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Coming Out

Ian McKellen in "Capital Gay" magazine
23 December 1988

I don't usually pay much attention to the year's end.  As a university graduate, I still expect new beginnings with the start of the academic calendar in the autumn.  As an actor, too, my last 27 years have tended to brighten about then, with the traditional opening of the theatre season.  But for one reason and another, I've not cared to do much acting in 1988.  These reasons - more fulfilling than any career prospects - dawned on me just 12 months ago, so that now it's appropriate to remember some of the people who have contributed to the best yet of my 50 years. 

First Carole Woddis, who tackled me as 1 was collecting in a bucket for the Lomdon Lighthouse on January 4th.  With a gentleness which belied the urgency of her message, she introduced me to that nasty and brutish Clause 27, which, five- months later, turned into the slightly shorter but equally gross Section 28 of the Local Government Act.  Unless you've been hibernating, you know all about that law, which inhibits EVEN decent local authorities from providing lesbians and gays with any sense that they belong in Thatcher's benighted, old-fashioned regime. 

A year ago, I was one of those men, content to be gay, but unaware that I might have any relevance to the lives of other gays, whose lives are more vulnerable than mine to homophobia.  I'd never joined a Gay Pride March; ignorant even of the significance of the word 'Stonewall.'  Nor had I ever read Capital Gay!  Carole took me to meet the Arts Lobby, the sort of people I like best - articulate, funny and concerned.  Their concern, in January, was to fight Section 28 by highlighting its threat of censoring the arts. 

Most of them were gay — those who weren't lesbians, that is.  Sharing their views and under their guidance, I became a trainee activist.  Perhaps one or two of them suspected that they had kidnapped me, like Patty Hearst; that I wasn't really a believer.  At least I felt that of myself.  Ever since 1 was eight and fell from the gods of the Manchester Palace Theatre as I fell in love with Ivor Novello, I'd been an actor before anything else.  Yet there I was, with those tireless arts-lobbyists, meeting daily in the smokey bar of the London Drill Hall, plotting to attack the Government on behalf of all lesbians and gays, attacking censorship and, selfishly, that part of Section 28 which could affect my livelihood.

But you should know, I'm no radical and I'm easily led.  Enter into Broadcasting House, Peregrine Worsthorne, editor of The Sunday Telegraph.  Week after week last winter, he was viciously parading his ignorance of homosexuality on the leader page.  On air, we debated the new law and, riled by the bland pomposity of his homophobia, and, honestly, without thinking, I mentioned to those few thousands who tune into Radio 3, that I opposed Section 28 because I was gay. 

That I had actually come out probably surprised me more than my being gay can have shocked any listener who knew my work.  Indeed, some of them have written to say that they'd known I was gay for years and couldn't care less.  When I told my step-mother, soon after, she said the same.  My friends had always known; so had my fellow actors, because backstage there are few secrets.  But I'd always avoided saying I was gay to the media - even to the gay press - insisting that my private life was my own.  My complacency had involved nothing more embarrassing than the occasional white lie about not being married - I was never, though, one to talk about looking for the right girl and relishing parenthood. 

The scales had been lifted in San Francisco six months before, when I met up with the author of Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin and with his lover Terry Anderson.  I talked with them about their friends Christopher Isherwood and Rock Hudson and about being gay in California, openly or in the closet.  Isn't there something about 'closet' which is too openly glamorous and scented?  A more redolent phrase would be "in the cupboard," where things are claustrophobic, moth-eaten and go stale and where there is nothing more lively than a skeleton. 

Armistead and Terry had asked me why I wasn't out: and then, in part, answered their own question by noting that there wasn't a single leading actor in the world who was.  (Don't tell Simon Callow!)

Good acting is so dependent on projecting sexuality, that American film producers don't risk confusing an audience's fantasies by allowing their stars publicly to be anything but straight as Hollywood Boulevard.  And in the British theatre too, even 40 years after Gielgud was named, we are not allowed to declare which half of our best actors here are privately lesbian or gay.  (Half our theatre impresarios, too - and half the theatre critics.)

In San Francisco, I learnt that coming-out was crucial to self esteem -- why hadn't any British friend helped me understand that?  And I accepted the argument, that people who thrived in society's mainstream and had access to the media, could, by telling the truth, help others in the backwaters, whose views were never sought and whom society either ignored or abused.  An actor is protected more than most.  These days, I daily make this point to anyone who will listen, because when I eventually accepted it on the BBC, it changed my life forever for the better.

Lots of fun followed.  The Arts Lobby held a momentous news conference, which was the best show of the year.  I marched with Michael Cashman, Stifyn Parri, Peter Tatchell and 20,000 other friends through Manchester, wearing my "Out and Proud" t-shirt.  At Westminster, I met our lawmakers -- and remembered their words: The Minister -- "I don't understand why young homosexuals need their own clubs -- why can't they mix with everybody else of their own age?"  The Whip in the Commons -- "I'm sorry about Section 28 -- it's just a bit of red meat thrown to our right-wing wolves."  The Whip in the Lords -- "I'm sorry about Section 28 -- but you appreciate my job is just to get our chaps to vote the right way." 

I was in the public gallery when the abseilers landed and, to quote Jenny Wilson, brought the camp back into campaigning.  The night it all ended, a few of us from the Arts Lobby got drunk with a bunch of sympathetic MPs, turning the Commons Bar into the gayest in town. — Ian McKellen, in Capital Gay, 23 December 1988

 


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