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19 Jul 2007

face to face with sir ian mckellen

You might know him better as Magneto in X-Men or Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings, but Sir Ian McKellen (or Serena, as he once nicknamed himself) also holds a proud legacy as a gay rights campaigner in the UK and abroad. Currently touring with the Royal Shakespeare Company in a stage production of Shakespeare's King Lear and Anton Chekhov's The Seagull in Singapore, Sir Ian stops for a while to speak to Fridae about acting and activism. A Fridae exclusive.

I'm at a press conference with Sir Ian McKellen. He's in Singapore for the first stop of the Royal Shakespeare Company's international tour of Shakespeare's King Lear and Anton Chekhov's The Seagull, presented by Singapore Repertory Theatre. The crowd of arts reporters in the auditorium is shooting off eager questions about the duet of plays, which is set to tour next in Melbourne, Wellington, New York, Minneapolis, San Francisco and London.

I'm on a different mission. While I'm in awe of McKellen's acting work (less in his blockbuster roles than for his moving character pieces, such as the gay-themed films Eighteen or Gods and Monsters, which earned him an Oscar nomination), I'm equally starstuck by my knowledge of his work in promoting the cause of gay equality. He came out as a gay man on BBC radio in the '80s, is a co-founder of Stonewall gay rights lobby group in the UK, continues to serve as the patron of LGBT History Month and FFLAG (Friends and Families of Lesbian and Gays), and played the lead role in Martin Sherman's Bent, raising consciousness of the horrific persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany.

So I raise my hand to ask Sir Ian a question about gay rights. And immediately, he insists on a one-on-one interview after the conference, despite a backlog of appointments with mainstream media sources. "I've got a lot to say," he tells me.

And certainly, McKellen does have a lot to say about our country's still-extant Section 377A clause in the Penal Code, which criminalises acts of sex between men. Using the weight of his fame, he's been cleverly making his feelings known to mainstream news sources, whether they like it or not: on a live interview on radio station Class 95 FM he's apologised for "those dreadful laws that we British left behind" and urged the Singapore government to "treat us with respect like we treat everyone else." On another live interview on Channel News Asia, he's blithely announced, "I am a gay man and I'll be looking for a gay bar [in Singapore], if there is such a thing."

There's a strong streak of mischief in his character - not unexpected, if you've heard the stories. Once, in the UK, conservative politician Michael Howard refused to support his movement against a homophobic law, but asked for an autograph for his children. McKellen agreed, but wrote in the autograph, "Fuck off, I'm gay." His impishness definitely also carries over into his working life - he calls himself the "gay uncle" of the theatrical troupe (fellow star Frances Barber is the "mother").

But rest assured, the man is completely professional when it comes to down to serious issues. Just this January, he's become an official patron of The Albert Kennedy Trust, an organisation that provides support to young, homeless and troubled gay, lesbian and transgendered people in the UK. He's also created some masterful work in King Lear, in which he plays the title role, pulling off what the Independent has called "the performance of a lifetime... psychologically complex, heartrendingly poignant." He's also had the grace to step into the smaller role of Sorin in The Seagull, an ensemble piece that exhibits the skills of his fellow actors in its mix of tragedy and comedy in early 20th century Russia.

There's been a small controversy in Singapore over the amendment of a scene in King Lear where Lear strips naked: in the Singapore run, the King will only strip to his underwear. This was not censorship, says SRT Artistic Director Gaurav Kripalani, but an internal decision, so as not to discourage students and young people from watching the show. McKellen is ironically amused at the whole business - he doesn't mind, but thinks it's all a little silly, and has proposed wearing false genitalia or else a pair of underpants labelled "HEY, SINGAPORE!" in big letters.

The real controversies, of course, go beyond the matter of flashing your genitals on stage.

Next page, McKellen is fighting for gay equality, and he wants to talk about it.

æ: Age, sex, location?

Sir Ian McKellen on Singapore's Section 377A of the Penal Code which bans homosexual sex, as told to The Straits Times: ''Well, I feel a little bit guilty because the law you have in Singapore was one that was left behind by the British colonial forces and it's taken us an awful long time to get rid of it in Britain. So I'm very sympathetic to the situation here.''
Sir Ian: 68, male, Singapore [until Monday].

æ: Okay, I know you've answered this a thousand times before, but... what's your coming out story?

Sir Ian: It was 1988. The Margaret Thatcher government was passing a law that was eventually known as Section 28, which stopped state schools from presenting homosexuality in positive way. I objected to the law and joined in the campaign that tried to stop the law. We didn't succeed, but in the process I came out, and said that as a gay man, I found the law offensive. And because we didn't stop the law, we decided to form Stonewall Group UK - the first professional gay lobby group in the Britain - and Stonewall has helped to change laws in the 15 years since, which has culminated in the civil partnerships we have now - now gay people can have children and adopt and everything.

æ: What was it like to be a closeted gay actor in England before that?

Sir Ian: I wasn't deeply in the closet - all my friends knew, all my employees knew; the only people who didn't know were a couple of members of my family and the press. Of course, the first person I had to come out to was myself - once you've accepted it, then you can tell your friends and family until the point where you don't care who knows. I was 49 when I came out... I was very old!

æ: Tell us a little about your work in activism.

Sir Ian: I raise funds for Stonewall Group; I was on the board for a time. They do research and the talk to politicians and they are very well respected. The last thing Tony Blair did before he resigned was to visit them and thank them for their support of the Labour Government in changing the laws.

æ: What's your proudest moment as an actor?

Sir Ian: I don't know about pride... pride is when you do the job as best you can and people enjoy what you do. Macbeth was an important part for me, and you can still see that on DVD. And I was very proud of Richard III because I co-wrote the script and produced it. And Gods and Monsters was very important for me. And I'm pretty proud of that.

æ: What's your proudest moment as a gay activist?

Sir Ian: It would be setting up Stonewall... but I'll tell you another very proud moment in my life. It was when the South African constitution was being devised. And there was then a movement to put into the constitution that it would be illegal to discriminate on grounds of sexuality. And I went with a young gay man and a young lesbian to talk to Nelson Mandela about it, and the three of us asked him, would he support putting sexuality into the constitution. And he said yes.

So I don't care what the Pope says; I don't care what the imam says; Nelson Mandela said it. And so South Africa has the most liberal constitution in the world. South Africa! And there must have been a time when you thought nothing good could come out of apartheid.

æ: How do your two different fields of work - in acting and in activism - overlap?

Sir Ian: Well, in two ways. Sometimes I'm in gay plays, like Bent or Edward II, both of which I did when I was not out - but I've also done a one-man show called A Knight Out which was in part about being gay. And sometimes as a gay man I look at things differently from a straight person - the character I'm playing in The Seagull is 70 years old and unmarried says he regrets he didn't get married - it would take a gay man to wonder if Chekhov, whether he knew it or not, had written a gay character.

But I only talk about issues I'm an expert on - I talk about acting because I'm an expert, and I talk about being gay because I'm an expert on that. But I don't talk about politics - no one knows how I vote, and I go to marches against the war in Iraq, but I don't speak out on that. I think I'd rather concentrate my influence in areas in which I think I'm an expert.

æ: What do you think is the most important goal for queer activism in the UK today?

Sir Ian: Well, it's the schools - we have to make sure that schools have homosexuality on the agenda as a topic to be discussed and understood, and to stop the bullying of gay students.

æ: What about in Singapore? How should we conduct our activism, when there's still so much ignorance around?

Sir Ian: As for ignorance, that was true in the UK twenty years ago - it sounds as if it's right for change. In coming out, people are identifying themselves as being technically criminals so it's difficult, and the changes won't happen straight away. But I think you can really get a movement going, because I think the pressure's going to be so strong that the movement's going to be irreversible - if an international bank says to the government the gay executives won't come to Singapore to work because of your laws, something's going to have to shift. So maybe the foreigners can be of help.

æ: And what about strategies for activism worldwide, especially in Asia?

Sir Ian: Well I think it's useful just to point out to countries where there are laws against homosexuality that, [in the UK] the sky has not fallen in. The UK is a better place for everyone to live in as a result of changing the law. The armed forces operate just as efficiently as they did before the gays were allowed in. Everything happens for the best. Nothing bad has happened. And seriously, really people do think something bad is going to happen - people think the whole place is going to be overrun with queers!

But it's a long process, and it's been a long time coming. And there was a man killed in London recently - just because he was gay, he was attacked and murdered. [An English barman David Morley was fatally attacked by a group of youths on the morning of October 30, 2004. In another case in London, bar manager Jody Dobrowski died from his injuries later in hospital after being beaten by two men October 14, 2005.] And that's dreadful - it's absolutely dreadful. So things don't change overnight. But in your lifetime they will.

Venue (Singapore): Esplanade Theatre
King Lear: 19-21 July, 2007, 8pm
The Seagull: 22 July 2007, 2pm and 8pm
Prices: From $30 to $400
Ticketing: www.sistic.com.sg
Website: www.srt.com.sg

King Lear in repertory with The Seagull will be staged in Melbourne, Australia from July 28 - August 5, Wellington, NZ from August 11 - 14, Auckland August 18 - 25 before touring New York, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and finally London in November. More details on http://www.mckellen.com/stage/lear07.

Reader's Comments

1. 2007-07-19 20:12  
Way to go, Sir Ian... Is it possible to make that statement to the SG govt? I am sure they will chase you away from our shores and banned you from returning again. However the part of gay bankers refusing to invest in SG because of its laws, says one thing. We still have a long way to go.

In the Straits Times, when our country rank amongst the lowest in terms of human voice and rights movement, it is hard to convince ourselves that time of Section 377A replealment wil happen anytime son.

I really appreciate Dr. Koe & Alex Au for proposing for the repealment. But it takes more than juz 2 men to make the difference - we need an army (pun intended) to do so! It is hard to convince to ignorant, conservative Singaporeans that the repeal will NOT produce more gays... It doesnt change a str8 person to be gay. If u are gay, u ARE! If u are not, you are NOT!

Perhaps if we truly reflect the 2nd statement of our National pledge - haven we always pledge to live harmoniously amongst each other regardless of race, language, religion? Why the irony of being so against homosexuality like sme form of disease when it is NOT?!

Anyway, SG has a long way to go.... A really long way to go!!!
2. 2007-07-19 21:44  
Salute to Sir Ian...

May the power and glory of 'Being GAY' be with us always! You've certainly done a great job in the establishment of Stonewall Group. Though things might not change overnight, things will definitely get better as long as we believe in ourselves. If you are able to be brave and say that: "I'm GAY"..You're truly Great!!

Three Cheers to you,Sir Ian.
3. 2007-07-19 21:44  
Respect to him.
Ask your gay audience after the show, where the gay bars are! hehehe...
Comment #4 was deleted by its author
5. 2007-07-19 22:04  
Just dropping a note to show some love :)
Here is someone who actually came out @ a time when Britain was @ a similar situation Singapore is facing right now- for this alone, he inspires nothing bt awe n respect. Thank you Sir Ian :)
6. 2007-07-19 22:42  
Sir Ian's Spore visit could not have been timed better. Such a charming, mischievous and intelligent actor is a shining example for us gay men, like Gandalf to the hobbits!

Also kudos to Fridae for getting this scoop.
7. 2007-07-19 23:40  
A respect to Sir Ian Mckellen towards gay movement.Heard,he is going to visit local gay bar this weekend.
Comment #8 was deleted by its author
9. 2007-07-20 00:18  
Way to go!

A comment like that from a person of his status will have an impact.

My respect to you!
10. 2007-07-20 00:24  
Sir Ian is a true blue ICON like Madonna! They speak their minds and are comfortable with themselves and they influence with their love, truth, courage and their gifts.
God Bless them and thank you Sir Ian for being a powerful role model to your fellow brethens! You are loved!!!:)

11. 2007-07-20 00:27  
And to add...

Sir Ian is a Glorious Human being for all his activist works and magnificent screen roles!!!

Simply Magical!!!

Comment #12 was deleted by its author
13. 2007-07-20 01:11  
Re: jammyboi
Comparing Sir Ian to Madonna? What has Madonna ever done for gay rights? She's an entertainer, not a champion of gay rights! Don't even compare Madonna to Sir Ian! That's like comparing a fly to a piece of gold. Not even in the same category!
Comment #14 was deleted by its author
15. 2007-07-20 04:41  
Hey aXis, U go girl! lol... If u can't see an aspect comparison in the gay universe, guess this one's way over your head...

"What has Madonna ever done for gay rights? "
Geez..do we really have to..? zzzz
16. 2007-07-20 10:08  
I hope this would make Singapore's govt sit up and listen to her own people's voice than being told by others! It's not a long way to go, it's really about time and around the corner now, given Hong Kong's law changes recently. Come on Singapore!
17. 2007-07-20 13:04  
keep up e good work!

i don't mind fridae cos at least it's professional, not like sgboy.

sgboy.com had this stupid article that praised alfian bin sa'at to the heavens -- about how wonderful he was, etc -- but ask anyone. sgboy's contributor IS alfian's friend.

disgusting way to buy publicity for alfian's drama vehicle. grossed me out totally.
18. 2007-07-20 14:58  
Actually, i quite agree with axis :p
Comment #19 was deleted by its author
20. 2007-07-20 23:44  
Blessed we are that elderly statesmen like LKY, Sir Elton John and Sir McKellen are speaking up on our behalf. Every little effort makes that much difference, and Singaporeans should listen to the words of the wise.

I still think some religious groups are trying to use homosexuality as an acid test to see how much they can interfere with Singapore's government policies. All those hypocrites want are more power. Whether our government kow tow to these people will determine our nation's fate. Will we flourish like Japan and Korea, or will we become a conservative backwater at the mercy of religious leaders? Fingers crossed -- and more power to Gandalf and Magneto!!!!
21. 2007-07-21 02:30  
Ah, How could you forget Sir Ian's hilariously hammy turn in "Coronation Street", Britain's longest running Soap Opera [40+ years]?

Sir Ian LOVES the show; so much so that he turned up a couple of years ago to play a character for a while - a very fake Book author who, at first, dazzled and 'played' some of the characters of the street, but, in the end, was unmasked as a fraud! Don't try and fool old ladies - they know too much, under their permed and coloured hair!

It was pretty funny to catch Ian in the show for a few weeks; you wouldn't see many Stars turning up in a 'regional' soap opera on TV, anywhere!

And Look! I'm Too good to you people - here's a YouTube link pointing right at Sir Ian, hamming it up on the show:


Watching 'Mel' attack 'Ken' with sarcastic comments - his chief 'intelligent' Rival on the street - was So funny... ;-)
22. 2007-07-21 09:07  
He is right,Britain hast left Singapore with outdated laws.It is up to Singapore to get rid of them,but seems to be keeping this British colony mentality.
23. 2007-07-21 11:47  
God Love All Hiers Children !
24. 2007-07-21 17:02  
salut for u
25. 2007-07-21 19:44  
Sir Ian McKellen is watching HAPPY ENDINGS, 22 july 3pm show!
26. 2007-07-21 23:06  
Sir Ian McKellen.. Thank you on behalf of my nation Singapore.
27. 2007-07-22 01:52  
Hand Up to Sir Ian McKellen!!!
He so helpfull..........Love Ya!!!!
when u visit jakarta?hm....
Good Job SIR!!!!
28. 2007-07-22 22:25  
the article is ok,but the fridae always met some problems.....
29. 2007-07-24 13:03  
it's wonderful to be able to read an article like this, after seeing how the mainstream media shys away from mckellen's sexuality.

keep up the good work yi-sheng!
30. 2007-07-24 17:46  
Excellent actor and activist! I really respect this grand talented old gentleman! My idol!
Comment #31 was deleted by its author
32. 2007-07-25 13:36  
P.S- Yesterday's Straits Times reports, amidst his visits to Mox, that Sir Ian "would be googling Singapore to fr time to time to keep track of its developments"- a hint to the Sg govt? ;>
I'm also glad that he reported having a great time here...if- no, WHEN Section 377 is totally repealed, PLUs in Singapore really owed this to Sir Ian.
So once again- THANK YOU SIR!!! *salute*
33. 2007-07-25 15:41  
Well, any other brave GAY celebrities care to rescue us?? Please, help save our pink existence in Singapore!! Say something already, it's history in the making here & now..
34. 2007-07-28 22:01  
Dear Sir Ian McKellen, cheers to you, mate! Let's have a toast to welcome you and your support to repeal the conservative laws as well as your effort to rally for equal rights and the understandings on this particular issue. But, on the other hand, I can highly doubt the repealment of such homophobic laws in any such conservative countries can ever be realized anytime soon. Either you sit idly here and wait for it to be realized in many decades (or even centuries) to come, or we come in an army of thousands, even in millions, to hold a humongous protest against this oppressive homophobic laws. The latter may help to repeal the law real soon, in a year or two, but again I doubt we can ever hold such protest demonstrations in such conservative countries. Sorry to say that, but it is a reality, folks.
35. 2007-07-30 14:27  
This is frustrating. I don't understand the fatalistic mentality from some of our community when we can cheer & jeer the same situation at the same time... I'm sure Sir McKellen & other gay leaders in the world are hoping we puff each other's will, plans & ideas to fight our rights in better stead than this. It's as good as slapping oneself & serving the glbt adversaries by saying such dismal remarks. Thanks a lot...not.

Reality is what we make of it, all is up in the air about gay rights in S'pore in this moment so let's not give up hope without a REAL fight first, least we are seen as serving our own sentence on a silver plate to the lawmakers. Silly.

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