Andy Wasley explains why Stephen Fry’s advocacy for gay rights and mental health awareness make him an LGBT Hero.
Broadcaster, actor, poet and writer
When I kicked off So So Gay’s series of LGBT Hero profiles with an article about Wing Commander Mark Abrahams two weeks ago, I had no idea how popular the series would prove; since then, articles on people as diverse as Armistead Maupin, Lady Gaga and Tony Blair have excited comment and debate on Twitter and on here. Starting with a non-celebrity was a deliberate choice; many of our heroes, as you will see, fit that mould. But it wasn’t entirely an easy choice for me. Mark is a friend and a true hero, but he vies, for me, with another man who has had a big effect on my life.
I first became aware of Stephen Fry’s more-or-less constant presence on TV when I was a fairly geeky teenager, watching re-runs of A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder II and Blackadder Goes Forth. It’s a shame, in a way, that my earliest memories of him are as of a comedian, a role in which he excels but by which he should never be defined. Still, that’s how I first encountered him, laughing at mad General Melchett and the thoroughly bizarre spy boss, Control.
It took years before I heard Fry was gay; one evening in the mid-late 1990s, sitting eyewateringly close to the TV and with the volume dulled down to a whisper so my parents wouldn’t hear it, I saw him on a gay show on (I think) BBC2, talking about ‘growing up queer and Jewish’. At a time when I needed role models, seeing such a familiar figure talking frankly about his sexuality and teenage angst helped me realise that I really wasn’t the only guy wondering what was ‘wrong’ with me. Subtly, it had a profound effect on my self esteem. It was the first time I could look at a gay man’s success and wonder when I’d be brave enough to be myself.
It is, though, Fry’s unashamed openness about mental illness that has had the biggest effect on me, as someone who has depression. Fry’s cyclothymia has had an enormous effect on his life, yet no-one can deny that he has made a great success of himself. While some public figures seek to deny or cover up their mental health problems, Fry has been entirely open about his. That has, to an extent, demystified mental illness, helping many people realise that it is no more shameful or pecular than a back problem. Even his crippling bouts of low self esteem (detailed painfully clearly in The Fry Chronicles, the latest installment in his autobiography) can’t dim Fry’s creativity and brilliance. As he put it in the Chronicles:
If I am not alone, then neither are you, and hand in hand we can marvel at the strangeness of the human condition.
- The Fry Chronicles, London: Michael Joseph (p280)
Ultimately, Fry’s fame has been turned to the noblest of ends: proving that being gay is no barrier to happiness, and showing that mental illness needn’t be a barrier to success. For that, and for every time he has made me laugh, I will be forever grateful.