Life Stories: Alexander Leon, QPoC and Mental Health Activist
I knew Alex and I would hit it off when he was adamant we’d be having baba ganoush when we met. I’ve followed Alex on Twitter for a while and found him to be an honest and insightful voice within the QPoC community across a range of issues. In person, he is warm, funny and and filled me in on his recent addiction to The Good wife (he’s on S1, no spoilers for him please). With a glass of wine in hand, we began this month’s Life Story.
27, male (he/him), gay, mixed (half White British and half Sri Lankan Tamil) – and born in Australia
Life Right Now
At the moment, my mind is on LGBTQ mental health. I recently went to a launch event by Rainbow Mind for their Radical Self-Care programme and saw that there were an array of services out there for people like us. But despite there being so many services, it occurred to me there were very few people publicly advocating for LGBT+ mental health issues, or lobbying the government to ensure mental health services are more inclusive. In the queer community, we often talk about sexual health, and this is important – but data shows us that LGBTQ people are at much higher risk of experiencing mental health issues than the general population. I want there to be a conversation at a higher level to create change and make sure services are designed for us. I sometimes worry we’re waiting for some kind of mental health crisis before acting on it, but I think that crisis is actually happening now. I want to live in a country where mental health services are catered for those most at risk.
I also really want to learn Tamil which is my Dad’s mother tongue. I was recently in Colombo, Sri Lanka for Pride and I've realised there are many elements of my culture that I don’t understand, so learning Tamil would be a step towards that!
I realised I was gay, before I knew what sexuality was. I knew I didn’t fit in and didn’t feel like I belonged. A distinct memory was being at school and not wanting to play with girls (because it didn't seem right) or boys (because I didn’t want to). I guess I began questioning gender norms at a really young age, which I knew made me different in some way. I became more aware of my sexuality at High School – at that age, people were having sex and it becomes another thing you’re aware of. For a long time, although I knew I was gay, I didn’t want to be. Thankfully, I don’t feel that way anymore.
My Family & Culture
High School was when I’d consciously acknowledged my sexuality to myself, but the thought of telling my family then didn't feel like a possibility. When I came out to my Mum, she said that whilst she wasn’t expecting it, she wasn’t surprised. I remember crying with her for a solid 30 minutes, just letting go of the fear and shame. I remember telling my sister too – I told her I'd been hiding something from her and she immediately quipped back ‘are you gay?’ and moved on to talk about her bus to school. My sexuality didn’t matter to her, which was comforting.
My Dad had to take some time to process it, but I have to give credit to his reaction. He said if this was my decision, then he supported it. Now I know being gay’s not a decision, but culturally, this was a positive reaction. He didn’t talk to me properly for about a month after, but I knew to be patient and he came good.
My relationship with my family is wonderful. During the same sex marriage plebiscite in Australia, my parents were really supportive and not only voted but actively encouraged friends, family, and even their colleagues to get out and secure marriage for same sex couples. I have a lot of gratitude for my family - they have always championed me and my work without exception. Not many queer people have families who are so accepting and supportive - I'm very lucky.
I ask myself all the time given my background, where I was born and where I now live - what is my culture? There’s Australian culture, which I probably identify most with, but which also has some elements I find tricky, like entrenched toxic masculinity. There’s my Dad’s culture, which is an inherent part of my story and lineage, but which I sometimes don't feel I have licence to fully 'own'. When I go back to Sri Lanka, it's like rediscovering half of who I am. I’ve got friends in the Asian queer community, but the South Asian cultural touchpoints they have aren’t always there for me. My Dad lost touch with his family, although he and my Mum always wanted us to be connected to our culture – food and music played a part in that, but this is part of the reason why I want to learn Tamil, to build a deeper connection to my heritage.
Prior to coming out (in my early 20s), I’d gone through a difficult period of depression, to the point I’d attempted suicide when I was 19. Given how I felt about myself at the time, I’d never rationally thought about coming out. That was until I saw an interview with Xavier Dolan, a French-Canadian filmmaker who’d directed a biopic about himself as a gay man. He was asked when he knew he was gay, and said he’d always known. The sentiment struck me as so simple and made me realise – I'd also always known. I'd just never allowed myself to imagine a world in which anyone else could. It dawned on me slowly that it was okay to be gay. It wasn't going to ruin my life, but the constant lying to myself would.
Getting to that stage was important for me as beforehand my thinking had been rigid - either I lied to everyone about my sexuality or I ceased to exist, and I couldn't envisage any other option. That was the moment I thought, I’m coming out to my parents – and I stayed up all night figuring out how to tell them, before marching over to their bedroom the next morning.
I remember feeling really nervous coming out to one of my best friends (a straight guy), as I was braced for the worst. But he said something in his reply that’s stayed with me – "you'll never be my "gay best friend"', he said "...just my best friend who happens to be gay, and that doesn't change anything". For me, it was the best reaction.
The link between my identity and my work is clear – I work for an LGBT+ organisation that does international human rights work. I truly annoyed The Kaleidoscope Trust into giving me my current job (as Programme Co-ordinator); before they'd even shortlisted me, I called them 3 times, turned up at the office, and sent a million follow up emails. I just knew that I had to get the job. There are so few opportunities in this field and it's so important to me that people from ethnic diaspora communities are at the forefront of supporting the fight for LGBT+ across the world. As QPoC, we understand that we have to navigate a minefield (racism in queer spaces, homophobia in cultural spaces) and I think this intrinsic understanding of how sexuality, gender identity and race interplay is so essential when you're working with LGBT+ activists on the frontline in hostile countries. I wanted to put that understanding to good use.
Outside of this, I speak openly about mental health on social media. I believe in practicing self-care and so it’s important to talk to yourself as you would talk to others. I try to do simple things, like sending out a good vibes message for people who need to hear it, or sharing realisations and reflections I have about how my queerness affects my mental wellbeing. By helping other people, I find that I help myself too.
Love, Dating & Relationships
I had a significant relationship when I first came out, but since then, I’ve been single - dating here and there. I’ve used this time to work on myself, figure out who I am as a queer person, trusting that the rest will just flow. I find dating quite hard; London is tricky at the best of times. It’s as though everyone feels there is something bigger and better around the corner and I think sometimes 'the apps' don't help this perception. I’m a romantic, I like the thought of your eyes meeting across a room – there is a shared humanity and a connection that can be built from a moment like that. They're much harder to create when there is a screen between you.
When I came out, I was SO ready to be a part of the scene – like where are we going and what are we doing? I was taken aback by how much we judge and label each other, particularly gay men. We spend so much of our time in the closet judging ourselves that once we're out, so many of us can only see the world through this judgemental lens. I understand it and I have compassion for it, it's something that I myself am still overcoming - but it doesn't make many mainstream gay social spaces any less uncomfortable for me.
I believe the community can grow and prosper by creating more spaces for everyone to belong. We need to empower and support the most marginalised in our community to create those spaces where they don't yet exist.
We also need to connect more across our different identities within the community and understand how we’ve interacted in the past to get to where we are today. It’s been such a pleasure to have queer black friends, or queer female friends and explore the differences/commonalities in our experiences. Making friends with people who are different to you is the perfect pathway to cultivate compassion and empathy. If queer people of all types aren't listening and talking to each other, and trying to be kind to each other, then we are not going to progress anywhere. Lady Phyll always says "your struggle has to be my struggle", and I've never heard allyship so perfectly distilled.
The other reality is that sometimes we have to work with people who don't fully understand our lived experience. As a minority group, we can build a phenomenal , resilient community, but sometimes without speaking to those that hold the institutional power – which for LGBT+ inequality is often straight cisgender people – we can't always create change. We need people in our community who are cultivating and educating from within, but we also need people speaking to and winning over the uninformed. Equality has to make sense to everyone - our struggle also has to be their struggle. The saying works both ways.
Lady Phyll – she represents someone who has created a movement for the most marginalised in our community, which is special in and of itself. Glenroy Murray, an activist in Jamaica who works for J-Flag. I’ve never met someone who speaks so eloquently on the effects of colonialism and its impact on queer communities of colour. Finally, Phil Samba, who is one of my best friends. He is just impossible not to love. He’s doing such important and great work for our community around sexual health.
Words of Wisdom
'Be kind – always and in all ways’ Nothing works unless you’re kind to yourself and others. It unlocks the ability to change things for the better. Queer people don’t always get taught to be kind to ourselves – and this forms a big part in how we treat others.
Do things that make you uncomfortable. This has helped me get to where I am today. As an example, when I was 14, I worked in a café to save money so I could travel and see the world. Which is exactly what I did when I was 17. It meant that I was in uncomfortable situations, in unfamiliar cultures and having to reconcile myself with cultural differences that went against my values. I was very privileged to be able to travel, but you don't always have to jump on a plane to challenge your preconceptions. Do things that feel scary - sometimes you learn about yourself.
Don't forget to laugh. My coping mechanism when I have hard times in life is to laugh. There is so much power in humour to help turn around your perspective when you're feeling low. Some people take themselves so seriously they dig themselves into a hole, but I prefer to laugh it off. Who knew expelling air and making funny noises could be so much fun
And we were done with the interview part. The hummus, baba ganoush and 4 glasses of wine kept the conversation going well into the night. Alex has a clarity and self-assuredness about what his purpose is; which means he is both charming and charismatic. I just know he’ll continue doing brilliant things for our community and am tuned in to see what he does next.
Follow him on Twitter for his hot takes on the very real issues we face (and his selfies).