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Gays ‘Come Out’ in McKellen Uproar : The arts: A group of British artists have declared their homosexuality for the first time in a letter backing the British actor in a dispute with a Guardian critique.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A group of leading gays in the British arts community have publicly declared their homosexuality for the first time in a war of words over the acceptance of a knighthood by Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen.

Sir Ian, as he became known New Year’s Day, made his own sexuality public in 1988, and started vigorously campaigning against Clause 28, a section of a government act which forbade local government funding of activities thought to “promote” homosexuality. He also started raising funds for London Lighthouse, an organization that counsels, supports and treats people affected by AIDS.

After his knighthood was announced, filmmaker Derek Jarman, who is gay, wrote an article in the Guardian newspaper criticizing McKellen, 51: “As a queer artist, I find it impossible to react with anything but dismay to his acceptance of the honor from a government which has stigmatized homosexuality.

“Maybe Ian McKellen will use this knighthood to try to influence the government. But I’m not at all certain. I think it’s a co-option and allows anyone to say: ‘The Tory Party isn’t so bad. It’s not really anti-gay. After all it gave Ian McKellen a knighthood.’ And he fell for them and accepted.

“I think that he will find that most of those who have fought for gay recognition for the past 20 years, not just in most recent times, will feel the same way that I do.”

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However, on Wednesday, the Guardian published a letter supporting McKellen, which was signed by 18 prominent actors, dramatists, directors and artists. The signatories described themselves as gay or lesbian, in many cases publicly for the first time.

Among the signatories were:

* Cameron MacKintosh, the theatrical impresario who has produced “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon”;

* Comic actor Stephen Fry, star of the British TV series “Jeeves and Wooster” and “Blackadder”;

* Veteran stage actor Alec McCowen;

* Director John Schlesinger (“Midnight Cowboy”);

* Actor-director Simon Callow, best known for his portrayal of the English vicar in the film “Room With a View.”

* Pam St. Clement, who plays a leading character in the soap opera “Easterners.” His revelation was a major shock for British TV viewers.

The artists’ “coming out” made front-page news in the Guardian. Its arts correspondent, Nicholas de Jongh, called their action “one of the most remarkable examples of gay solidarity since homosexuality was decriminalized in 1967.”

In the letter, the 18 signatories say they regard Sir Ian’s knighthood as “a significant landmark in the history of the British gay movement. Never again will public figures be able to claim that they have to keep secret their homosexuality in fear of it damaging their careers.”

Now, Jarman has re-entered the fray. In a letter to the newspaper Thursday, he said he was “delighted” that such distinguished people had “come out” in support of Sir Ian, but said: “The signatories seem unaware of ordinary gay life as it is experienced beyond the world of the high arts in which they deservedly flourish.”

He doubted that gays need no longer keep their homosexuality secret for fear of damaging their careers: “That may be true of the arts--though I’m uncertain--but what of gay footballers or cricketers, tennis players and athletes, gay miners or lesbian diplomats, gay building laborers or lesbian doctors?

“Do the McKellen 18 seriously say to these people: ‘Come out! Sir Ian has shown that you’re safe. It won’t damage your career.’ Of course not.

“The McKellen 18 seem, sad to say, to see no further than the end of the artistic arena.”

Sir Ian, who is currently playing Richard III at the National Theatre, has made no public response to Jarman’s criticism. But in an interview a few days before the argument broke, he urged other gays to declare themselves.

“I despise the Ian McKellen of the first 49 years of his life,” he said. “Gays must come out, and the sooner the better. You are distorting yourself for the sake of a society that doesn’t want you to come out. Now I am out, I feel reborn.”

He recently received another honor, that of visiting professor of contemporary theater at Oxford University, which is funded by one of the 18 signatories: MacKintosh.


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