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"Fuck off, I'm gay": the politics of Sir Ian McKellen
By Larry Jenkins
24th August 2007 - 11:13 pm

Sir Ian McKellen
During an appearance on British TV comedy panel show 'Have I Got News For You" in 2003, Sir Ian McKellen revealed that when he visited the Conservative Environment Secretary Michael Howard in 1988 to lobby against Section 28 (a controversial bill which would ban LGBT educational material in schools), Howard refused to change his position but asked McKellen to leave an autograph for his children. The stage and screen legend agreed, but wrote "Fuck off, I'm gay."

Remarkably, then, McKellen was knighted in 1991 by the Thatcher government, not known to be gay-friendly. He was perhaps as surprised by this move as any one else. Was it because he'd achieved the pinnacle of success as an actor in a very competitive world full of great actors or was there more to it than that? He had openly confronted the British government when the infamous Section 28 was rushed through as a rider to an education bill just before the Christmas recess in 1987. This draconian bit of legislation stated that any local authority seen to “promote” homosexuality as a “pretended family relationship” was liable to be prosecuted! Local officials were so shocked and alarmed by this that in Manchester, for instance, the librarians were told to remove all of the works of Oscar Wilde from their shelves.

McKellen has his own take on the motivation behind his knighthood: “There was no official citation; the endorsed reason was ‘for services to the performing arts,' but you know by then it was impossible to honour the actor without honouring the activist. I took it as a sign of optimism. Certainly other gay actors (Noel Coward springs to mind) had been given knighthoods but the difference was that I was out and they were not. And in most cases these awards came very late in the careers of gay actors. I was only the second openly gay man who had been knighted, the first being Angus Wilson the writer.”

The confrontation with HM government took the form of a huge press conference called by McKellen at which most of the significant people in the arts in Great Britain stated their outrage and despair at such a law, pointing out its breaches of human rights and direct contradiction of legislation which favoured equality, not to mention its dichotomous denial of the legislation legalizing homosexuality.

The House of Lords upheld Section 28, so was the fight over? “The fight really began there. It was understood that if such a thing were to happen again, from left field, as it were, you have to have in place an organization that can contact Parliament and counter it and until then that was not the case. Stonewall was born and rapidly established itself as an organized lobby group seeking to change opinion.”

McKellen is a co-founder of Stonewall, a gay rights lobby group in the United Kingdom, named after the Stonewall riots. He has also stood up for gay rights in very public and sometimes flamboyant ways. The closing of the 1994 Gay Games is a case in point. He introduced himself thusly: “Hello, I'm Sir Ian McKellen but you can call me Serena.” And in 2002 he took his then-boyfriend, kiwi Nick Cuthell, to the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood and the couple held hands during the evening, watched by millions.

But back to Section 28. Asked why he thought it took so long for New Labour to repeal this act in 2003, McKellen brought up a salient point. “There was never a case brought under this act, but I think because of all the fuss it did become an iconic piece of legislation, and people thought ‘...if Section 28 goes, what might follow?'”

A burning question in my own mind, as to whether or not New Zealand's America's Cup Challenge should've been sponsored by Emirates, the state airline of a country that so blatantly discriminates against homosexuals and women, was put to him and he likened it to his being uncertain as to whether he should've been performing in Singapore, another country which discriminates against gays, on this RSC tour. “I don't know really. You can take the high moral stand. I was very much pro the sanctions against South Africa during the fight to squash apartheid, even though the South Africans I knew were against them, as they felt that the boycotts really aided the establishment's case by keeping the opposition out of the country. You can't have it both ways and it puts the onus on gay and other civil rights organisations to make as much fuss as possible.”

And what about the shocking prohibition of Gay Pride marches in Poland and in Moscow? “Yes, Poland – a Catholic country that has survived communism. The Soviets weren't Nazis but lost sight of the manifesto, and the laws will now have to be amended in line with the requirements of the European Union; in Moscow, every gay should now declare a total ban on work for the whole of Gay Pride Week. Singapore, which I mentioned before, is now looking to repeal laws which say there cannot be openly gay marches and laws which say people cannot work there who are openly gay.”

Finally, how did he feel about the reception of the public and press after this landmark tour of the RSC, which rumours say his influence brought about? “Well, first of all I have to say I'm not a person who races to read the reviews, and I won't pretend that this theatre (The ASB Theatre at The Edge) is ideal. But yes, I've been heartened by the response this time around.”

Let's hope “…this time around” signals that he and this great company will return many times.

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