Interview: Thomas Stitchbury; pictures: Markus Bidaux
If anyone understands the power of storytelling, it is author and illustrator Olly Pike. As the director of Pop’n’Olly — an LGBT+ educational resource used by children, teachers, parents and carers to teach about diversity and acceptance — he is at the forefront of empowering queer kids and ripping out homophobia and transphobia at the root.
All with a smile on his face, and perhaps even a pair of cat ears perched on his head.
“So many different things have inspired me to do this work,” he begins. “One of the things has been my experience growing up and not having LGBT+ figures, cartoons and storybooks, because that representation is needed. It is so important to be able to see a queer prince or a transgender character in a children’s book. It can potentially save lives.”
“I had no one to look up to”
With six published books under his belt — including Jamie, a Cinderella-esque, trans-inspired tale — Olly creates worlds that are buoyantly bright, joyful and inclusive — very much at odds with his own early years attending school in Rayleigh, Essex, shrouded in the shadow of Section 28.
“I didn’t [learn about] LGBT+ individuals in any part of my schooling, nor was I told that homosexual people existed — it was illegal. Of course, that meant I had no one to look up to,” he recalls. “It was so drilled into me that you grow up, and if you’re a boy, you find a girlfriend and then you get married and have a family and you just be a ‘man’. My adult years have been unlearning all of that.”
The (impossibly youthful-looking) 35-year-old admits that he still checks himself for any behaviours or cues that read ‘too gay’: “It’s part of my everyday routine. Like, when I leave the house, or when I’m walking down the street, I think about myself, the way I’m moving, the way I look, if there’s anything that gives away the fact that I’m gay.”
He adds: “There have been a couple of times, walking around, and homophobic abuse gets hurled at you just because of who you are and whose hand you’re holding. When that started to happen, it made me think, where’s this coming from? Who taught these people to act like this? I realised, well, these people haven’t been taught to be accepting, to be kind, to understand people’s differences.
“Then I thought, actually, maybe that’s my job to do that.”
“The one thing they don’t understand is unfairness and injustice.”
Although responses are “99 per cent positive”, Olly has faced hostility while trying to get his works taught in schools — no more so than when he was dragged into the Parkfield School protests in Birmingham two years ago.
“So many of my teacher friends were up there, really on the frontlines, and it was awful watching that unfold,” he says. “My books and videos and resources were being used [in the school’s No Outsiders programme] and it saddened me, because I’ve been to that school and met the children there and they were so welcoming…
“I always say children aren’t given enough credit for how smart and righteous they are. They understand what LGBT+ means. They understand diversity and acceptance. The one thing they don’t understand is unfairness and injustice.”
Bombarded with hate messages online, Olly found himself in a “super dark place”: “I was accused of indoctrinating children, of brainwashing them, which was bizarre because all I wanted to do was educate kids and make the world a better place… I got a lot of videos made about me, which weren’t very nice, and I have to admit, when that happened, that did crush me a lot.”
He continues: “Mentally, it made me think things that I’d never thought before. It made me question myself and wonder if I was doing the right thing, or if there was something wrong with me for wanting to educate children about this. But with the help of friends and people who did support my work and a little bit of therapy, I managed to get back to who I was.”
“Schools can do so much to make life easier for young LGBT+ people”
Indeed, Olly has since found the perfect way to handle the haters. “When I get abuse online, I tend to donate a book to a school on their behalf, and I sometimes even write their names on the donation slip, which I probably shouldn’t do, but that’s kind of cathartic for me,” he grins.
And the good always outweighs the bad when he meets a child who has seen themselves in the stories he has written: “A couple of years ago, a young trans boy came up to me and he said, ‘Thank you for writing this story Jamie, because my name is Jamie, and this story is about me.’ You don’t always think about the person you’re writing the story for until you meet them, and it’s incredible.”
Although new education guidelines stipulate that all primary schools in the UK must teach about diverse families, including LGBT+ ones, Olly insists that there is still a long way to go — after all, LGBT+ bullying remains the most common form of bullying and, according to statistics, we know that almost half of young trans people have attempted to take their own life at some point.
“I’ve got loads of goals. One of my main ones is getting a copy of my latest book, Kenny Lives with Erica and Martina, in every single primary school in the UK. So far, we’ve got it in about 3,000 schools — and there are about 20,000 schools,” he exclaims.
“Schools can do so much to make life easier for young LGBT+ people or people who are going to be LGBT+ one day, [even if it’s] just letting them know that it’s OK to be different.”
Read more about this year’s Pride Award recipients in the Attitude Summer issue, out now.