No reason to treat us differently: Ian McKellen urges Parliament to lower the age of consent for homosexuals to 16

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IN FEBRUARY last year, the Harris Survey asked the following question: 'Should the age of consent - that is, the age at which people can legally have sex together in private - be the same for everyone, irrespective of their gender or sexual orientation, or not?' In response, 74 per cent of those surveyed agreed that the age of consent should be the same for everyone.

The principle of equality in this matter is well-established in European law. This year Russia has accepted it. Last month, as part of a major reform of all laws regarding lesbians and gay men, Ireland included an equal age of consent. The United Kingdom lags oddly behind our close neighbours, so it is welcome news that the Prime Minister is now prepared to test whether Parliament is ready to catch up with Europe and with public opinion in Britain.

Twenty-five years ago gay male sex was decriminalised in England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland eventually followed suit. In 1967, Parliament, on a free vote, agreed that the age at which two men could legally consent to make love in private should be the same as the age of majority, which was then 21. Although the age of majority has since been changed to 18, the age of consent for gay men remains fixed at 21. This does not apply to their peers, whether heterosexuals or lesbians, who are free to make love at 16.

Under Mr Major's premiership, the Isles of Jersey and Man have been persuaded to adopt the same law. Gibraltar has settled at 18 for gays. This is in line with the Prime Minister's long-held belief that 21 is too high. When he announced that homosexuality would no longer be a bar to advancement in the diplomatic service, he said he was responding to a change in public attitudes and seemed to welcome the increasing number of gays who are prepared to be open about their sexuality. Will he now declare his support for equality? If so, he will find he has allies on all sides.

At the last election, Labour promised a free vote on the issue, briefing its candidates that 'Labour is committed to ensuring that the law treats lesbians and gays equally'. Paddy Ashdown has told the group Stonewall, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats: 'We support a common age of consent.' So do Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party. Last year the group Torche was founded by 'Conservatives - gay or straight - who wish to see legal equality for all of Britain's citizens, regardless of their sexuality'.

Justice is not a forgone conclusion. As the recent discovery of a possible 'gay gene' confirms, any discussion of homosexuality exposes extremism. Last week, for example, Lord Jakobovits, the former Chief Rabbi, compared homosexuality with kleptomania, adultery and murder. There has been much unsavoury debate as to whether a mother would have the right to abort her 'gay foetus'.

The forthcoming Westminster debate will, however, reveal more familiar worries. We shall hear, once more, that boys mature later than girls and need the current law to protect them from what may be only a 'homosexual stage'. Medical opinion is almost unanimous that basic sexual orientation is fixed by the age of 16. There is no evidence that patterns of sexual behaviour affect that basic orientation. Indeed, in my experience, there is an abundance of evidence to the contary. Constant conditioning in my youth and social pressure in every department of my life all failed to convert me to heterosexuality.

Some fear that an equal age of consent would make 16-21 year old men vulnerable to older men. Surely no more than women of the same age are? That is why, already, there are adequate laws, with appropriate punishment, that should apply to all predators. The issue is whether 16 is too young an age for a man to consent. Well, the law says he is old enough to have sex with his girlfriend. He may marry her and have children. He can join the Army - so long as he doesn't say he is gay. By 18 he can vote, buy a house and start a business. Yet the law finds him less capable than, say, his twin sister, of resisting unwelcome advances. What is it about British men that they should be thought more peculiarly vulnerable than British women or their counterparts in the rest of Europe?

We will be told that young men should continue to be dissuaded from homosexuality because gay men lead such unhappy and unstable lives. Those of us at ease with our sexuality are neither unhappy nor unstable. Those gay men who have difficulty with their sexuality suffer greatly because of the discrimination they face. This discrimination starts with the unequal age of consent.

Then there is Aids. The law as it stands is much more dangerous than its repeal. Young people need to be educated about the sad dangers of all kinds of penetrative sex. Such education cannot be effective, in or out of the classroom, unless the whole subject is openly discussed. The existing law, let's face it, is broken by some young gay men, many of whom are promiscuous. Are they likely to be open about their criminality? Counsellors may not encourage stable homosexual relationships, as a defence against sexually transmitted disease, for fear of committing the crime of incitement to illegal sex.

Perhaps the argument for reform will finally be won by those it most concerns. Hugo Greenhalgh, 20, and his boyfriend, Will Parry, 24, have applied to the European Court of Human Rights to protect them from the British law that criminalises their partnership. As they say, 'The only other things you can't do until you are 21 are get a heavy goods vehicle licence and stand for Parliament.'

The law is ridiculous. We are happy with our sexuality. Why should we be treated differently from all our friends?

The writer is an actor and founder member of Stonewall, a group that lobbies for equal rights for lesbian and gay men in the UK.

(Photograph omitted)

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