Interview: 'The Sky Didn't Fall In'
Kolesnikov-Jessop, Sonia, Newsweek International
Byline: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
In any country, bigots must be fought with well-reasoned arguments and reliable research, says Sir Ian McKellen.
Sir Ian McKellen has been a vocal gay-rights advocate since making his own homosexuality public in 1988. The following year he cofounded the gay-rights lobbying group Stonewall UK. Best known for his roles in "X-Men" and "The Lord of the Rings," the Oscar nominee was recently in Singapore with the Royal Shakespeare Company, appearing in the title role of "King Lear." He talked to NEWSWEEK'S Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop about his lobbying experience in the United Kingdom and in South Africa. Excerpts:
Kolesnikov-Jessop: In the United Kingdom, attitudes toward homosexuality have changed fairly rapidly recently. In 2000, the British government lifted the ban on lesbian and gay men in the armed forces. In 2001, it lowered the age of consent to 16. And in 2005, it allowed the first civil partnerships to take place. But in many countries around the world, homosexuality is still outlawed. How can similar social changes happen?
McKellen: The change happened very quickly in the U.K. once the government was able to say there had been a change in the public mood. Tony Blair's New Labour did not campaign for new legislation. Indeed they defended the status quo until they were told by the European Court of Human Rights to admit gays into the military and to equalize age of consent. Europe was of great help to us. The sky didn't fall in, the die-hards began to look like extremists and the government was emboldened. With the approval of the mainstream press, they felt able to introduce not marriage but the next best thing: civil partnership that the state recognizes. So looking back on his legacy, what Blair can be most proud of is the advancement of gay rights.
How do you further change public opinion?
In the U.K. there is still work to be done, particularly in schools, stopping the homophobic bullies in the playground and introducing unbiased discussion on gay issues in the classroom. In countries that need reform, the bigots have to be countered by measured arguments and reliable research so that government can respond to reason and not prejudice. Public figures' coming out and declaring their homosexuality certainly helps the move to change. …