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Ian McKellen: Section 28 had one good result - it made me come out

'There are lesbian and gay politicians in all parties representing their wards and constituencies'

Monday 24 July 2000 00:00 BST

The only good thing I can think to say about Section 28 is that it finally encouraged me to come out. A bit late in the day, but it remains the best thing I ever did.

The only good thing I can think to say about Section 28 is that it finally encouraged me to come out. A bit late in the day, but it remains the best thing I ever did.

I have spent most of the year filming in New Zealand. A beautiful country with many English connections. I discovered that New Zealand had got rid of its anti-gay laws 20 years ago. No Section 28 for them, or indeed, anywhere else in the world as far as I can discover.

My attempts to explain what Section 28 is meant to be about - the gobbledygook about "pretended" families, the laughable idea that local councils can persuade people to become homosexual, have been met by blank stares. My local council has difficulty even getting the rubbish collected. If the entire council stood in the High Street and offered Green Shield stamps, or perhaps nowadays lucky scratch cards, to anyone who would become a "homosexual", I predict that they would be no more successful than they are at encouraging people to "come out" and vote at local elections.

I have taken to describing Section 28 as the "homosexual fallacy". Homosexuality is bad (or sad or mad if you prefer), therefore all lesbians and gay men are bad, sad or mad. This fallacy coexists with another. Homosexuality is catching. Without the most punitive laws and restrictions, ordinary men and women will abandon their families and strike out for a homosexual lifestyle. Section 28 becomes a moral cordon sanitaire which must be thrown up to protect society.

This leads to the third fallacy. The fallacy of the homosexual lifestyle. I know that my lifestyle as an actor is different - dressing up, speaking other people's words, moving from place to place - but in my lifestyle as a gay man, I can't see any difference except in one respect. The same fears that have affected all lesbians and gay men affect me. Coming out was a huge mountain that I thought I would never climb. How would it affect my friends, my family, my career for goodness' sake?

I feel angered that young people growing up in England still face these traumas, often alone, often unsupported. I have worked for many years with the Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gay Men. They are mothers and fathers with gay sons and daughters who have beenshocked by the pain that their children have experienced. They are not gay militants although many are now angry. They live in the real world.

In the real world in this country it's not OK to be gay. True, attitudes are changing. True, in many towns and cities there are thriving lesbian and gay communities making a contribution to local economies. True, even, there are lesbian and gay politicians in all political parties representing their wards and constituencies with great integrity and respect. True, there have been some, regrettably minor, changes in the law; but none of these add up to a change of heart.

England is still mired with laws and a sense of national identity rooted in a moral superiority that is out of place in the modern world. Waving the flag too often means putting the boot into someone else - sometimes literally. No wonder we are afflicted with hooliganism, racial and homophobic violence.

When I hear the debates on homosexuality in the House of Lords, I remember what was said about women when they struggled for the vote, what was said about working people when they tried to organise trade unions, what was said about Catholics and Jews when they fought for emancipation.

I hope that I believe as passionately as Baroness Young in the importance of basic human values - love, commitment, trust, loyalty. But to these I would add tolerance, equality, respect for the human dignity of all individuals.

Section 28 is not about these values. It seeks to ostracise and exclude lesbians and gay men from our society. It is a redundant law left over from another time. I hope tonight the House of Lords will vote for its repeal and enter the 20th century, perhaps even the 21st.

Sir Ian McKellen is presently filming 'Lord of the Rings'

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