LAST WEEK the BBC screened Stephen Fry: Out There, a ground-breaking two part documentary about homophobia around the world.
As the title suggests, it was presented by the multi-talented Stephen Fry, who describes himself on Twitter as:
‘British Actor, Writer, Lord of Dance, Prince of Swimwear & Blogger.’
During the making of the documentary, the production company contacted me, as the secretary of the Michael Causer Foundation at the time, to speak to Marie, the mother of Michael Causer, an 18 year old gay man who died as a result of a homophobic attack on Merseyside in 2008.
They also asked to speak to young people supported by the Foundation set up in Michael’s name for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth who are homeless or at risk.
As the Foundation is not currently working directly with young people, Stephen agreed to visit Gay Youth ‘R’ Out (GYRO), the UK’s longest running LGBT youth group, founded in 1976, which I have led since 2007.
We were sworn to secrecy about the visit, as he was also visiting some of the most homophobic places in the world, and the BBC feared that if word of the documentary got out it could put Stephen and the TV crew at risk.
It seems no-one told Stephen Fry though, and Twitter was rife with speculation when he tweeted to five and a half million followers about a ‘secret mission’ in Liverpool.
Many of those who replied were concerned that he would get cold feet when he added: ‘Jolly cold. Woollier socks should have been considered.’
University of Liverpool academic Andy Morse replied: ‘Welcome to Liverpool. Keeping a secret here will be a tall order!’
The TV presenter kept quiet about his whereabouts despite this tempting offer. Somehow the showbiz reporter on the local paper found out though, and leaked the news in that evening’s edition.
So the production company allowed us to put out a press release about the visit the following day, and we got a lovely group photo in the weekend edition.
We explained that the secrecy was because he was visiting a confidential youth group, which was partly true. We also said his visit was part of the group’s commemoration of LGBT History Month in February, which celebrates the lives and achievements of LGBT people past and present. Also partly true, though not the primary reason!
Stephen, who is openly gay, played the writer Oscar Wilde in the 1997 film Wilde. Young people aged 13-17 from the GYRO group were delighted to hear some of his story and to share theirs with him.
He was very generous with his time, staying longer than planned and signing autographs for the young people, which we were told he rarely does. He is also exceptionally tall, and surprisingly humble and unassuming for one so talented with such a high public profile.
GYRO is based at the Young Person’s Advisory Service (YPAS), which supports the mental health and well-being of children age 10-15, young people age 16-25 and their families with advice, guidance and counselling services.
Stephen, who has spoken publicly of his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, was impressed with the support available to young people at the city centre charity, saying he wished he had known of a service like it when he was a teenager.
In a tweet sent on the journey home, Stephen wrote: ‘Thanks to all of you in Liverpool, you know who you are. You’re all simp totes amazespheres x’ which translates from tweet-speak as ‘simply totally amazing’.
The young people and staff at YPAS thought he was pretty fantastic too. Emily, age 15, said, ‘It was amazing meeting him, he’s a huge inspiration! He was really respectful of everyone, and we all left with a smile on our face.’
In the press release, I was quoted as saying: ‘It was a really positive experience for the young people we support to meet Stephen Fry. As someone in the public eye who has spoken openly about his sexuality and mental health, he is living proof that it is possible to achieve in life and give hope and joy to others.’
Later in the year the documentary crew travelled to St Petersburg to meet the man behind the current anti-gay propaganda and legislation in Russia. This meeting attracted international media attention, partly because Fry the prolific tweeter shared the news with his followers, by then nearly six million people.
Someone at the local paper remembered the Liverpool visit, and called to ask for an interview. I declined but Marie Causer agreed as the journalist already knew abput the documentary, so the link between the Liverpool visit and the documentary became public.
Still we were advised not to say anything about the documentary until editing was finished and the broadcast date announced.
Then last month we received an email saying that the footage recorded in Liverpool did not make the final cut, except for a stray shot of St George’s Hall, spotted by a couple of eagle-eyed viewers who tweeted to Stephen to find out why. I was able to enlighten them as, after broadcast, I was no longer forbidden from sharing the real reason for the visit.
The young people were disappointed not to be included. However I have asked the production company if it is possible to have a copy of the footage so we might use it to promote the group, If we receive it I will share it here. [UPDATE May 2014: See links at the foot of the page].
Also, given the horrendous events in Russia and Uganda in recent months, perhaps it is understandable that the producer decided to focus on international struggles against homophobia, not the home front in the UK.
If you haven’t seen the documentary yet, I wholeheartedly recommend you watch it as soon as possible, and share it widely.
As I write, online streaming on the BBC website is about to expire, but you can watch both parts on Youtube, which has the advantage of being available to a wider international audience and will (hopefully!) not expire.
Prepare to be deeply moved. His conclusion is beautifully summed up in the quotation from the show (above).
What was not mentioned in the documentary, which makes it even more poignant, is that during filming in Uganda last year, he attempted to take his own life, Stephen revealed this in June 2013, and again in promoting the documentary;
‘There’s a moment in the film where I recognised that this was the last moment we filmed before this wave of depression came over me… And I won’t say what it is because I don’t want people to look out for it then, but of course it makes my heart sink a little because I think that’s so odd because it’s such a really wonderfully important part of the film and it’s a very pivotal moment.’
This explained the delay in producing the documentary, which meant that a trip to Liverpool planned for July 2012 was postponed, as Stephen took time off to recuperate from this near miss. If the documentary’s producer had not discovered him, the outcome may have been very different.
He believes the extreme forms of homophobia he witnessed on his travels may have contributed to his suicide attempt. The fact that he has been prepared to speak openly about this will help others to realise they are not alone in feeling the isolation and despair of prejudice, as lesbian, gay, bisexual and especially transgender young people have among the highest recorded rates of suicide attempts.
Stephen Fry is an excellent advocate for the LGBT community, able to speak for those who feel they have no voice, to people who would not listen. While this documentary may not convert the hardened homophobe, it does far more than preach to the converted, challenging those who do not realise the consequences of their prejudice, and making them less likely to listen to the ill-informed leaders Stephen confronts.
This complex and, in too many cases, life or death issue warrants more than just a two part series. More please, BBC!
UPDATE (May 2014):
I can now add links to the previously unseen footage from the Stephen Fry documentary which didn’t make the final cut. You can watch them here:
Part 1: My interview with Stephen Fry (12 minutes)
Part 2: Stephen Fry meets the GYRO LGBT youth group (8 minutes)