Sir Ian McKellen: coming out politicised me
Last night veteran gay rights campaigner and co-founder of Stonewall Sir Ian McKellen gave the keynote speech at the gay equality organisation’s annual Equality Dinner.
540 guests attended and more than £320,000 was raised.
For many people, the highlight of the evening was the following speech by Sir Ian, exploring the history of Stonewall and what its priorities are for the future.
“It was 20 years ago.
The biggest story regarding gay people in this country was about AIDS and our lives were beginning to become a matter of public discussion.
The media began to consider gay sex seriously and for the first time started publishing the truth about gay people’s lives.
And then the bombshell of Section 28:
“A local authority shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or promote the teaching in any school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.”
Some people in government saw Section 28 as part of the battle to try and prevent the disease.
“Don’t talk to teenagers about sex, in case they might try it,” seemed to be the theory.
In truth Section 28 was part of a wider argument between the centralising government and local authorities, who were beginning to spend modest sums on small ventures such as gay youth groups.
Margaret Thatcher’s view I think was we could have homosexuality but not on the rates, and that encouraged us to stick up for ourselves.
It was the suggestion of a lesbian friend of mine that I join the Arts Lobby, which was chaired the director of Gay Sweatshop at the time and he had the astounding idea of damning Section 28 not just with regard to gay people but freedom of speech.
We were part of a historic initiative in that group in which gay men took things into their own hands.
They argued and insisted that right was on their side and it was a righteous response to ensure the outlawing of brutish law.
Unwittingly Section 28 gave gay activists determination and campaigning against it gave us hope.
It was about this time we stopped wearing pink triangles, the symbol of oppression and started to wear the rainbow, the symbol of hope.
And the idea for a permanent professional lobby which would prevent the government ever again making a mess of gay lives was suggested to me by the unlikely figure of one of Mrs Thatcher’s Chief Whips.
It appealed to me because coming out had politicised me.
When I’d come out I’d heard about a whole group of people who I would never have met with whom I had something in common. I had joined a community.
And Michael Cashman had the idea of a permanent lobby too and so did the twenty or so family members, all of whom much more talented at drawing up constitutions and making them work than I was, or ever will be.
Under John Major we didn’t progress very much.
Major’s vision I think was to quietly placate with us so that we would all quietly get along with each other as well as we could.
He was an enabler but he only had a small majority and when he invited me to come and meet him in Downing Street, it was seen to be the first and some of his supporters were apoplectic.
“Meeting that terrible homosexual actor,” was Norman Tebbit’s summary of the situation.
I too for my part also got into trouble with Derek Jarman for appearing to take on single-handedly the representation of all gay people in this country, which wasn’t my idea at all.
At our meeting John Major promised nothing and simply delivered nothing, except possibly a sign of good intent.
Six years later I was back in serious politics again, with a brief from Stonewall under my arm and set to meet the leader of the opposition, three months before he became Prime Minister.
Blair had his jacket off and we sat together on the sofa, he had a pad and pencil and I reeled off the demands of Stonewall; there should be a review of Section 28, there should be an equal age of consent, there should be gays immediately admitted into the military and he wrote them all down with a tick by each one of them and said “we’ll do all that”.
And he said: “Further to that, we’re going to put you in the script.”
“What script is this?” I asked and he replied: “This is the script of the world I want to see for my grandchildren” and I said “I’m sorry Prime Minister but we can’t wait that long.”
And fortunately we didn’t have to and what’s more he threw civil partnerships into the bargain.
As for our current Prime Minister I’ve only met him once but it was on a good occasion, at the marriage between Michael Cashman and Paul Cottingham, who is here this evening.
So what is left to be done, I think the question I really want to ask.
There is certainly equality needed and I think we could leave Stonewall to get on with it as it’s done so well in the past.
Angela Mason set the agenda which is achieved and Ben Summerskill and his fantastic team are continuing in exactly the same spirit.
But what about social equality? Don’t they have it? Isn’t it established?
Paul O’Grady, John Barrowman, Alan Carr; they’re never off the box. Everything’s right with the world.
Well not quite because there’s always those sly subtle jocks on the radio who think of sexuality as a joke and a dirty one at that.
Freedom to be out in public.
Old Compton Street and the gay scene is terrific but I can’t help but think that the young and not so young revellers at Heaven or even at my local, the White Swan, actually go back to closeted lives and closeted workplace.
And it’s a brave couple that walks outside on the streets of the East End where I live and dramatically and tragically in 2003 Jodi Dubrowski was beaten to death on Clapham Common.
35 injuries, which meant he could only be recognised by his fingerprints. His murderers are in prison now for 28 years apiece.
Barack Obama has said of blacks in the United States something that I think may be true of the gay people in the United Kingdom.
The laws have changed in our favour.
Indeed civil partnership made us the only country that discriminates in favour of gay people as straights are not allowed to have a civil partnership.
But there is an undercurrent culture that emerges.
Barack Obama said that privately in bars or around kitchen tables, when the ugliness and ignorance and prejudice get together, make jokes, think that treating gays equally is just political correctness gone mad.
And from the pulpit, homophobia is preached, by some arrogant religious leaders who think that there beliefs are superior to our inborn and some would say God-given nature.
The Anglican union rejects a democratically elected openly gay bishop in North America because of the evangelical wing of the Anglican union in Africa, but couldn’t they listen to Archbishop Desmond Tutu?
Our Anglican church is almost obsessed with questions of human sexuality – why doesn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury demonstrate the particular attribute of God which is that God is a welcoming God?
Last month the Bishop of Motherwell addressed his flock and told them how appalled he was that I had received an honour and that 100 years ago I would have been imprisoned like Oscar Wilde.
He feels that the Roman Catholic Church is beleaguered in some way.
We neglect the gay lobby at our peril, he said.
And when a mother asked him what he would do if his child said that he had a mission to be gay, the Bishop of Motherwell replied, sympathising with the mother but not the child, “I would try to handle it with a degree of compassion but would not tolerate it.”
You can go on the internet and identify active gay groups of all religions. One of the first couples to take out a civil partnership were two Muslim lesbians dressed in hijabs.
The head of the Muslim Council of Britain denounced their partnership as harmful to society.
“It is something we would certainly not in any form encourage the community to be involved in.”
Incidentally things are, I hope, looking good for Mehdi Kazemi, who I wanted to be my partner here this evening, my date, but could not be because he is still in detention until the Home Office has reconsidered its decision to send him back to a very possible public execution in Iran, because he is gay.
In a sense these are internal theological arguments but they do affect the rest of us and God help those being educated at faith schools where the instances of homophobic bullying is higher than in other schools.
Stonewall’s next major campaign will be in schools, encouraging them to treat their gay members of staff and their gay pupils with understanding.
They have come up with 10 suggestions to deal with homophobia in schools and will start a league table rather like the diversity champions for companies.
Stonewall asked, what are we going to do with these billboards we have been offered around the country and the kids were asked and came up with the slogan ‘some people are gay, get over it’.
To coin a phrase ‘sex education, sex education, sex education’.
In the future, what can any of us do as individuals?
You can contact your old school and tell them isn’t it about time they started helping their gay students and staff. Ask them about their policies, they won’t have one.
You could vote for mayor of London, one of the leading candidates, an openly gay man, is here this evening.
You could vote for the gay-friendly straight man, or you could vote for the self-declared polymorphous pervert, you choose.
If you don’t have a firm that understands LGBT employees are of importance, tell them why they are.
And if you are the member of such a firm, why don’t you sponsor a young gay student through college?
Why don’t you contact the Albert Kennedy Trust, who look after homeless kids who have been thrown out by their families because they are gay?
Anything you do is of use. We all do what we can.
None of us can do anything more important for ourselves and then for our friends and our family and the community at large than to come out of the closet completely.
Complete that long journey that took me nearly 50 years and is these days taking teenagers a third of that time.
Where are all the high profile lesbians in the United Kingdom?
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Keep helping with the funding. Bid high at the auction. I thank you for listening, for being here tonight. Have a great evening.
Stonewall is a great cause.