How I Came Out, Live on National Radio

Third Ear | Section 28 | Radio 3 | First Broadcast on 27 January 1988
Contributors: Robert Hewison, Ian McKellen, Peregrine Worsthorne

Transcription by Louise Hardy

The House of Lords has just begun the Committee stage of its discussion of the 1988 Local Government Bill. Not at first an issue of pressing interest to people in the Arts but Clause 28 of the Bill, added during the Committee Stage in the House of Commons, has set alarm bells ringing among people in the theatre, the visual arts, the cinema, music, museums and libraries. As it stands, Clause 28 is intended to make it illegal for Local Authorities to "promote homosexuality" or to give money or assistance to anybody who does. The Clause is principally aimed at local authority responsibility for education but there are fears, shared by the Arts Council, that Clause 28 could be applied to local authority funding for the Arts. In other words, that this is a backdoor reintroduction of censorship. An ad-hoc arts lobby has been set up to oppose Clause 28. Prominent amongst those who have spoken against the Clause is the actor Ian McKellen. He is just about to end a remarkable run of his one-man show ACTING SHAKESPEARE, the proceeds of which are going to the London Lighthouse AIDS Hospice. I'll be discussing Clause 28 with Ian McKellen in a minute but there are larger issues at stake here. 21 years after the passage of the Liberalising Sexual Offences Act, is there now a greater, not lesser, intolerance towards homosexuals? In a signed editorial for the Sunday Telegraph, the newspaper's Editor, Peregrine Worsthorne, has suggested that there is but, argues Mr Worsthorne, responsibility for this renewed intolerance lies with those of liberal persuasion and indeed with homosexuals themselves who, he writes, have become "a bold and brazen, proselytizing cult". Peregrine Worsthorne is also with me but let us begin at Clause 28.

Robert Hewison: Ian McKellen, the Minister for the Arts, Richard Luce has specifically stated that Clause 28 is not meant to apply to the Arts. Aren't you over-reacting?

Ian McKellen: Well if I am over-reacting, I'm doing it in good company. I quote the QC employed by the Arts Council to advise. He says that "the result is likely to be that the Local Authorities will curtail their support for the Arts in a way that would be unacceptable in a democratic society".

RH: Peregrine Worsthorne, do you think Clause 28 is aimed at the Arts?

Peregrine Worsthorne: I don't think for a moment it's aimed at the Arts and I would be very surprised if it wasn't amended to exclude the Arts and to concentrate on the proper aim of the Clause which is education and I think that's what will happen.

RH: Are you actually in favour of Clause 28 as it applies to Education?

PW: I would like to see it amended so as to exclude the Arts and to include Education, as it was originally intended.

RH: Well, of course, as it happens, an amendment drafted by the Arts Council has already been tabled and this would exclude material that serves a bonafide, and I quote, "literary, artistic, scientific or education purpose". Ian McKellen, would that be acceptable to you?

IM: I don't see why there is a need for such a law but it would cover many of the fears of the arts world which have been so widely expressed with anybody who deals regularly with Local Authorities and remembers the Watch Committee and the days of hole-in-the-corner censorship. So that would alleviate our fears and I am delighted that Mr Worsthorne is on our side on that point. But the nub of the Clause, he rightly says, is to do with education and to a limitation of what can be taught in schools and what indeed can be discussed through literature in schools, in the main, and that I think we could easily spend the next half hour talking about.

RH: So you would just like to see Clause 28 disappear altogether?

IM: Oh, yes. I certainly would. Yes. I think it's offensive to anyone who is, like myself, homosexual, apart from the whole business of what can or cannot be taught to children.

RH: Mr Worsthorne

PW: I don't think even if the Clause is left unamended, it would necessarily have any very serious effect on the Arts. I don't see suddenly Oscar Wilde's plays being withdrawn. Heavens knows, Oscar Wilde's plays have been put on ever since his trial and in conditions of much more anti-homosexual feeling in the country, when it was still a criminal offence. I don't for a moment think it would make very much difference. I really don't know what the art people actually worry about because I don't think it would have the effect that they fear at all but I would nevertheless, to put their minds at rest, like to see it amended.

IM: We should just not leave that there because it has already happened, the sort of thing I could give you an example of what we fear. You are familiar with the play THE NORMAL HEART, an American play about AIDS in the early days of AIDS in America, which had a huge impact on people's knowledge of that disease, not just in America but when it was recently seen here in England, at the Royal Court Theatre and in the West End. The Devonshire County Council has recently removed £10,000 from the grant to its local arts centre because it proposes to do that play. And it's in the light of that sort of, we call it, censorship, we call it restriction, we call it too strong expression of opinion, I would have thought, which makes us fear what the effect of this Clause, if it ever happened.

PW: But from what you say, this event took place before the Clause, has nothing to do with the Clause.

IM: No. The Local Authorities already have quite enough powers without further great dissent from Central Government on what people can and cannot do in the regions.

RH: So, in effect, this is already an example of what you fear the consequences of the Bill will be?

IM: Yes. I think it will encourage Councils to look more carefully at what plays are done and indeed, it will restrict the thought of people deciding what plays to do. They won't risk putting on a play if, the minute it opens, some local busybody is going to say this is promoting homosexuality, get rid of it. And it's in that way that censorship works.

PW: It's quite possible that Mr McKellen is right. That it would have the effect of exercising an undue restraint on what novels could be put in public libraries, on what plays could be put on in municipal theatres and I would think this would be a great mistake and I don't believe this is the purpose of the Clause and I also believe that the Clause is going to be amended. I think, in a way, Mr McKellen's group has been affective in drawing this possibility to people's attention and I would think the political world has taken cognisance of it and will do something about it.

IM: I can't leave this here. The first part of this Clause is that "a local authority shall not promote homosexuality".

PW: I would entirely agree with that.

IM: Nothing about schools. It is a very vague…

PW: I would entirely agree that local authorities should not promote homosexuality. I don't think any of the books or plays or poetry mentioned in the public prints, and that I think you and your colleagues mention, actually do promote homosexuality in any way that I would accept as promoting it. I think they write about it and it is included in part of the human condition but I think the idea that even Socratic dialogues don't promote homosexuality in the way that people like myself are worried about it. By promoting it, I mean advocating it and actually having the likelihood of turning more people into homosexuals than otherwise might be. I don't think that reading Oscar Wilde, I don't think that reading EM Forster — I would say anybody who reads Maurice, EM Forster's only homosexual novel, would be more likely to be turned away from homosexuality. I don't believe that he was promoting homosexuality at all. So there we have a disagreement I think.

RH: A lot of the controversy over this Clause does actually revolve around the word "promote". I don't want to get into linguistic philosophy here, but do you think that this was deliberate ambiguity on the part of the people who added this Clause? And indeed, is this addition of this Clause, because it wasn't brought in by the Government, it was actually brought in by backbench people, was this a cock-up or a conspiracy?

PW: I know nothing about it. Generally speaking, I think things are usually more likely to be a cock-up than a conspiracy. I really don't know for sure.

RH: Mr McKellen, why do you think that the sentiments which this Clause you believe expresses have surfaced at this time?

IM: Because Mr Worsthorne thinks that a book can turn somebody into a homosexual. That is what he has just said. I don't believe that, any more than a book could have turned me into a heterosexual. That is at the root of this Bill. People's fear, and I don't know where the fear comes from, maybe deep-rooted in someone's own psyche, deep-rooted in someone's own experience, we could profitably talk about that perhaps. It may be deep-rooted in people's fear of AIDS and the fact that homosexuals are dirty people and spread disease but really we must get down to the linguistics of this Bill and the assumptions that it is possible to promote homosexuality in the way it has just been described. I don't think a book can turn you into a homosexual and I would like to know what book might do that.

PW: I think it's an interesting question but …

IM: It is what you have just asserted.

PW: No, I haven't actually. None of the books, none of the plays, and so on, that we've been talking about, are likely to come within this Clause because they don't promote homosexuality so we are not really as different as you may think. But there was this famous book and this has really triggered off the whole Clause controversy. Is it called "Jenny lives with Eric and Tommy" or something? This was a book which was introduced into schools by a particular local council with a view to teaching the young, the impressionable young, that homosexuality was a perfectly normal and desirable condition. Now whether or not this book would have the slightest effect in so doing, I don't know whether it would in fact increase the number of children who were taught or given this book to read. I don't know. That's an arguable proposition. I think the aim of the people who were pushing that book are thoroughly deplorable. And I think it's absolutely right that that kind of book should not be pushed into state schools where parents who don't want their children to be taught in this way, have no choice but to put up with it because their children are in that school by law. I think that's an absolute disgrace. What's the best way to stop that, I don't know but what I do know is it's absolutely understandable that parents should strongly object to having that kind of book, that kind of homosexual propaganda, put to children who are at an extremely impressionable age. I do believe - I don't know what the exact ages would be, but between say 10 and 16 - it is possible to push people in one direction rather than the other. That most people are very impressionable about these things and you can therefore have the effect of turning more people into being homosexuals than would otherwise be the case. I think this is very unfortunate and anti-social.

RH: But is this an example of what you refer to in your editorial as the proselytizing cult of homosexuality? Is this reason…

PW: I think the basic feeling of perhaps the majority of the British people is that it was quite wrong to persecute homosexuals and that that should stop in a civilised society. I think that as a result of the toleration, the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the faction of the homosexual community have seen fit, and I think very mistakenly, to say not only must this activity be permitted and tolerated but it must actually be glorified and said to be certainly the equal of the heterosexual life, if not the superior. I think this is deplorably ill-advised because it was likely to, I think it probably has, created a feeling of ill-will against homosexuality which would otherwise never have existed.

RH: Ian McKellen?

IM: There is certainly a great deal of ill-will and it's based on the sort of inaccuracies which I'm afraid you have just been guilty of. The book in question never appeared on a school library shelf. It was not used for teaching. It was in the library of teachers. Not in a school library for children to read. And it was there on the shelves of the teachers' library to be used if they thought that it might be of use in counselling some child on some sexual problems which that child had. It was not to be readily available and distributed around the classroom and to be read and even generally discussed. So that fact is wrong. There was no one trying to promote homosexuality with that book. It was there as an aid in discussing homosexuality. I would have to challenge you to quote the medical authority which supports you in assuming that people can be pushed into homosexuality as a teenager. Or indeed pushed into heterosexuality. It didn't work with me. I wasn't pushed into heterosexuality and you clearly have not been pushed into homosexuality. You must tell me what is your basis for believing that

PW: I will answer the question. I went to an English boarding school where homosexuality, perhaps faute de mieux, was very much a practice and it was touch-and-go, I think, with a number of people whether they continued to be homosexual or ceased, and this could be very much affected by a glamourous master, by particular teaching. I do think that you can be affected in this way.

IM: That is at the heart of the matter. Whether homosexuality can be promoted and taught and people can be converted to it. It is just not true what has been asserted. Of course, during teenage years, children experiment. According to Kinsey, which is the only reliable figures we have, 30% of the population have homosexual experiences before they decide whether they are homosexual or not. [Editor's note: later studies do not support such a high figure.] That is perfectly natural and normal and I don't think should necessarily be discouraged. It is certainly not going to be caused by a book.

RH: Ian McKellen, let us come back nonetheless to the Arts and the question of the Arts. Now surely there is a case to be said, Mr Worsthorne, that in a democracy such as ours we have a responsibility to respect and indeed protect the rights of a minority like homosexuals. Now you don't seem to be in favour of doing that.

PW: I have said nothing about respecting the rights of homosexuals to the best of my knowledge. If I have, I certainly didn't intend to do so. I supported the legalisation of homosexuality between consenting adults in '67 and still do so. I think that anything which would increase… I regard homosexuality as being a great misfortune. I see it as something the less frequent it is in any society, the better for that society. All I am saying is that at schools, and I do think one has to emphasise at schools, I think that it shouldn't be something which anybody should be allowed to encourage or promote, certainly not any schools which are funded by the local authorities and where people have to go to by law.

RH: But aren't homosexual artists one of the glories of our culture or the work of homosexual artists?

PW: Of course they are. If you read…we are going to get into a certain amount of contentious ground now I suppose but …I mean the Socratic Dialogues which are Plato's and Socrates' great…they of course saw homosexuality as something which was practiced side-by-side with heterosexuality. It was practiced as an addition to, a bonus, on heterosexual life and of course, actually, in Ancient Greece, many of the practices which are now written about in a most disgusting fashion by many homosexual writers of today, were banned by death. It was a capital offence, some of the things which are now….If you read some of the advanced homosexual literature, particularly in America, which I regard as pretty vile, that wouldn't have got anywhere in 5th century Athens. You'd have been put to death for it.

IM: Don't let's talk about sheep stealing.

PW: Sheep stealing?

IM: For which people used to be put to death.

PW: No. I was talking about really rather disgusting homosexual practices, actually.

IM: You might find them disgusting as I might find certain heterosexual practices disgusting.

PW: I'm simply saying the Greeks found them. Socrates found them. And the Greek law forbade them. They are now advocated. So I am simply saying that Socrates and Plato wouldn't have approved of what is happening today.

IM: Yes, but we are talking about the problems of 1988 and the medical knowledge which should inform this discussion, which so far hasn't.

PW: I challenge your medical knowledge. What you are saying is…

RH: With respect, gentlemen, we are not on a medical programme.

PW: Exactly.

RH: We are talking about the Arts. I'm curious to know…

IM: If you think the Arts can be disassociated from the definition of words and what "promotion" means, and whether promotion is possible for this society…

PW: Quoting modern psychiatric orthodoxy…

IM: Well what else can we do?

PW: Well I don't happen to think that modern psychiatric orthodoxy is the final word on this.

IM: You think that people can be turned into homosexuals.

PW: I do.

IM: Well, you must give me an example before I begin to listen to you anymore.

PW: I don't wish to contravene the slander law…

RH: I think that's a blind alley quite frankly.

IM: No. He is dodging the issue.

RH: This is a blind alley. What is going to happen, let us say, to the works of Wilde, to the works of Rattigan, to the works of Coward, people who are now in the perfectly acceptable middle-class canon….

PW: Name me anything in the works, I'm sorry, of Wilde or Forster or Rattigan which promoted homosexuality?

RH: This is why we come back to the loose wording of the Bill.

IM: In 1988, of course it is against the mores of the time to promote your homosexuality in the sense of, to advertise it. Actors like me…

PW: But you've just done it.

IM: Exactly. Name me one other actor in this country who has declared himself homosexual?

RH: Simon Callow.

IM: Yes, two actually. Name me a single…

PW: Name me a single one who claims they are heterosexual?

IM: Any actor who has had his marriage photographed by the press has proclaimed his heterosexuality. Now, apart from one member of the House of Commons, there are no gay members of the House of Commons? There are no gay members of the House of Lords? This is the times we are living in. That homosexuality is an invisible minority. Of course it's a minority. I would claim that it is between 5-10% of the population. Not converted to it, born with it, happy with it, would like to live with it, inoffensively and contributing to society. You suspect they might be corrupting society.

PW: Have you been to San Francisco recently? Before the AIDS epidemic, at any rate. There a whole quarter of San Francisco living opening. I'm no necessarily saying it's a bad thing. Your picture of the contemporary world is one where homosexuality…

IM: I'm talking about England. San Francisco is a haven for homosexuals like David Hockney who choose not to live in this country.

PW: I know a number of pubs in London, I can give you their addresses, except that they are so well-known, where…they are known as gay pubs and they…

IM: You mean like the Garrick Club? You must accept that there are very very few famous homosexuals in this country. There are no sportsmen who declare that they are gay because they don't like to because they are frightened of what will happen to them. And this is the area in which schoolchildren, to get back to the Bill, the schoolchildren who having no role models in society discover, fear, that they are gay, they go to their parents where they get a dusty answer, they go automatically, of course, to the other adults in their lives, they go to their teachers. And their teachers need to be in a position to be able to discuss that sexuality and reassure them that it is not against the law, it is not wrong and they must feel at ease with it, if they have decided at the end of their experimentation with their sexuality that they are one thing or the other. And this Bill will restrict dangerously that perfectly proper activity of the schools.

RH: And you believe that the local authorities have a responsibility in this area?

IM: Oh, indeed.

PW: I take your point. I think it will be very sad if teachers, as a result of any new legislation, were frightened of seeming to be sympathetic to a homosexual boy or girl. I would be very distressed if that was the case.

RH: Finally, gentlemen, Clause 28 is still under discussion. It's still open to amendment. In fact, we think it will be discussed next Tuesday. But is not the very fact that we've had to have this discussion, illuminating or otherwise, a sign of the times that the climate for the Arts has changed? Ian McKellen?

IM: You cannot disassociate the Arts from society as a whole. Of course, because Arts is there to service the community and to encourage it in one way and another. And to encourage discussion and I fear that because, because primarily of AIDS, people's deep-seated fears and suspicions of homosexuals are rising to the surface in an unhealthy way and what really worries me is when the Government jumps on the band-wagon and spurs it along.

RH: Mr Worsthorne?

PW: I think a good deal more discretion on the part of homosexuals and a good deal more understanding that the majority of the country does worry about homosexuality and does fear that their children might become homosexuals, the old-fashioned traditional attitude to homosexuality is being undesirable. I think that the majority of homosexuals ought to understand this and oughtn't to push their luck.

RH: Do you think you are pushing your luck with this campaign, Ian McKellen?

IM: No. I quite disagree. I think this country will be a healthier place if people in public life who are gay, announce that they are gay and left it at that so that the majority in society would understand that homosexuals are their friends, their supporters and a major contribution to the cultural and healthy life of this nation.


Ian McKellen in "Capital Gay" magazine
23 December 1988

I don't usually pay much attention to the year's end. As a university graduate, I still expect new beginnings with the start of the academic calendar in the autumn. As an actor, too, my last 27 years have tended to brighten about then, with the traditional opening of the theatre season. But for one reason and another, I've not cared to do much acting in 1988. These reasons - more fulfilling than any career prospects - dawned on me just 12 months ago, so that now it's appropriate to remember some of the people who have contributed to the best yet of my 50 years.

First Carole Woddis, who tackled me as 1 was collecting in a bucket for the Lomdon Lighthouse on January 4th. With a gentleness which belied the urgency of her message, she introduced me to that nasty and brutish Clause 27, which, five months later, turned into the slightly shorter but equally gross Section 28 of the Local Government Act. Unless you've been hibernating, you know all about that law, which inhibits EVEN decent local authorities from providing lesbians and gays with any sense that they belong in Thatcher's benighted, old-fashioned regime.

A year ago, I was one of those men, content to be gay, but unaware that I might have any relevance to the lives of other gays, whose lives are more vulnerable than mine to homophobia. I'd never joined a Gay Pride March; ignorant even of the significance of the word 'Stonewall.' Nor had I ever read Capital Gay! Carole took me to meet the Arts Lobby, the sort of people I like best - articulate, funny and concerned. Their concern, in January, was to fight Section 28 by highlighting its threat of censoring the arts.

Most of them were gay — those who weren't lesbians, that is. Sharing their views and under their guidance, I became a trainee activist. Perhaps one or two of them suspected that they had kidnapped me, like Patty Hearst; that I wasn't really a believer. At least I felt that of myself. Ever since I was eight and fell from the gods of the Manchester Palace Theatre as I fell in love with Ivor Novello, I'd been an actor before anything else. Yet there I was, with those tireless arts-lobbyists, meeting daily in the smokey bar of the London Drill Hall, plotting to attack the Government on behalf of all lesbians and gays, attacking censorship and, selfishly, that part of Section 28 which could affect my livelihood.

But you should know, I'm no radical and I'm easily led. Enter into Broadcasting House, Peregrine Worsthorne, editor of The Sunday Telegraph. Week after week last winter, he was viciously parading his ignorance of homosexuality on the leader page. On air, we debated the new law and, riled by the bland pomposity of his homophobia, and, honestly, without thinking, I mentioned to those few thousands who tune into Radio 3, that I opposed Section 28 because I was gay.

That I had actually come out probably surprised me more than my being gay can have shocked any listener who knew my work. Indeed, some of them have written to say that they'd known I was gay for years and couldn't care less. When I told my step-mother, soon after, she said the same. My friends had always known; so had my fellow actors, because backstage there are few secrets. But I'd always avoided saying I was gay to the media - even to the gay press - insisting that my private life was my own. My complacency had involved nothing more embarrassing than the occasional white lie about not being married - I was never, though, one to talk about looking for the right girl and relishing parenthood.

The scales had been lifted in San Francisco six months before, when I met up with the author of Tales of the City, Armistead Maupin and with his lover Terry Anderson. I talked with them about their friends Christopher Isherwood and Rock Hudson and about being gay in California, openly or in the closet. Isn't there something about 'closet' which is too openly glamorous and scented? A more redolent phrase would be "in the cupboard," where things are claustrophobic, moth-eaten and go stale and where there is nothing more lively than a skeleton.

Armistead and Terry had asked me why I wasn't out: and then, in part, answered their own question by noting that there wasn't a single leading actor in the world who was. (Don't tell Simon Callow!)

Good acting is so dependent on projecting sexuality, that American film producers don't risk confusing an audience's fantasies by allowing their stars publicly to be anything but straight as Hollywood Boulevard. And in the British theatre too, even 40 years after Gielgud was named, we are not allowed to declare which half of our best actors here are privately lesbian or gay. (Half our theatre impresarios, too - and half the theatre critics.)

In San Francisco, I learnt that coming-out was crucial to self esteem — why hadn't any British friend helped me understand that? And I accepted the argument, that people who thrived in society's mainstream and had access to the media, could, by telling the truth, help others in the backwaters, whose views were never sought and whom society either ignored or abused. An actor is protected more than most. These days, I daily make this point to anyone who will listen, because when I eventually accepted it on the BBC, it changed my life forever for the better.

Lots of fun followed. The Arts Lobby held a momentous news conference, which was the best show of the year. I marched with Michael Cashman, Stifyn Parri, Peter Tatchell and 20,000 other friends through Manchester, wearing my "Out and Proud" t-shirt. At Westminster, I met our lawmakers — and remembered their words: The Minister — "I don't understand why young homosexuals need their own clubs — why can't they mix with everybody else of their own age?" The Whip in the Commons — "I'm sorry about Section 28 — it's just a bit of red meat thrown to our right-wing wolves." The Whip in the Lords — "I'm sorry about Section 28 — but you appreciate my job is just to get our chaps to vote the right way."

I was in the public gallery when the abseilers landed and, to quote Jenny Wilson, brought the camp back into campaigning. The night it all ended, a few of us from the Arts Lobby got drunk with a bunch of sympathetic MPs, turning the Commons Bar into the gayest in town. — Ian McKellen, in Capital Gay, 23 December 1988

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