British Icon of the Week: Sir Ian McKellen, Beloved Actor and Tireless LGBTQ Activist
Sir Ian McKellen isn't just an incredible actor and a super charming guy. Over the years, he's also proven himself to be a tireless LGBTQ activist who's not afraid to speak out, eloquently, about the things he believes in. With Pride Month upon us, here's a guide to the sterling work he's done to improve queer visibility and LGBTQ rights.
1. He co-founded the U.K.'s most prominent LGBTQ rights organization, Stonewall.
Named after the 1969 riots in New York City which kickstarted the modern-day gay rights movement, Stonewall was conceived at Sir Ian's dining table in London in May 1989. McKellen and his 13 fellow co-founders were compelled to form a pro-LGBTQ nonprofit by the Thatcher government's enactment of Section 28, a homophobic piece of legislation which prohibited schools and local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality, which meant in practice that they weren't allowed to discuss any kind of gay issues.
"We formed a lobby to change Section 28 and get rid of it," McKellen recalled last year. "We were doing something that we knew had to be done at some point. We were fighting not on our own behalf, but also on behalf of kids."
2. A year earlier, Sir Ian came out as gay during a BBC radio program in which he voiced his opposition to Section 28.
Asked if he'd like Section 28 to disappear altogether, he replied plainly: "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."
3. He starred in a sitcom about a gay couple who've been together for 50 years.
In Vicious, he and longtime friend Sir Derek Jacobi play Freddie and Stuart, an older gay couple who have a love-hate relationship and very sharp tongues – this is a show where the bitchy zingers fly freely. It ran for 13 episodes between 2013 and 2016, airing on ITV in the U.K. and PBS in the U.S., and featured an episode where Sir Ian's character, a faded actor, reminisced about his guest appearance on Doctor Who.
4. He earned his first Oscar nomination for playing gay film director James Whale.
Sir Ian starred as Whale, director of The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, in the 1998 period drama Gods and Monsters. This acclaimed film offers a poignant, semi-fictionalized account of Whale's final days living in Hollywood while contemplating his past and acknowledging that his health won't fully recover following a series of strokes.
5. He's called out Hollywood for its lack of inclusiveness.
Asked in 2018 about the Fantastic Beasts movie's decision to depict Dumbledore as gay, Sir Ian told Time Out: "Isn’t he? That’s a pity. Well, nobody looks to Hollywood for social commentary, do they? They only recently discovered that there were Black people in the world. Hollywood has mistreated women in every possible way throughout its history. Gay men don’t exist. Gods and Monsters, I think, was the beginning of Hollywood admitting that there were gay people knocking around, even though half of Hollywood is gay."
6. Since being knighted in 1991, he's embraced the nickname "Serena McKellen."
Stephen Fry coined this playful nickname after realizing it sounds very similar to Sir Ian McKellen. When he appeared at the closing ceremony of the Gay Games in 1994, Sir Ian told the crowd: "I'm Sir Ian McKellen, but you can call me Serena."
7. Last year, he helped to launch a new initiative supporting LGBTQ people over 50 living in Greater Manchester.
He told the crowd at the launch event: "Growing up, even in Lancashire, what is now Greater Manchester, 70 years ago, it was a total silence. There was no mention of sexuality other than heterosexuality at school, on the radio, in church. Absolute silence. So is it any wonder that people who are older, when things are hazy, they may think back to a time when things were different? Waving the banner for full and total equality, and love, is something that has my total support.”
8. He's used his popularity to educate school kids about LGBTQ issues.
In 2011, it was reported that Sir Ian had visited 54 British secondary schools in two years in his capacity as a Stonewall role model. "My school visits are often rewarded by people coming out," he told The Guardian at the time. "And I don't just mean pupils – I've heard staff coming out to their heads [principals] on my visits, too."
9. He's marched and served as Grand Marshal at numerous Pride events in the U.S. and U.K.
At San Francisco Pride in 2002, he jokingly referred to himself as "Gandalf the Gay."
10. And on a lighter note, his impression of friend Dame Maggie Smith is pure camp perfection.
This anecdote about a funny moment the two thesps shared at the 2002 Academy Awards is priceless.
What are your favorite Sir Ian McKellen moments?