Ian McKellen Writings

20 July 1993 | Through a Gay Viewfinder

Whether the question is moral, military or genetic, opinion-formers persist in seeing homosexual issues from a straight angle

"It’s not enough to be tolerated because, when the shit hits the fan, you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing. Underneath all the tolerance, is intense, passionate hatred" — the gay hero of Tony Kushner's play Angels In America

Some 120,000 lesbians and gay men held an open air party in London last month. After our annual Gay Pride March through the streets of the West End, we ended up in Brockwell Park. There was entertainment from bands, comics and soap stars. There were stalls promoting lobby groups, churches, Aids charities and nightclubs. Though maybe a few thousand supportive heteros came along for the fun, gays and lesbians were in the majority. Just for one day, the world was merrily turned upside down. For one day, we forgot the constraints which UK laws place on us. We were free, for example, to show the sort of open affection which the straight world takes for granted. Two men embracing in the streets can be found guilty of inciting a breach of the peace. But there were no arrests or disturbances in Brockwell Park.

Part of the point of Lesbian and Gay Pride is to remind ourselves and others that visible or not, we daily exist in every corner of society. I marched alongside a Methodist preacher hoping to persuade his church to ordain lesbian and gay ministers. Next to us were two gay students, whose teenage love affair breaks the law. There was a soldier, discharged from the Army when she told them she was lesbian. Nearby I met a gay social worker, a lesbian mother and a 75-year-old gay millionaire marching for the first time.

Gay Pride usually merits three lines on an inside page of the Sunday papers next day. This year, with a serial killer on the prowl, the "mainstream" (ie straight) press, radio and television decided we were a sensation worthy of banner headlines, above unrepresentative snapshots of drag queens in fancy dress.

Then, last week, gays again made the front pages. The National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, announced their discovery of a possible "gay gene" which might dispose some men to be gay from conception onwards. This was not the first such theory but the announcement was leapt upon with lurid enthusiasm across the media.

The scientists at Bethesda were quite clear — the causes of homosexuality may be both genetic and environmental. Genes have no monopoly on determining human behaviour. Predestination and free will go hand in hand. But science correspondents. leading articles and the letter pages would have none of that The one overriding issue was whether a mother should or should not have the right to abort her gay foetus.

In other words, what a problem we gays cause our parents. We don't provide them with grandchildren — but then the laws of adoption, fostering and donor insemination hugely discourage gay or lesbian parenting. We are assumed to lead unhappy, unstable and lonely lives (some of us do. unable to be honest at work where for the most part homosexuality is acceptable grounds for dismissal). All this talk of abortion might well unnerve the most well adjusted gay man. On Newsnight, Baroness Warnock cautioned that there might be need for laws against parents who proposed that ultimate sanction against the shame of having a gay child. I wonder how many more lesbian and gay young people, unable to face their parents' disapproval, are now considering the final solution to society's homophobia. It is already estimated that they are two or three times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual peers.

 There has been optimism too. Now that homosexuality may be as natural as a gene can be, mightn't this temper the censorious aggression of those who only define it in terms of "abnormalty", "perversion", "chosen life style" or, as her pastor recently told a lesbian friend, "Satan's temptation". Well, it doesn't take much scientific research to determine the colour of someone's skin or their gender but that hasn't discouraged discrimination against blacks or women.

So it was unsettling, but to gays unsurprising, that bigotry rapidly confounded the optimists. Lord Jacobovits, the former Chief Rabbi, rushed into print. Not withstanding any gene, "homosexuality is a grave departure from the natural norm which we are charged to overcome like any other affliction." Cardinal Basil Hume has just repeated the Vatican's condemnation of homosexual acts as "objectively wrong" and of homosexuals as "objectively disordered".

Age old prejudice dies hard: and not only in Britain. President Clinton, having accepted campaign contributions and votes from gays and lesbians, promised to lift the ban on their serving openly in the US armed forces. He soon tasted the intensity of institutionalised homophobia from the Pentagon. In his recent announcement of very minimal changes in the status of military gays, the President came as close as any political leader has ever come to saying "sorry". He said that, when first asked about the ban, "I had never had the opportunity to discuss it with anyone." He has now learnt that the issue "is already tearing the cohesion of the military." Never mind that there is scarcely an army in Nato that doesn't accept open homosexuals, "it is right for the military to be wary of sudden changes."

Again the familiar pattern of looking at a gay issue from a straight point of view. Whether the military should welcome homosexuals is discussed primarily in terms of placating prejudice rather than removing injustice. Gay soldiers cause problems to their commanders just as gay children do to their parents.

My initial reaction to the "gay gene" was to laugh. Since I was about 10,1 felt I was born gay; just as my parents, whom I didn't dare confide in, used to say I was a "born actor". Whatever it was, genetic, social, familial, environmental, consciously or unconsciously. everything happily conspired to form my sexuality. When I came out five years ago, some of my closest friends thought I was brave, even foolhardy. To be honest, that's not how it felt to me, after 49 years of half lying. Rather, it was a relief: an unnecessary millstone was lifted.

Now I have friends, half my age, who at the outset of their maturity and their careers, are establishing a new generation of openness. Two of these are currently challenging, in the European Court of Human Rights, the UK's unequal age of consent laws (16 for straights, 21 for gays. any age for lesbians). Hugo Greenhalgh is 20, his lover Will Parry is 25. They are therefore criminals and yesterday were questioned by police, deciding whether to arrest them. With the news that Mr Major is to give time for a free vote in Parliament on the age of consent, Greenhalgh and Parry have had more pressing concerns than the "gay gene".

Just a thought. How soon before expectant parents tell their friends: "It's twins. A boy and a girl. They're both going to be gay. We're calling them Michelangelo and Martina. We've painted the nursery lavender." — Ian McKellen

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