Matthew Todd talks alcohol, drugs and the mental health crisis in the LGBT+ communities

Craig Hanlon-Smith March 3, 2018

Matthew Todd has a long-standing association with Attitude magazine of over 20 years, most recently as editor.

Ahead of the paperback and audio release of his hugely successful book, Straight Jacket, Craig Hanlon-Smith caught up with the journalist, novelist, playwright and stand-up comedian, no less, to talk Attitude, career highlights and the mental health crisis amongst the LGBT population.

Crisis seems a strong descriptor, why do you think we’ve reached that point? 
“Because of the amount of people we’ve lost. I write about the short period of time where we lost a group of famous gay people to drugs or suicide including Alexander McQueen and my friend, the TV presenter Kristian Digby. Since then we’ve lost George Michael, the young bisexual American rapper Lil Peep and more recently Storm Chasers presenter, Joel Taylor, died from a ‘G’ overdose on a gay cruise.

“The amount of us who die through suicide or drugs overdose is astonishing and not just famous people. I regularly hear of friends of friends who are in serious trouble or hear that this or that person has passed away. Most of my long-term friends have seriously struggled. That doesn’t even take into account the other issues significant numbers of us have with self-esteem and self-worth and the numbers of us who seem to struggle finding or keeping serious relationships.” 

Matthew is keen to stress that he’s not being judgemental. “I include myself in that. This book is about my struggle as well. I hope people can relate to it because I’m talking about my own experience too. Of course there are more happy LGBT+ people than ever before but prejudice has taken its toll and there are too many of us not thriving as we should be. People seem to believe young people have it easy now but I don’t believe that’s the case. I met a young man last week who told me how he’s struggled to accept who he is, has issues with other gay men and so on. These issues are so common that I think we don’t see them; we just accept that’s the way we are. We can heal and it’s time for us to support one another to do that.”

But are these issues specifically gay ones? 
“When I first met my therapist (also gay), he said to me, ‘Of course you’re f***ed up, you’re gay,’ and it was like a lightbulb moment for me, a moment of relief. He then went on to say, ‘It’s not that you’re gay but because you’ve grown up in a society that has told you you are wrong at every turn.’ My play, Blowing Whistles, which we’re touring later this year, was a precursor to Straight Jacket. Something isn’t quite right with people, despite the advances we’ve made, a disproportionate number of people are simply not doing well.” 

Is now a particularly difficult or different time? 
“In a way. Kids coming out now are rejecting labels and not following the rules that we’ve set. It’s as though we don’t know what gayness means. There is a clear cultural language that we speak with similar experiences, yes, in terms of our film and music references, but in the past we’ve been on the attack because it was necessary but in some ways this needs to be re-examined. I also freely accept that this book is from a privileged position in the west, in particular the UK and US.” 

You’ve said you believe the mental health challenges LGBT people may face are connected to the levels of shame we experience when growing up. This year is the 30th anniversary of Section (Clause) 28. There hasn’t (to my knowledge) been much of a discussion of the long-term impact of Section 28 on people of our generation, and those younger who were in education during its 15-year tenure.

What role do you think it played in this sense of shame? 
“I think shame has always been there because society has told us being LGBT is shameful in itself. But I think that late 1980s period was particularly difficult. That’s the time I grew up in and it still affects me. It’s come up a lot in therapy. I was reading the tabloid press in those days and the homophobia was relentless. There’s a chapter in my book about it which seems to shock young people who had no idea how bad it was. For instance, one of the scores of homophobic cartoons in The Sun showed a man hanging his gay son with a noose from a street lamppost. There were messages in the press at that time of the emergence of HIV and AIDS and the hysteria that came with it, that we should literally kill ourselves. It doesn’t surprise me that lots of us are doing just that at a subconscious level with drugs and self-destructive behaviour because those messages went in.”

You describe yourself as a recovering alcoholic. When did you recognise that you had an issue that needed to be tackled?
“It’s weird to have that out there. Before I realised I had a problem with alcohol, I thought anyone who did was a lunatic who needed to be locked up. There are lots of people in recovery for drugs and alcohol issues, from doctors and nurses to lawyers and people driving buses. Famous people too, some of whom have been public about it; Elton John, Robbie Williams, Russell Brand, Boy George, Robert Downey Junior, John Grant (who wrote the foreword for my book), and many more. I realised eventually because a friend went into recovery and said he thought I had a problem too. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t drink in the morning or in parks on my own but I did drink most, if not every day. 

“I’d have one pint in the pub after work but would be there till closing time or find myself waking up with a stranger the next day. That happened a lot and it was getting in the way of my life. My rock bottom happened when I was late for a photo shoot with Daniel Radcliffe because I was hung-over. It all makes sense to me now because addictive behaviour like sex, booze, drugs etc are often a reaction to anxiety. I’m happy to be sober now as I have been for nearly four years. Life is much easier.”

How did you go about addressing it?
“I went into recovery in 12-step groups which are massively helpful and had therapy and started to change my life. Compulsive behaviour is never about the behaviour. So I wasn’t drinking just because I loved to but because I couldn’t bear the feelings of anxiety and self-hatred that were underneath. But I’ve had support to deal with those feelings. I’m not perfect now – we’re all a work in progress, right? – but I’m in a much better place than I was. It isn’t easy but it’s totally worth it. I never want to go back.”

The popular gay scene, especially but not exclusively in the UK, is very alcohol driven. How far do you think our cultural identity is embedded in an over consumption of alcohol and, of course, drug use?
“Absolutely. We’ve traditionally been only able to socialise and feel safe in bars and clubs. The gay scene was huge fun for me at times and life-saving in many ways. But I also wasted a lot of my 20s on it, trashed all the time, thinking my life only had meaning if people fancied me or wanted to sleep with me. When I see people posting selfies for ‘Likes’ I know that won’t make them happy. It makes you feel worse because it’s fleeting approval. It’s terrifying going to your first gay bar and so we get into the habit of getting drunk. Drinking can be great but it can easily overtake your life and it is a depressant in itself. If you’ve some self-esteem issues, drinking heavily is the last thing you should be doing.”

And sometimes the ‘gay-scene’ can be a challenging place?
“Exactly. In Straight Jacket I talk about our being unkind to each other. The scene isn’t always the friendliest place. We can be absolutely horrendous to one another and that’s one of the most painful parts of it all. We think we’re coming out onto a gay scene which will be supportive after we’ve gone through growing up in a heterosexual world and it can be fantastic but it can be unfriendly, shallow and alienating.” 

Of course young people, and in some cases all of us, now have the apps to navigate through, which is something we didn’t have to worry about in our 20s…
“The apps can be incredibly damaging. If we’re already feeling insecure and unattractive and there are people judging us on solely what we look like or we’re seeing that message that ‘if you’re not masculine enough, you’re not good enough’ over and over, then that can be really bad for our self-esteem. We’re meant to be a community and we can be really vicious to each other online including the racism that happens.”

Prior to the success of Straight Jacket, you were probably best known for your time as editor of Attitude magazine. What were your memorable highlights during that time?
“There were so many. It was an incredible ride. The best part was meeting all the everyday people who make a difference by campaigning or just being themselves – gay policemen, soldiers, teachers, parents and so on. It was also amazing to meet Prime Ministers and have a little influence on some of the agenda. I grew up obsessed with Madonna and got to sit down with her for an hour and 40 minutes on our own to interview her so that was amazing. Convincing Prince William to appear on the cover of a gay magazine for the first time was an incredible experience. Also co-creating the Attitude Awards and Attitude Pride Awards was rewarding because I think it’s positive for society to see a high profile event that celebrates our achievements similar to the GQ Awards. That would have been helpful to see when I was young.”

I’ve been a fan of Attitude and on a personal level it has played a significant role in my own development not only as a member of the LGBT community, but as a man. It was of great comfort to me 20+ years ago and for some years after – I learned a lot. Media publications, and how we access these, have changed enormously in the past five to 10 years. There sometimes seems to me to be a gulf between the intellectually demanding content of Attitude that’s in print and shared online, and the almost ‘locker room’ social media posts concerning the endowments of a certain Olympic diver or heterosexual reality TV contestant. How do you square that circle between Attitude playing an important cultural role and seemingly buying into the Grindr-esque Twitter posts? 

To what extent will a mainstream gay publication struggle to meet the needs of everyone it hopes to serve? Does or did that responsibility interrupt your sleep at night?!
“It totally interrupted my sleep. It was the most difficult thing; to try to make a magazine that was socially conscious but still sold copies and kept going. It’s probably a big part of why I left. Young people especially would write and tell me that the magazine was life-saving to them but others would complain about everything we did. 

“These are complicated questions, which I address in the book and could write a whole other book about. I’ve been part of the evolution of Attitude having joined in 1996. Back then it was meant to reflect the new confidence in the gay community and as a style and celebrity magazine that was different from the political magazines of the time. That appealed to me when I was 22, but as I got older I had some issues with that idea. By the time I became Editor I felt that the magazine should be more serious and political as well as being fun. I tried to do that whilst keeping that fun edge. 

“People like looking at sexy bodies. That’s human nature. We all do. So the Naked issues were the bestsellers. Harry Judd flew off the shelves. Often people complain about the sexy content but when gay magazines do something different the sales go down – the people who complain don’t support the covers, which are different. So we had David Cameron on the cover, grilling him, Stephen Fry, Attitude’s first out black gay man on the cover, the first lesbian, the first lesbian of colour, the first trans woman and so on. I don’t think we ever got much credit for that. I do think there’s a problem with the gay media being so flesh heavy but I genuinely think Attitude has been the best in that respect and we never got much credit for it. 

“I started this ‘Real Bodies’ feature inside showing normal guys, fat, thin, whatever talking about their bodies and no one ever seemed to notice. People also forget that most gay magazines operate on a fraction of the staff and budget that mainstream publications do, and they’re reliant on internet hits. They also miss the hard-hitting features we did like features on being gay and Muslim, the Chemsex issue which we led on, being gay in prison, cover interviews with Prime Ministers and politicians and so on. Someone complained about the current Body Issue of Attitude and said they’d much rather see a guy in his 80s, who was inside the magazine, on the cover than the sexy model. I would too but a commercial magazine that put people who weren’t famous or conventionally attractive on its covers wouldn’t survive. That’s the reality. I think people should support magazines like Attitude, especially when they do different covers that aren’t just shirtless men. Attitude only started because some guys decided to do it so I’d always recommend if people don’t like what they see, then to create something new themselves. I think that’s part of the message that change needs to happen – individually but also in the community and we can all be part of it.”

Straight Jacket by Matthew Todd is available in Paperback and from Audible from March 8.