, um, inclusive mental health services. I think were we are to achieve a mental health service in this country, which were as inclusive as possible. I mean looking beyond the fact that they need, probably need to be, um, a bit more accessible. Um, but I think, you know, it is becoming clearer and clearer that being a part of certain marginalised groups or being a part of multiple marginalised groups, you know, really strongly affects or, or puts you at risk of poorer mental health. And so it seems quite strange to me that we've not, that's kind of not trickled down into our policy and how we, our policies I should say, and how we envision, um, mental health in this country. I think, you know, my utopia is one in which being, let's say a black lesbian woman doesn't prevent you from feeling like you can go, um, uh, and ask your GP for, uh, therapy or for support with your mental health and that you can go into the GP's office or let alone a, a psychotherapist's office or a counsellor's office knowing that that person's not necessarily gonna judge you or come from a place of judgment, um, based on factors that you can't control about yourself.
Alex: 32:25 Right? So I think, you know, I don't necessarily know exactly how that happens. I'm not a policy wonk. I don't work for the government. Erm, nor am I lobbyist, but I think cause they're, but maybe I should be, all those, all those things. But I, um, there is something to be said for making these, these services more accessible. Also just more inclusive. Cause I, for example, you know, the therapy that I spoke about before that's not on the NHS because I felt it was really important for me to be able to go to someone who I didn't feel like I had to explain something very fundamental to me, which is my identity too. Um, and you know, beyond the long waiting time, uh, that wasn't an option for me. So I'm very, very lucky in that I was able to put some money aside to pay for private therapy. But I'm really, really aware of the fact that not everyone is so is so lucky. Right?
Alex: 33:15 So it's accessible then a price point. Definitely. Um, and then inclusive, um, knowing that the person there is gonna like you for who you are.
Alex: 33:25 Well, not like, but just not judge. Right? Like just not think or at least have a sense or an understanding of where you're coming from when you're talking about things like for example, internalised homophobia. Right? And I think this comes in part with, you know, queer people and people of color, erm, taking up more room, taking up more space and um, being more involved in everything from every level. Is that we're going to get to a point I think where, um, where psychotherapists are, uh, are, what's the word compelled to, to be more aware about how marginalised identities interact with someone's wellbeing or mental health because it will be part of the literature. It is already part of the literature actually. I think it's just kind of, we're slowly getting to a point where people are understanding them, uh, psychologists and psychotherapists understanding how important, um, these things are. So, yeah, just coming from a place of non-judgment and a place of expertise and knowledge, right. Rather than being like, 'Oh yeah, so you're saying that you don't like yourself cause you're gay. Are you sure it wasn't about your parents?' I mean, fine, but like actually I'm coming to you because I think or like, you know, cause I just came out of the closet or whatever it is. Right? Having that understanding.
Simon: 34:32 Okay. Yeah. Um, so, um, I just have one, er, other question for you. Uh, now, if you were to, um, think about a time when you were at your happiest, when you were listening to music, what song were you dan- were you listening to?
Alex: 34:50 Oh, that's such a hard question. I'd have to choose between things that I love. It's like, it's the paralysis of trying to choose, you know, I was here, I'm actually going to say it. So the song that I have loved the most recently in the artists I've loved the most, and this is not someone that is particularly new to a lot of people, is Lizzo. I don't know if you've heard of Lizzo?, Uh, ah, Simon mate need to sort that out, because Lizzo is incredible. So Lizzo is like what I would call self-help pop music. So the whole kind of message is about being empowered, being body positive, being confident and loving yourself. And those things all sound a bit strange to exist in a pop song or at least exist in an album. But, um, Liz has a bunch of really great songs.
Alex: 35:32 My favorite one is probably 'Juice', which is all about being incredible. It's, it's just music that you're like, 'Oh yeah, I am brilliant'. And Lizzo did a really great concert recently, um, a Tiny Desk concert, it was called, where she said something, which I actually thought was really profound. Um, and don't forget her whole kind of mantra's around self love. And she said, 'if you can love me, you can love yourself'. And I thought that was incredible. I really thought that it was very simple, right? If you can, if you can pour all your love and energy and time and resource into, into loving a band or into loving an artist, then you have the capacity to love yourself, right? You've got all the tools that you just got to turn the direction around and face them towards yourself. So I think Lizzo's going to be revolutionary. I mean, we need more pop music, which is like not about heartbreak, you know what I mean? Everything's like 'ooh, my breakup was bad'.
Simon: 36:18 I remember when 'Free, Gay and Happy' came out, which may age me particularly,
Alex: 36:23 Yeah I've never even heard of it *laughter*
Simon: 36:26 It was a pop song when I was about 20. Yeah. It was like this uplifting moment. Yeah. Um, Alex, thank you very much.
Alex: 36:33 It was such a pleasure!
Simon: 36:34 Love talking to you.
Alex: 36:34 Thanks for having me.
Outro: 36:36 [Music][
Simon: 36:41 So I hope you enjoyed our discussion. Really, really important to talk about the issues, the intersectionality between race, sexuality, identity, mental wellbeing, and I'm sure that there's lots more conversation that still needs to be had. Alex's social media channels are linked in the description and you can find out more about the Kaleidoscope Trust there too. Lastly, if you enjoyed Alex, please subscribe, leave us a rating and make sure to join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #JACPodcast. I'm Simon Blake and thanks for coping with us.
Alex: 37:19 I love doing stuff like this. Just talk until the bloody cows go home. Is that an expression? I'm terrible with expressions.
Simon: 37:27 Yeah yeah yeah, because cows don't ever go home.
Alex: 37:28 I was gonna - oh wait, where's a cows home? Oh, they don't have one. Wow. That's actually quite deep. *laughter*