Ian McKellen Writings

1996 | Before, Now and In Between

There is a fantasy as old as the modern gay rights movement, that if all our skins turned lavender overnight the majority, confounded by our numbers and our diversity and recognising a few of our faces, would at once let go of prejudice for evermore.

In the United Kingdom today, the reality is that closet doors are opening, gingerly or defiantly, all over the place but not yet at such an enthusiastic rate that the imminent fulfillment of gay rights is inevitable. The powers that be are not yet convinced that we are a force to be reckoned with.

Meanwhile, some of us lobby and some try to frighten the horses and together we make steady but minimal progress toward equality under the law. The recent wholesale repeal of leftover English anti-gay statutes by the Irish Parliament is an inspiration. This seems to have been achieved without the benefit of a popular national campaign. That's not surprising, when anyone openly objecting to the old laws on his own behalf would have been declaring himself a criminal.

On the other hand we can also be inspired by the tactics of activists in the USA, who are funded by very large numbers of supporters. Together they have forced Congress, the Presidency and the media to debate and re-stress the basis of their constitution: all men are created equal. There is an abundance of gay rights organisations, recruiting in every state. When these groups work together, as they did for the 1993 march on Washington, they produce a miracle akin to skins turning lavender.

The media coverage was ubiquitous. The Washington story, for those marching as well as for those watching on cable television, was of a mighty coalition from every area of gay life, united in their demand for justice. Leading the parade was a collection of good and famous people none of them more dominant than any of the million who walked behind. This popular movement didn't need a lone leader. Heaven preserve us from a Fuhrer, a pope or even a martyred King.

Rainbow-striped balloons, streamers, flags, ribbons and sashes decorated the route. Men and women were half-naked. It was too hot for too many costumes. Judging from the hugely supportive bystanders, only a handful of crackpots objected that we had completely taken over the nation's capital, so that wherever you went, the straights were bent for a day. From the rally stage, with the Capitol's dome for a backcloth, the rhetoric flowed through the loudspeakers along the Mall to the George Washington monument. Old campaigners like Larry Kramer and new ones like Maitina Navrátilová. There were professional politicians - Jesse Jackson, the two out-gay congressmen - and a recorded message from Senator Kennedy, weekending with his new bride up north. But in the nation of big showbusiness, where were the big performers?

It's a sad fact that there isn't yet one leading American actor of either sex who is out. Movie agents and Hollywood executives are falling out or being pushed out of their closets. They ostentatiously fund pro-gay enterprises. But the stars themselves just won't twinkle.

Over the years there has been a long list of emigré gay Brits who have acted in Los Angeles. To a man and to a woman they too have nestled down in the cosy closet of the Califomian sunshine, unshamed by their proximity to Christopher Isherwood and David Hockney. Only posthumously has Cary Grant (from Bristol) been identified and, with less confidence, Laurence Olivier in the latest biography. (Joan Plowright says that her husband was latterly boastful about his sexual adventures and would surely have included the spice of Danny Kaye, had there actually been an affair. Anyway she says, "we must get love wherever we can'.)

There is a middle-aged British actress who used to introduce herself at London benefits by name, adding, 'and I'm a dyke'. Now that she is in the movies, she isn't out any longer and, with no joy, has wittingly entered the Hollywood closet, policed by the commercial need that we should all be the same, so that we shall all buy the same.

She's like another British colleague who during rehearsal for a Broadway show confided that he wasn't gay in New York. That was twelve years ago. When Sean Mathias and I went to the end-of-season Tony awards ŕ deux, we were clandestinely congratulated for our daring in being out together. "Well, if you share a home and a bed, you might as well share a couple of complimentary tickets. Today, America is awash with openly gay playwrights. Their example and the bravery of people with HIV/AIDS are beginning to transform the very close society of New York theatre and a few eminent young stage actors have also come out. That is possible because Broadway and off-Broadway are a community. By contrast, Hollywood and its suburbs are a commercial conglomerate.

I am proud to belong to a growing group of openly gay theatre people in the UK. Some of the most productive theatre enterprises are artistically run by them: Greenwich, the Lyric Hammersmith, the Royal Court, Stratford East, Cheek-by-Jowl, DV8, Gay Sweatshop and the managements of Michael Codron and Cameron Mackintosh. There are actors, too, across the generations from Simon Russell-Beale and Anthony Sher to Alec McCowen and Nigel Hawthorne. Yet, even at a time of lesbian chic, there isn't a leading lesbian theatre actress of any age who is out in the UK. Should we expect otherwise? 'It's hard enough surviving as a woman in British theatre. Don't ask me to be a dyke as well!' This from a renowned actress who is out to her family, friends and working colleagues. So she tries to protect her job prospects with a lie.

Famous actors have long promoted non-theatre causes. Edward Alleyn spent a fortune 500 years ago on education. Fanny Kemble campaigned against slavery. The Redgraves publicised the PLO. Anthony Hopkins has acknowledged his debt to Alcoholics Anonymous. Brian Rix abandoned farce to run MENCAP and has now joined Attenborough in the House of Lords. In the Commons, Gyles Brandreth and Glenda Jackson have followed Andrew Fauids into the fray. Tenniel Evans is an actor-priest. With the same combination of private impulses and public service, some actors now work for gay rights. But we are outnumbered by others who, not hesitating to do an AIDS benefit or be photographed signing a poll tax petition, yet continue to disguise their sexuality even in their autobiographies. What a joy not to be part of that any longer.

At the outset of their careers, there are two obvious types of theatre actor: the super-confident seeking an extra outlet for their exhibitionism and the under-confident like me. I was attracted to the security of daily rehearsals, so that for three hours each evening on stage the confusion of everyday life was kept at bay. Looking back, my own confusion lay in society's disapproval of me. When I became an actor in 1961, it was illegal for me to make love. Ever since I had fallen for Ivor Novello when I was nine, I had wanted to work in the theatre, where I expected to meet other queers. I did.

Working in regional theatre in the 1960s, I missed swinging London and never discovered gay bars. When the law was somewhat relaxed in 1967, I noted that my rôle models, freed from the threat of blackmail, still didn't declare themselves. I half-believed that Gertrude Lawrence really was Noel Coward's greatest love. Later, I didn't realise that Gay Liberation was fighting for my freedom. My closet was comfortable, protected by the family structure of theatre companies, in which each person's individuality was celebrated. If Betty Bourne or Martin Sherman ever suggested that I come out like them when I worked with them, I was too engrossed in my career to hear them.

I believed the nonsensical convention that audiences wouldn't accept a young actor in a straight romantic part if they knew he was gay. Does that mean that a law-abiding actor can't play a convincing murderer? Michael Winner considered me for a film in 1966 and asked if I was gay. I prevaricated long enough for him to say that 'queers often make the best screen lovers'. Twelve years on, Sam Spiegel offered me the lead in a Pinter screenplay but hastily withdrew it when I mentioned my boyfriend.

Meanwhile, in the theatre, I had played three wonderful gay roles: Marlowe's Edward II, Shaffer's farcical queen in Black Comedy and Max in Sherman's Bent. The dimmest theatregoer could have drawn the correct conclusion. At the time, I agreed with John Schlesinger, who used to think there was no need for him to come out, as his work made it obvious that he was gay. Conversely, when Simon Callow discussed his homosexuality in press interviews, the journalists declined to report it. He eventually managed to get himself out, by writing his own book!

The straight media has long wavered between thinking of homosexuality as a libel or a chastisement. That didn't, every so often, prevent their dropping hints about me. The Daily Express used to misplace the apostrophe by calling me "The Queens' favourite actor'. The Sunday Telegraph posted me on a list of 'unobtainable bachelors' alongside David Hockney and Rudolf Nureyev. The Guardian mentioned that I shared my home with another man. I was spared the indignity of a tabloid expose because I wasn't newsworthy. No journalist ever asked me whether I was gay, not even Nicholas de Jongh. If he had, I might have asked him the same.

I finally came out of my own accord in 1988.1 had spent the previous year working all over the USA. My last stop was California. In San Francisco, three men helped me decide to come out. Steve Beery had been Harvey Milk's lover at the time of his assassination. Like Steve, Terry Anderson was a determined gay activist and helped organise the annual Pride parade out of the Castro district. His partner, Armistead Maupin, was still writing his Tales of the City sextet. All three lives concentrated on gay politics and their example to me was clear: until you're out you don't know what you are missing. So it proved for me and, as far as I can see, for everyone else who ever came out. My three godfathers in San Francisco also stressed the absence of any out American actors but we realised that at 49,1 was well enough established to resist any backlash of disapproval from employers, critics or fans. So it proved.

What I hadn't anticipated was the support system in waiting, as for converts backstage at a revivalist mission. I've made new friends galore who work among the 500 specifically lesbian and gay groups in the UK. Of late, gay-oriented commerce is thriving against the tide of recession. In Soho, there are the sproutings of the first exclusively gay area in central London. There does, after all, seem to be a powerfully pink pound. I help to spend it on gay literature, on as much gay theatre as possible and in my gay local pub.

That is now. I didn't do these things before. Before and now and, in between, saying 'As a gay man' was much less daunting than having to tell Gladys, my Quaker stepmother for forty years. That involved a trip to her home in the Lake District. We drove out into the friendly hills, the most beautiful in the world. I began with a warning that I had something important to tell her. She ended it by saying, 'I thought it was going to be something dreadful. I've always known you were gay.' 'Poor Gladys,' said an ancient friend of hers, 'now she'll have to leave the village.' Of course she didn't. Anyway the Society of Friends has an impeccable record on gay issues. My relationship with Gladys has never been so loving.

Friendships and working for equality through Stonewall have filled an emotional vacuum of which I hadn't been aware. If I'm also a better actor because of that, I shouldn't be surprised.

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