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Orlando shooting Soho vigil, photographs by Alice Zoo, Dazed
Photography Alice Zoo

Matthew Todd on drugs, a dying planet & queer mental health

The ‘Straight Jacket’ author weighs in on self-destruction, climate change and the importance of strengthening community ties in the face of adversity

To label 2016 as a turbulent year would be an understatement. We’ve lost a slew of cultural icons, seen harrowing documentation of countless terror attacks and been subjected to political campaigns buoyed by unmasked xenophobia. The collective result of these pivotal moments has been one of the hardest years on records for minorities worldwide. We’re still fighting for recognition, protection and, above all, freedom.

One person focussing on the queer community’s battle for liberation is Matthew Todd, author of seminal text Straight Jacket: How To Be Gay And Happy. The book highlights increased rates of depression and addiction within queer communities, hones in on key societal issues that foster these self-destructive behaviours and offers support and advice to those attempting to overcome these demons. We reached out to discuss discrimination, climate change and the importance of strengthening community ties in the face of adversity.

How do you think this year’s events have affected the progress of LGBTQ rights?

Matthew Todd: The Orlando massacre was a terrible reminder that there are people who wish to do us harm and that, although the world takes strides forward, there’s still a lot of hatred out there – including self-hatred. There’s been discussion about whether or not the attacker was struggling with his sexuality which hasn’t been clarified. It would be no surprise to me – the shame that this destructive society causes many LGBTQ+ people to feel needs to be addressed. We’re treated as second-class citizens. This idea of gay shame is the main subject of my book – it’s a subject that is literally killing people yet one we find intensely painful to discuss.

How about the election of Donald Trump as US President?

Matthew Todd: We can’t underestimate the danger posed by a Donald Trump presidency. Extreme views have been legitimized in the minds of many around the world by his win. But, as LGBTQ+ people, we need to widen the scope of our concern. He’s going to make Rex Tillerson, head of Exxon Mobil, his secretary of state. 

Exxon is one of the most powerful and profitable corporations in the world; it has funneled money into suppressing scientific facts of climate change to block legislation. We focus so much on LGBTQ+ issues but, if the planet changes as predicted, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights will mean nothing. Trump’s win should drive us to bypass the distractions clouding our lives and focus on fighting back – I believe the future is at stake.

How would you advise struggling youth to cope with issues such as anxiety and addiction?

Matthew Todd: Knowing there are good people out there who care about you is important. Talking about what’s happening in the world is vital. Understanding that we are subject to extra stressors – we have to suppress our identities growing up to feel safe, which can more readily lead to self-destructive behaviour. A recent study said that community spirit is a key factor in happiness, but many believe there’s no strong sense of LGBTQ+ community any more. 

Lots of us are alienated by the perfection displayed on social media, so meeting living, breathing people in real situations is helpful. Stay aware that we can easily drown our feelings in booze, sex, drugs and entertainment. I want to say that everything will be alright but now is the time to stand up for what is right; the culture we live in now is designed to stop you doing that, to make you feel powerless and take frustrations out on yourself and your peers.

“We focus so much on LGBTQ+ issues but, if the planet changes as predicted, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ+ rights will mean nothing” – Matthew Todd

Are we finally seeing diverse media portrayals of LGBTQ+ youth?

Matthew Todd: I’m actually not so sure, I don’t know where that would be. Every aspect of the Western world – including media – is mainly run by rich white straight men; if you’re not that you don’t get a look in. There’s probably more diversity than ever but that doesn’t mean media output is diverse – it’s not. Where are the mainstream LGBTQ+ films and programmes? We’re getting some documentaries to mark the anniversary of homosexuality’s partial decriminalisation next year but after that they’ll be done again. The media doesn’t portray gay issues from a gay perspective; they portray what’s of interest to heterosexual commissioners.

The battle over PrEP this year is leading to more HIV prevention funding next year; do you think the stigma around living HIV+ is being eradicated?

Matthew Todd: It’s hard to evaluate. I have friends who have been treated badly due to being HIV+ – abuse on dating apps is one example. Every sexual interaction most of us have as gay or bisexual men has the fear of HIV lurking in the background and I’m shocked by the percentage of youth that aren’t educated on HIV, that don’t care whether they catch it or not; the situation with HIV and sex education is a mess.

I recently helped run a discussion group for A Change Of Scene, namely its event themed ‘Living With HIV’. It’s incredible that, even as a gay men in my early 40s, I’ve never sat in a room before HIV+ and negative men to discuss how HIV affected our lives. There should be a national HIV memorial, or an annual event to commemorate those we’ve lost and those affected. A lot of people don’t care about risk, and we have to discuss that. I think it’s a direct result of the assault our self-esteem takes growing up.

Your book ‘Straight Jacket’ is a seminal text – how has it been received?

Matthew Todd: I’m happy to say it’s been received very well. Reviews have been great but I also get hundreds of tweets and e-mails from people telling me it touched them, or that it changed or saved their lives. Some have said it made them take an HIV test and protect themselves with condoms, or that they’ve gone into recovery. One young man thanked me on behalf of his parents and those he cares about, which is an extremely moving message to receive. It makes me sad that so many of us have familiar experiences of low self-esteem, compulsive behaviour and bad experiences of the gay scene, but we’re talking about it now and I believe there are ways to overcome these problems collectively and individually. It’s a journey I’m still on myself.

You highlight the link between non-normative sexuality and addiction; what advice do you I've to those that respond seeking help?

Matthew Todd: There are lots of answers in the book but, essentially it’s about awareness, discussion and therapy – reaching out to community groups like 56 Dean Street, Antidote at London Friend and LGBTQ+ centers around the country. Some find solace from 12-step addiction groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, all of which are welcoming to LGBTQ+ people. 

A growing number of gay people have overcome dangerous relationships with drugs and alcohol and are trying to live differently and finding that life is now better; it’s important that people know it’s not as hard as it looks, and that it gets better when you identify these addictions. Excessive drinking and drug use is often more about escapism than about the substances themselves, but we can do something about those feelings with help. We all deserve to feel good about ourselves.

“Excessive drinking and drug use is often more about escapism than about the substances themselves, but we can do something about those feelings with help. We all deserve to feel good about ourselves” – Matthew Todd

What do you believe LGBTQ+ people can collectively do to foster a sense of unity?

Matthew Todd: Be kinder to each other. If we started treating each other like people as opposed to ‘tops’ or ‘bottoms’ we’d all start feeling better about ourselves. It’s easy to say, but I objectify people too; when I feel bad about myself, diving into a hot guy takes some of those uncomfortable feelings away but, in my experience, I feel bad about myself afterwards. So many of us have grown up feeling worthless, so to receive validation from others feels very attractive; that’s one I’m still working on myself.

Finally, what are the main breakthroughs you’ve seen this year?

Matthew Todd: Prince William’s Attitude cover was significant – it was seen in countries which respect British monarchy but don’t necessarily respect LGBTQ+ rights. To have Prince William saying “nobody should be bullied for their sexuality or any other reason” was important; to take LGBTQ+ people with mental issues as a result of bullying to meet him at Kensington Palace was a proud moment. The outpouring of love and grief from decent people of all kinds after the Orlando massacre felt positive too.

I think this sense of people needing to work together to fight Trump’s horrendous new administration would be a positive thing, but we can’t sugarcoat where we are – the world is in the most dangerous position it’s been in my lifetime. There’s an imminent climate crisis which people don’t seem to care about; we are all in trouble. It’s an emergency. There’s no gay equality on a fucked planet – we’ve all been warned and we aren’t listening.