Broadcaster, author, LGBTQ+ activist and internet sensation Riyadh Khalaf is known to many as the charismatic host of BBC Three’s Queer Britain – a six-part documentary series, that saw Khalaf get under the skin of queer culture, to shine a light on the many challenges faced by members of the LGBTQ+ community here in the UK.
Away from television, Riyadh has managed to skilfully leverage his power to cultivate and grow an incredible online following, becoming a prominent and popular figure on the LGBTQ+ YouTube scene – his channel, made up of both playful and profound, thought-provoking content, capturing the hearts and minds of young people around the world.
Born and raised in Bray, a coastal town in North County Wicklow, Ireland, the much loved and admired media personality recently added best selling author to his CV with the publication of his first book Yay! You’re Gay! Now What?, a lifestyle handbook of sorts, described by the Irish Times as being a “breezy life bible for ‘young queer guys’ that touches on everything from coming out, to puberty, to sex.”
“I call what happened to me, with my growth online and now as a broadcaster, as somewhat of an accidental activism thing.” Riyadh says laughing as he tries to explain his somewhat unexpected, yet meteoric rise to the top. “I made a couple of viral videos when I was a teenager, just for fun, and all of a sudden I had this massive following and all of these young people from around the world asking me ‘can you help me, can you give me advice on how to be young, gay and happy?’ or ‘can you give me advice on how to come out as trans to my parents, to my teacher’ and I was like ‘woah! I was just making little funny videos on the internet – what’s all this about?’“
“It was daunting to begin with,” he admits. “Because you do feel the weight of all of those hundreds and thousands of young people, and if you say one wrong thing, then that can really damage them and embarrass you, so I had to get serious real quick because pretty early on I realised that I wanted to use my platform for good.”
Recognising the limitless potential to reach the masses now on offer to him, Khalaf has made good on his word, dedicating the last six years of his life to be a proud public voice for a community that is so often dismissed, forgotten and misunderstood.
They say “it gets better…”
Founded around the same time that Riyadh Khalaf posted his very first video on YouTube, by gay activist, author, media pundit, and journalist Dan Savage, It Gets Better is an internet-based nonprofit organisation created in response to the suicides of teenagers who were bullied because they were gay, or because their peers suspected that they were gay. Its goal is to prevent suicide among LGBTQ+ youth by having gay adults convey the message that these teens’ lives will improve.
As someone who openly admits to having faced many struggles throughout his years at school, yet managed to make it out the other side and find happiness and success later on in life in spite of those hardships, we have to ask, has it/life really gotten any better for young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people now?
“Totally.” Riyadh says emphatically. “There’s definitely more work to do, especially on behalf of our trans siblings, but if I think, or if I compare who I was at 14, and how I am now and what the world looks like – you can be gay and an activist, you can be gay and a bin man – you can be whatever you want to be! There really aren’t any limits anymore, which is great!”
Explaining further the Irish native adds: “By and large things are so much more wonderfully broad and open now for young gay people, and I hope that they no longer feel the limitations that I felt when I was growing up. Because when I was growing up, I believed that stereotypically my prospects where limited to either being a flight attendant, a hair dresser or a make up artist. Those are wonderful jobs, don’t get me wrong, I know many people who do those jobs now and they’re amazing, but thats not where my passions were, and I felt sad that the dreams I wanted, I wasn’t going to be able to achieve because I didn’t see anyone like me doing those kind of jobs.”
You can be whatever you want to be – there really aren’t any limits anymore!
The kind of job Riyadh refers to, is that of a broadcaster – a personality within the media who is responsible for presenting and entertaining audiences, whether that be on television, on radio or online. Reflecting on his thought process back then, it’s really sad to think that someone as vibrant, effervescent and talented as Khalaf would ever feel this way as a young person looking towards their future, but sadly for a generation growing up at that time, struggling with their sexual and gender identities, this was their reality.
Now aged 29, Riyadh believes, for the most part, that the limitations he once felt as a teenager growing up in Ireland no longer exist, and begins to break down the reasons why: “The reason I think it’s changed is simple, it’s exposure and normalisation. The more LGBTQ+ people that are seen and heard and experienced, the less fear there is. We become less of an unknown identity in the eyes of the masses, the general public, so for example in the entertainment world the more we are ‘seen’, the more likely it is that the people at the top, the people in power – the channel controllers and so on, will give an LGBTQ+ person the opportunity to host a show, or feature on primetime in some way, because they know that a programme will be watched with that person at the helm.”
Reclaiming A Sense Of Power!
When you’re young, there can sometimes be a thought in your mind that when you become a ‘grown up’, life just becomes this sort of perfect utopia, where one day you have light bulb moment and discover your life’s purpose and passion, which you’re somehow then able to turn into your job, and as a result you never have to deal with any kind of negativity or hate ever again. Sounds good? Yes. A reality? No.
“Initially when I first starting posting on YouTube, I found that I was getting a load of online abuse.” Riyadh says. “Like a really, really severe trolling – I’m talking daily death threats, people telling me to awful things to myself or that awful things should happen to my family because they had accepted me for who I was, so they deserved to have bad things happen to them as a result! After a while of this I just thought to myself ‘okay, I need to not lie down and take this, I need to push back, take a stand and do something about this!’ But I didn’t want to do it in an angry way where it was zapping my energy and dictating my happiness.”
“So I decided to do a series of videos called ‘Reading The Comments’, which is pretty much what it said on the tin, it was me sitting down with a large glass of Sauvignon blanc, with my mother or a friend, and finding the worst of the worst comments that had been sent to me, and sort of troll the troll, and give them back as good as they were giving me! And as a result what happened was, I was taking ownership of the awful comment and taking control of the narrative; I flipped it and threw it back at them – I owned it! It was me saying ‘I will decide what I do with this’ and what I’m going to do is show you how ridiculous and show sad your comment is… and it was fun!”
And what fun it was… but also really rather healing and therapeutic too, as what was originally meant to be just another fun and frivolous video for his YouTube channel, turned out to be a real turning point Riyadh, as for the first time in a long time, he fought back against those who had tried for so long to diminish his light, and in turn as a result began the process of reclaiming and owning his lost sense of purpose and power, from those who had been intent on bringing him down with their hateful words.
“Over the years I’ve managed to build up such a thick skin, to homophobic abuse, so if let’s say someone calls me a ‘faggot’ I don’t even flinch, it literally means nothing! They could call me a tomato and I’d probably be more offended! Hilariously what affects me more, and what sticks with me and stays with me late at night, is when someone says ‘my God you’re lighting is really bad’ or ‘what’s wrong with your mic’ that’s where it really hits! (laughs) That’s where I’m at, it’s kind of a treat because it literally means nothing.”
Fundamentally, any misunderstanding, hatred or malice still directed towards members of the LGBTQ+ community today, stems from a place of fear, and inadequate understanding. “I really believe that the only reason this kind of hate exists is because it’s different, and it’s scary, and people have a fear of the unknown.” Riyadh says matter-of-factly. “But if you make someone know really what it is, then it’s as boring as someone having brown eyes or blue eyes. You’ll always be part of a minority, but at least you can make these people uninteresting to where it’s at a point, where we don’t even need to come out anymore…. that would be wonderful!”
Out of the dark, and into the light…
Finding the strength to be open, and reveal ones true self to family, friends and loved ones takes real courage, and time – it’s important that nobody is ever pressured or forced to ‘come out’ until they themselves feel 100% ready to do so. Exploring your own personal thoughts, feelings and emotions and accepting yourself is a process, a process of which takes some longer than others, and that’s okay; there’s no right or wrong way to go about this. What advice would Riyadh give to someone on the brink of coming out we wonder?
“I guess I would say, don’t be afraid by anything you might have seen before, in terms of any kind of hate you’ve witnessed being received by someone like you, because it is completely unfounded – don’t take any notice of it, that kind of negativity is nothing to do with you, and it’s not worth your attention. You are normal. You are a beautiful person. You are someone who has endless amounts of good going for you, and so much to offer to the world.”
For some people however, it’s what happens after they’ve spoken aloud their truth that causes them to feel the most anxiety. And for anyone feeling that way, it’s important to remember that any kind of change in life can be scary, and a transitional period of uncertainty is to be expected, as you and those around you come to terms with your new ’normal’. You’ve done the hard part, now’s the time for healing…
You are normal. You are beautiful person. You are someone who has endless amounts of good going for you.
Ever the calming voice of reason, Riyadh promises there is always light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how hopeless you may feel in the moment. “There are so many wonderful things for us all to experience, and we will all eventually find our place in this world and live a truly amazing life – life is worth living, no matter how difficult it may feel.” And for those not fortunate enough to receive the love, support and acceptance of those closest to them, Riyadh urges people to remain focused on the bigger picture at hand. “Listen, even if those closest to you don’t feel like your way of living is acceptable to them, beyond them there are hundreds, thousands, millions of people who are just like you, that are ready to embrace you.”
“The future is bright, no mater how cliche that may sound, there is a point in all of this, and it does get better! And how you make it get better quicker, is by proactively finding people to surround yourself with that love you and believe in you for who you are. Let them be your security blanket, and the people you rely on in times of need.”
Education is The Key.
“Homophobia begins from a lack of education and a lack of exposure, which leads to fear.” Riyadh says when talk turns to the ways in which society, and in-particular schools, can be proactive in the ways in which they tackle and stamp out any kind of prejudice or discrimination towards members of the LGBTQ+ community. “The thing that I’m most passionate about within the LGBTQ+ space is young people and education, because I truly believe that no one is born a homophobe or a transphobe, it its learnt behaviour and learnt behaviour that can be halted, stopped and turned around for the better if it’s caught early enough.”
Having spoken out on numerous occasions in the past to support of the idea of an LGBTQ+ inclusive curriculum being introduced and taught in schools, Riyadh adds: “I believe that type and brand of hate (against minority groups), is planted at a young age, usually from family, parents at home. And it grows and germinates and becomes this monstrous thing that is incredibly hard to weed out once those roots take hold. So if you have a class of young people in school or a part of the curriculum that is created and taught to help normalise LGBTQ+ identities and aligns them in an equal footing with cisgender and straight identities then it’s almost impossible to continue to develop as a bully.”
Eloquently spoken, thoughtful in his replies and always tactful with his choice of words, Riyadh possesses the kind of emotional intelligence that only a person of true substance and authenticity can possess. He respects his platform and takes his almost self-imposed responsibility incredibly seriously.
However poised, calm and collective he may be, surely there must be moments though when the pressure of being considered such a huge figure of hope to so many, becomes somewhat overwhelming?
“Look there’s no guide book in how to be an activist or how to be a kind of digital big brother to a group of people around the world who are vulnerable and need help.” Riyadh concedes. “I made many mistakes in the beginning – I felt like how do I speak inspirationally and from the heart, but in a way that’s not moonlighting as a fake therapist or someone who has the credentials because I don’t. All I had, and all I could pull from was my lived experience and I think that that’s incredibly useful when I’ve been through a really tough time growing up – I now know the moments when I have to say ‘look, this isn’t something I can necessarily help you with but here a multitude of outlets that are designed to help you with what you need.’ As much as I’m helping and speaking out and posting about these issues, I’m equally pointing people in the direction of mental health organisations and crisis organisations because I don’t always have the answers people need to hear.”
Being so transparent and unfiltered in sharing his vast and varied life experiences, we can imagine, at times, can be somewhat of a double edge sword for Riyadh. On the one hand it’s incredible, he’s helping to empower an entire generation of young people to grow up accepting and loving themselves, yet on the other hand by constantly looking back and reliving such painful memories, he’s opening up old wounds which will have initially taken a long time to heal.
It can take some people a lifetime to unpack and address the trauma they faced as a child, but however distressing it maybe to revisit those memories of old, it must also too be somewhat of a cathartic experience…
“Oh yeah, for sure!” Riyadh admits. “Every time I speak to a friend, or I do an interview or I speak to the press about my story it’s like a mini therapy session, just like our conversation right now, and you know I’ve been to many, many, many sessions of real therapy, no matter how much you talk about something there’s still areas that need to be unpacked and explored and understood.”
“Like the trauma, and shame, and self disgust I had, and many other queer people had growing up is very deep. It’s scarring, and it kind of never really goes away but it’s how you use that experience for fuel; it’s the reason why I believe so many gay men are over achievers – sometimes to their own detriment, they push themselves too hard but I think the reason they do that is because we’re all making up for lost time and we want to prove not just to ourselves but to the world around us that we’re gay it means we’re less than, actually it means we’re better than you ever thought we could be. It’s super, super complex but it’s a gift that the work I do, like you said, is almost very cathartic.”
CONFIDENT, RESPECTED… A MASTER STORYTELLER.
Speaking as a global Creators For Change Ambassador, at YouTube’s Brandcast event in Toronto, Canada back in 2019, Riyadh Khalaf told the audience, made up of fellow broadcasters and content creators, that he one day aspired to be a “confident, respected, master storyteller” just like his hero Oprah Winfrey.
“She for sure helped me find my calling, and made me realise what I wanted to do with my life,” Riyadh says of Winfrey. “I had no real role models growing up so, in a way what I really wanted was to become that person on TV I wished I’d seen as a child and teenager – that was my dream if you like.”
At a time when people need more than ever a figure of hope to hold onto, Khalaf has most definitely achieved that dream; and so much more, creating a visceral and authentic connection with his loyal army of fans all of whom look to him as being a true beacon of light, in a sometimes dark world.
Now confident in his own skin.
Now respected globally for his honesty and candour.
Now admired for being a master storyteller… Riyadh Khalaf, we salute you!
Make sure you keep locked in to CelebMix for PART 2 of our EXCLUSIVE interview with Riyadh Khalaf coming next week, where we talk more about his career, his hopes for the future and his upcoming appearance on BBC 1’s Celebrity Masterchef!