FEATURE IAN McKELLEN
One of the most eminent campaigners for the cause of gay and lesbian rights is heading an all-star line-up at a showcase gig for Glasgay! Mark Fisher talks to Sir Ian McKellen.
ir Ian McKellen is a quiet kind of crusader. You don’t see him throwing bricks or chaining himself to railings; no ranting or swearing, no shouting abuse. A knighted elder- statesman of the acting community, McKellen is eminently polite in that cool, uniquely British manner, perhaps a little vague, but never less than charming. Yet since he publicly came out in 1988, this calm, thoughtful gentleman has become a tireless and crucially inﬂuential campaigner for gay rights at home and abroad; ﬂying 400 miles to join a low-key student lunchtime debate with the same commitment he brings to a discreet téte- a-téte with the PM; donating his services to a US movie exposé of the Reagan era’s complicity in suppressing AIDS information with the same degree of selﬂessness as his involvement in the Stonewall Group’s lobbying work.
True to form, he’s headlining a beneﬁt gig at Glasgow’s Citizens’ Theatre as part of the city- wide gay arts festival, Glasgay! Alongside an expanding list of performers, including Horse, Simon Fanshawe and Martin Sherman, McKellen will be demonstrating his formidable acting skills with, we hope, a few choice chunks of Shakespeare — his one-man highlights-of-the-Bard show was rapturously received when it toured to Scotland a few years ago — and with a little persuasion, a brief reprise of his role in Sherman’s Bent with colleague and former Eastenders star, Michael Cashman.
I meet McKellen at Edinburgh University after he’s successfully helped carry the Debating Society motion — one lone voice is heard in protest — that the age of consent should be the same for hetrosexuals as it is for homosexuals. His seven minutes on the floor are eloquent and persuasive — as if persuasion is needed -— but his is no show-stopping
performance, merely a contribution as valid and as worthy as any other. ‘Why I like coming up to these debates,’ he says, ‘is not for my own contribution, but for listening to the spirit of people who are so clear about what they think at an age when l was quite neurotic and not talking about it to anybody.’
It’s not only modesty that makes McKellen so self-effacing, his true vocation is as an actor and the role of campaigner has been taken up largely through circumstance. Does he feel it a burden, then, to carry the weight of homosexual oppression? ‘Well I hope less and less,’ he says. ‘lt’s really a part I never wanted to play and I don’t think I do it particularly well. I’m learning all the time. I come here and think, “Oh, I’ve got to make a big speech,” but of course, my speech wasn’t the point of the day; the point was the students themselves knew exactly what they were talking about from their own experiences.’
People now are so clear about what they than at an age when I was quite neurotic and not talklng about It to anybody.
McKellen points out that a recent opinion poll found that 74 per cent of people believe that the age of homosexual consent should be lowered, a statistic that suggests a substantial shift in public opinion. The law, of course, is still in place, and for as long as it is, along with the repressive Section 28, young men’s lives will be put at risk as a result of ghettoisation and inadequate education about the threat of HIV. Nonetheless, the proﬁle and image of homosexuality has improved signiﬁcantly in recent years; it has become perfectly acceptable for BBC2 to pin its autumn season hopes on an adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s swinging San Francisco Tales of the City novels, no soap opera is complete without a friendly
neighbourhood gay, and Glasgow is producing a major homosexual festival with country-wide council support.
So are things getting better? ‘Yes,’ says McKellen. ‘I am an optimist and to work in this sphere you have to be conﬁdent that you can have some effect. The changes in the attitude of the media are quite pronounced in the last ﬁve years. I’m not conversant enough with the Scottish press, but certainly in England The Independent is regularly carrying stories from the gay point of view; the debate in the Cambridge Union on this same motion was not only on Newsnight, it was on breakfast television; Joan Bakewell is doing a Heart of the Matter on the age of consent, so is Kilroy. They really see that this is a human interest story that the public at large wants to know more about.
‘There’s much more openness, that’s where I sense a big change and I think it’s all going to come together. Then one realises how out of touch politicians are with their constituents. Just after we’d started Stonewall I went in to John Major and presented a whole catalogue of law reform that would only begin to remove the disadvantages that gays and lesbians actually feel. He listened mainly in silence because, as he said himself, he was ignorant of these problems and he wanted to hear what the concerns were. It was an honest but disheartening admission. I think Stonewall and other groups who now have regular access to ministers and opposition members of parliament are making an impact, because they are educating them. We have, on a number of issues, crucially changed their minds.’
As well as politicians, the arts can play a substantial part in shifting people’s attitudes and awareness. McKellen has never restricted himself in the kind of roles he takes, though bit-parts in Tales of the City, the forthcoming Six Degrees of Separation and the controversial And the Band Played 0n indicate where his heart lies. Again, there have been important developments in recent years, though there’s still room for improvement. ‘Angels in America, which had its ﬁrst major production at the National Theatre, won the Tony Award,’ he says about Tony Kushner’s gay play. ‘That is the Play of the Year on Broadway at the moment. The leading actor is an out gay man and so is the director. I can remember in 1980 when I took my boyfriend to the Tony Awards the year I won, people came up to me and said how brave I was to be seen in public with my partner; others said how foolish. It didn’t feel like that to me because I’d been doing it at home for years.
‘I look forward to the time when there’s an openly gay man running the Edinburgh Festival, instead of, as has happened in the past,’ he says, naming no names, ‘a number of closeted gay men running it. I think that’s bound to happen. Theatre people are coming out more and more.’
But for all this optimism, it is going to take a long time before society fully comes to terms with the idea that sexual preference is really no big deal. ‘I asked the debate in Cambridge,’ says McKellen, ‘how many people felt they had had an adequate sex education at school. Two people said they had. Underneath the tip of that iceberg is an awful lot of misery and confusion.’
A Show for Glasgay!, Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, Sun 31 Oct.
14 The List 22 October—4 November 1993