For decades, Ian McKellen captivated audiences on the stage and later in films like The Lord of the Rings franchise. As honest and moving as his performances were, the acclaimed British actor was intensely private offstage. McKellen kept his sexuality secret—only coming out as gay at the age of 49 because he wanted to advocate for the LGBTQ community
“I didn’t really know who I was—a closeted gay,” McKellen, the 80-year-old star of the new film The Good Liar, tells author Gary O’Connor, while reflecting on his time at Cambridge University. O’Connor first met the actor in 1958, when they were both students. He has since directed McKellen in various plays and wrote the actor’s new biography, Ian McKellen: A Biography, which will publish on Tuesday. (While McKellen spoke candidly with the author for an interview, he was not interested in a book about himself.)
“Cambridge was great for me…all the many parts I had played there, as I loved for the first time going out in public and displaying my emotions,” McKellen continues, according to the biography. “I enjoyed disguising myself as a closeted gay boy.”
McKellen’s sexuality was known by close friends and those in the theater circle. But he didn’t discuss the fact publicly because, for most of his life, homosexuality was illegal or criminalized in England. (The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 was the first gay law reform bill to pass in centuries, but the criminalization of homosexuality continued in the U.K. until 2013, according to The Guardian.)
Beyond fear of the law, O’Connor explains that McKellen also worried that going public as a gay man would negatively impact his career.
“Would audiences take his acting seriously, as Romeo for instance, if they knew that in real life he fancied Mercutio rather than Juliet?” O’Connor writes.
All of that fear was dispelled in 1988, when McKellen announced his sexuality during a debate on a radio broadcast. He and journalist Peregrine Worsthorne were discussing the U.K.’s Section 28 legislation, which was created “to make it illegal for local authorities to ‘promote homosexuality’ or give money or assistance to anybody who did. The implications were alarming,” O’Connor writes.
“When [Peregrine] said something particularly nasty about gay people, I said I’m one of them myself,” McKellen told the New York Times in 2015, just after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in the U.S.
According to the book, McKellen’s announcement didn’t affect his job offers. Instead, the public declaration greatly improved his life.
“When I came out five years ago, some of my closest friends thought I was brave, even foolhardy,” McKellen wrote for his website in 1993. “To be honest, that’s not how it felt to me, after 49 years of half lying. Rather, it was a relief: an unnecessary millstone was lifted.”
After the broadcast, McKellen was also able to champion the cause he so fervently believes in.
“He had left the dark closet of secrecy for self-exposure and liberation,” O’Connor writes. “This galvanized him, energised him in a direction he had never thought himself capable of. Identified now as a chaste, never promiscuous, completely dedicated general and leader of men, as an activist he displayed an inner mobilisation of force and direction of power in the social, political field.”
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McKellen would go on to write articles, make appearances on television, fundraise for nonprofits, and serve as a founding member of Stonewall U.K.—doing everything in his power to promote equality and protection for the LGBTQ community. McKellen’s openness about his identity as a gay man has not only propelled his advocacy, but also his career.
”I don’t fake emotion any longer as an actor,” McKellen told the Times in 1998. ”I don’t pretend. I actually experience it. I’ve been trying to do that all my life, but I find it easier now to go straight into the emotion. I can be angry. For years I couldn’t be angry. I could be angry with myself, but I couldn’t feel real anger — and now I can. That’s why it’s so good for people to come out. Being ‘in a closet’ is a good image: you’re in there, you’re enclosed, you can’t express yourself. Now I even have a Web site. I’m more voluble than ever.”
Ian McKellen: A Biography is available for pre-order now.