Singapore’s gay community began its Pride festival today with a message from Sir Ian McKellen, while censors have banned an exhibition featuring pictures of same-sex couples kissing.

In a video message, Lord of the Rings star McKellen said:

“It’s very important that gay people, wherever they are, should identify themselves, stick up for themselves, represent themselves, modestly and positively, so the rest of the world knows that we’re here and we’re not going to go away.”

Today marks the beginning of the third annual Singapore Pride festival.

The city-state’s censors denied the organisers of a Pride exhibition a licence because the photographs “promote a homosexual lifestyle,” Alex Au, founder of Singaporean gay rights group People Like Us, told AP.

According to Au, who shot the photographs, Kissing is a selection of 80 shots of fully clothed, same-sex couples.

“It’s absurd to think that gay people do not also kiss, and that representation of such a reality would be subversive,” said Mr Au.

The exhibition was to be part of a fortnight of Pride events, including film screenings, forums and lectures.

Mr Au said organisers have planned a lecture with a slide show of the photographs instead, as indoor gatherings in Singapore do not need a permit.

Singaporean authorities have banned gay films and public displays of homosexuality such as Pride events.

Despite this there is an open gay scene, with pubs and saunas.

The government said last year that oral and anal sex in private between consenting heterosexual adults would be decriminalised under Singapore’s first major penal code amendments in 22 years.

However, the penal code which criminalises “gross indecency” between two males will remain, the government said.

Last month, Sir Ian urged the country’s government to ditch the draconian colonial-era laws.

Male homosexuals in Singapore face a maximum of two years in prison for gay sex.

Sir Ian was in the country with the Royal Shakespeare Company to stage William Shakespeare’s King Lear and Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull.

In a promotional interview with a local radio station, he said:

“Just treat us with respect like we treat everybody else and the world will be a better place, I think.

“Coming to Singapore where unfortunately you’ve still got those dreadful laws that we British left behind… it’s about time Singapore grew up, I think, and realised that gay people are here to stay.”