Matthew’s Place
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Matthew’s Place

From the Archives: Interview with Sir Ian McKellen

This interview was from 2010 and was conducted by former MSF Programs Manager Thomas Howard, Jr.

T: Hi, Mr. McKellen. Thomas again with the Matthew Shepard Foundation.

I: Yes. How are you?

T: [So this conversation is] going to go on our website for young people, MatthewPlace.com. The Foundation created this website as a place to offer resources, tools, and insights for young people to lead healthy, productive, hate-free lives. That’s sort of the mission of us as an organization and what Judy, Dennis, and Logan Shepard wanted to do, to create Matt’s legacy … just to give you a bit of background. And Judy also asked me to pass along her gratitude. She is a great admirer of you and your work.

I: Give her my love, will you?

T: I will do that. One of the things that we see a lot with young people is the idea of helping them [learn about] individuals who have been successful and honest about who they are, regardless of what other people thought of them. So I guess my first question for you is, if you’re willing to tell us a little bit about how you came to understand and accept your own sexuality? If you’re comfortable talking about that.

I: Yes. Well, for young people, it was all a long, long time ago (laughs). And when I was in my early teens at the time — when these days many young people have accepted their own sexuality — I knew that I was gay, although it was a word that wasn’t used in the 1950s, in the north of England; the word then was “queer.” That was the word that had been assigned to us by society, and we accepted it ourselves that we were “queer” — not only different, but in some sense abnormal. And that was not a comfortable thing to say about yourself. It seemed to be negative rather than a positive, and that was reinforced by the fact that there was nothing around me to present a positive point of view. There were no refuges, like bars and clubs where you could meet other gay people. There were no magazines, there was no Matthew Shepard Foundation, there was nothing positive in the newspapers or even much in standard literature. You couldn’t go to the public or school library and get a book out and read about others’ experiences. So you felt very, very, very much alone. And I think that’s a big difference for people today — that when people come out today, it can be with a positive confidence that their own experience has been already gone through a thousand, a million times by other men and women throughout the world. It didn’t feel like that in those days. And so I sort of jogged along and went along with society’s condemnation of my sexuality and only eventually felt happy about the situation when I was in my early twenties, having been through university, where I met other gay people, although it was again not something we talked about very much. It was only really when I started acting and, and in the life of British theatre, realized that there were gay people — all of us closeted, because, until I was 29 years old it was illegal to make love, and so I was a criminal every time I did that. And although I lived openly with partners and we went out in public together and had gay and straight friends and lived relatively normal lives, you knew that was something that society as a whole didn’t approve of. And so you lived, not a secret life, in my case, but an unspoken life. And it was only when I was as old as 49 years old, whilst others had been campaigning for law reform and the Stonewall Riots had happened in New York City and inspired people all over the world to do something about their own situation, that I joined in, over a particular piece of bad legislation inhibiting in British schools even the discussion, in a positive way, of homosexuality.

T: Was that Section 28?

I: That’s notorious Section 28. I came out, and in publicly attacking that law, I found it easier to do so by saying “I’m fighting on my own behalf because I’m a gay man.” And as that was the case with, I think, every gay person I’ve ever met, it was the best thing I ever did. I played Gandolf, but the best thing I ever did was to come out.

T: Was there any trepidation that you had when you were deciding to make that decision?

I: No. But I think I had been through it before that. I’d thought as an actor, “Oh, if I come out and say I’m gay, it’s going to make it less easy for me to get work, or at least for people to accept that I might play the lovelorn Romeo in love with Juliet, when in reality I would probably be more attracted to Mercutio.” But it was an excuse, and I was a victim of homophobia. I think homophobia is difficult to define, but you can always recognize it. It’s a fear of homosexuality, and there are no more homophobic people in the world than gay people in the closet. They’re victims of it. So, by the time I came out, my career was so established, I’d already been recognized as an actor, and that excuse didn’t apply to me any more. So I didn’t really have any worries about it and, in fact, my career as a film actor took off almost immediately and (laughs), and it’s been, as far as I can work out ,absolutely no disadvantage at all. But I wasn’t trying to play a romantic lead in Hollywood. I was 49 years old, and I was a British stage actor, and it’s very different.

T: Right. You know, we see a lot of young people today who are becoming very angry and frustrated here in the States over issues such as marriage, and employment discrimination, and “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” What thoughts would you provide to them on the best way to harness that frustration they are feeling in a way that they can effect the most change?

I: Yeah. Well, speaking personally I think it isn’t always enough to come out and say you’re gay, and be happy about saying you’re gay, and expect other people to accept you as you are. As long as there’s one person in the world who you couldn’t openly talk to about [it], you’re still, in a sense, closeted. You have to absolutely eradicate any inhibition which would stop you being honest. I’m not absolutely convinced that all people who think they are out have actually done that. And even to this day, if I’m in a taxi — and English taxi drivers like to talk — if they ask me about my supposed grandchildren, or my wife or something, sometimes I decide not to have that conversation. And I edit what I say. Even I feel that I am not absolutely, completely, totally out, because there are situations when I decide to be discreet. However, there are situations a gay person might find themselves in where it would be dangerous to say that they were gay. So I don’t know. Until you can totally stand resolutely on your own two feet, and be brave enough to do that, then you can’t get on with the business of changing the world. But you will change the world by absolutely taking hold of your own self-worth. Now what should you do about the things that make you angry, and the laws which exist to make you feel a second-class citizen? There are, thank goodness today, plenty of organizations you can join, where like-minded people, straight as well as gay, are fighting to change the world in obvious ways, like changing the laws. And, you know, Americans live in a flourishing democracy and there’s plenty opportunities to do that. But, actually you may change the world in more, less-spectacular ways than changing the laws. By being open, by insisting on having the conversation, by if you hear what you think to be a homophobic attitude, like with friends, or employers, or employees, or associates, to challenge it in a rational way. And the beauty about that is that you can know, with absolute certainty, that you are right. There are not many things in this world, there are not many positions you can take, where you can be absolutely certain that you’re right. I mean, we can argue ’til the cows come home as to whether British and American forces should’ve gone into Iraq, or what they should do while they’re there. There’s always a discussion to be had. We can’t be absolutely certain that we’re advocating the right thing. But when it comes to the principle of gay people being treated on equal terms with the rest of society — anyone who argues that position is right, and knows they’re right. And they don’t have to be violent about it, they just have to be confident about it. And it is that confidence that is increasing amongst young people, and is very, very welcome. But of course with it comes distress and indeed anger, when that confidence is not met by understanding by people who are in a position to change laws, etcetera.

T: Right, right. Well I always ask two questions to young people who are disagreeing with me. I always ask, “Well, how does it directly affect your life that I am gay?” And no one can give me an answer. Or, “How would it directly affect your life if I was able to marry another man?” You know, the idea that if you don’t want me to force my values and judgments on you, than don’t force yours on me. Let’s have a conversation about what makes us different.

I: That’s a very cogent argument, and what’s beautiful about it is, it’s rational. And, when you make that point and it can’t be answered, you know you’ve won the argument. Whether you’ve changed their mind is another matter. That’s when you come up against homophobia. When a church leader, whether he is a pope, or an Imam, or a bishop, or an evangelical self-styled preacher says that God is on his side when he — it’s usually a he — considers gay people to be less than a slave population, what he’s expressing is not the teachings of his God, but it’s an expression of homophobia. I think that’s a point that can’t be made too often. People think they are defending marriage by attacking the idea of gay people getting married. People think that they’re defending their religion by attacking homosexuality on some sort of principle. No, they’re not doing that, they’re just expressing their homophobia. So that when a young actor in Hollywood wonders whether to come out or not, it’s homophobia that’s holding him back. And the same would be true of a politician, a young politician, or a young teacher, or anybody. The Army, you know, in this country as in yours, thinks that they’re a special case. “You don’t understand that it’s very, very difficult for us to organize our armed forces around the idea of gay people serving.” No it isn’t. You don’t have a special problem. What you’ve got is homophobia, and once you realize that, you will do the rational thing and you will get rid of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” I have to say, that the British armed forces don’t seem to have defended into a rabble because they allowed gays and lesbians to serve. There are now people getting out in this country getting civil partnerships, and their partners are living on-site in barracks, in married quarters alongside other soldiers who have their wives with them or their husbands. So it’s a lie that American armed forces couldn’t cope with homosexuality. They could. They don’t because they listen to the arguments of people who simply don’t like, or who are frightened of, homosexuality.

T: Well I have to say, I was at a college in central Texas speaking this past weekend and you actually crossed my mind, particularly the comments you made regarding athletes. And I had the privilege, and was blown away, to speak to a group of 700 college athletes about the issues of equality and hate. And I have to say that, for us, that’s a population that we see a lot of issues in, particularly around hate and intolerance. What do you feel the impact would be if there were professional athletes that chose to be honest while they were still playing, I mean there are some that have come out after they retired, but what do you think that impact would be on this population.

I: Well, I don’t know that culture well enough. But, again, I don’t think there’s anything particular about the athletics community, or the sporting community, or the acting community, or the church community. If they don’t like gay people coming out, it’s because they are homophobic. There are no special reasons. And we hear that, well, if a football player were to come out, he would be subject to abuse from the terraces. Is that a reason for him not to come out? There just seems to be a culture within some sporting circles which finds homosexuality a difficult problem. But, the difficulty they have with it is the same difficulty that the church has with it. It’s exactly the same. And of course their lives will be better, because the impact that coming out has, initially, is on the person who comes out, and that is the most precious thing that happens. Society, of course, changes, because his or her friends and families know about it and become at ease with it, and so the world becomes better, little by little. I talked recently to Gareth Thomas, who is the captain of the Welsh rugby, you know. One of the leading athletes in the world, and he came out and I met him, and he said, “Ian, I have to tell you, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.” Well, and that may be the end of the story as far as he’s concerned, and I hope he gives heart to young kids who are just going into professional athletics and sports to realize that the world has changed. How you go about effecting change, I’m not sure. You probably have to go to the people who run the sports organizations and get them to accept — as they would now have to accept in my country anyway, because it is illegal to discriminate against anyone, in the provision of goods and services, or in the matter of employment. And so, it must be absolutely clear from the sports authorities that there will be no disadvantage, whatsoever, in coming out. Now whether there will be from their fans? I just have to study why I get more letters of a sexual nature from women than I do from men. Take of that what you will.

T: Well I have to say that what we’ve noticed in our work, is that when someone can make a personal connection, it no longer becomes about “those people.” So what we’ve seen, you know, on a sports team is, when a teammate comes out, it no longer becomes okay to say those jokes, because you are talking about your teammate, or you are talking about your brother, or your sister, or your aunt, or your uncle. So for us, the greatest way that we have seen to effect change is simply by living our lives; and letting people see from our example the way that we want to be treated. And I know that your time is precious, so just one more question then I’ll let you go. Do you have projects that you’re currently working on that you’re excited about?

I: Do you mean as an actor?

T: Yes, as an actor, or as an activist …

I: Yeah, I’m currently in a play, “Waiting for Godot,” in London. I have already given 300 performances, and I have another hundred to go, and then they’re bringing that to Australia and New Zealand. And then I’ll probably stay on there and join in the filming of The Hobbit, which is the pre-cursor of Lord of the Rings, so I’ll be back playing Gandolf again. But, I’m also, in my spare time visiting schools in the UK, of all sorts. Some of them are faith schools, most of them are funded by public money, the sort of ordinary schools that ordinary people send their kids to. They’re not private schools, and they’re all subject to the new laws in the country, and they’re all busy trying to understand how to accept, within their midst, gay people. Whether they are on the staff, whether they are the pupils, or whether they are the parents of the pupils. And when you have a situation where gay people can take out a civil partnership and legally bring up, and adopt, children, those children, usually going to be straight, cannot hear at school that their parents have less worth than the straight parents of their friends. And, there’s now a rapidly changing culture within schools of acceptance, and celebration, of difference. And as one teacher told me in a Church of England school, the Episcopal Church as it were, “Our religion says that we should be nice to each other, simple as that. And accepting of each other.” And what’s happening is that because kids are now reading positive stories about homosexuality, when they realize that the law is on the side now of accepting equality between all people regardless of their sexuality — they are emboldened to accept their difference themselves, and come out, as young as 13 or 14. The problem comes less at school, where they are much more easily accepted than in the past, but more likely from their parents who perhaps haven’t quite caught up with what’s happening in the world outside. So the big movement’s happening within British schools, and I love going around and seeing what’s happening. This is not just acceptance of lesbians and gay men, but of transgender kids as well.

T: Well I have to say that I spend most of my time traveling around the States doing something very similar, and the movement we see is here. Young people get it.

I: Young people get it.

T: It’s how do we help them gain the skills to educate the people that are older than them.

I: That’s right. Well I don’t know if it’s true in the States, but increasingly kids here are elected by their peers to sit on school councils, that then have discussions with the teachers on the way the schools are run, so they have enormous input. And I’ve seen kids talking about sexuality in forums that I’ve visited, and around the edges of the meeting have been observing teachers whose jaws have dropped as they hear what the kids have to say, and what they understand about human relations. So, I’m increasingly optimistic. But one hard thing is that the more kids feel that it is their right to be themselves, and express themselves, and declare themselves, because they see Ellen Degeneres on television, they visit your website and they think the world has changed, the world is safe — unfortunately it isn’t, and so there are more kids than ever being thrown out of their homes by parents who don’t understand. Not because there are more gay people around, but there are more young gay people who are confident, and feel it’s their right to be accepted as themselves. So, historically we are in a period of flux. And things move forwards, and then they move backwards. But on the whole the movement is in the right direction, at least in the West. What happens in Africa is another matter, and the old Soviet countries, Eastern Europe, very difficult. There are not many countries that gay people can happily live in and know that they are going to be safe and treated as equals.

T: I have to say again, a very heartfelt thank-you from us, because I know that young people that I come in contact with, particularly young actors, think very highly of you and are inspired by your honesty. And should you find yourself in the States for a time, I know that we at the Foundation would love to partner on some school visits here in the States as well, and really keep you involved in what we are doing. So I can’t thank you enough for your time…

I: It’s a pleasure.

T: And please let us know if we can support your work in any way.

I: Thank you very much. And I should also say that after the dreadful tragedy of Matthew’s death, I am very proud that it should’ve been a group of actors who have helped to bring his story to the rest of the world. “The Laramie Project” is one of the great plays, and not just because of what it is, but because of how it happened. If at times we think, “Oh dear, people in show business don’t understand and don’t care,” looking at Hollywood for example — well, “The Laramie Project” proves that we are not all the same.

T: Judy would tell you we do a lot of work with schools and communities doing the show. Judy would tell you that “The Laramie Project” is Matt’s Legacy. So she is very honored. And I’m going to be sending you a copy of her book that she signed for you that she wants for me to pass along to you.

I: Well thank you. I would like very much to read it, yes, thank you.

T: Thank you very much, and many blessings to you.

I: Thank you. Goodbye.

T: Goodbye.

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Matthew's Place

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MatthewsPlace.com is a program of the Matthew Shepard Foundation| Words by & for LGBTQ+ youth | #EraseHate | Want to submit? Email patrick@matthewshepard.org