How Ian McKellen's Meeting With Prime Minister Helped Bring Gay Consent Age Legislation

The actor met John Major to discuss gay rights in 1991.
Sir Ian McKellen
Sir Ian McKellen

Sir Ian McKellen played a role in persuading John Major into pushing for the lowering of the age of consent between homosexuals, it has been revealed.

The then-prime minister met the celebrated actor in September 1991 to discuss gay rights - and within three years parliament voted to drop the consenting age from 21 to 18.

Their meeting is detailed in newly-released government files from the National Archives and one document sees Major note his thoughts on McKellen’s argument.

He writes: “I have to say that, whilst fully recognising the sensitivities of the subject, I had considerable sympathy with some of Sir Ian’s points on the grounds of simple, straightforward equity.”

McKellen raised concerns affecting the gay community like “criminal law”, “police harassment” and “abusive language in the press” at the meeting, which took place at Number 10 Downing Street.

The documents show the government wanted to make the meeting as informal as possible after being advised that one of the greatest actors of his generation “lacked self-confidence(!) in discussing these issues and might be slightly overawed by a meeting with the Prime Minister”.

During the meeting, McKellen said: “If two men merely showed affection for one another in public, they could be charged under the gross indecency laws or for a breach of the peace.”

A government note said this was an “extreme reading of the law” but acknowledged that the police sometimes used this legal loophole as “an excuse for harassment” against gay men.

Following the encounter, McKellen wrote warmly to Major: “It’s been encouraging to note the overwhelmingly positive response throughout the media.

“There seems to be a general acceptance that the concerns of lesbians and gay men should now be firmly on the political agenda.”

John Major
John Major

Major replied: “I too was pleased to see the generally positive response in the media - although I am afraid that my postbag has contained more critical than sympathetic letters.”

Major was advised to tread carefully over giving an “enlightened lead to public opinion” on the issue of gay rights in another document.

A handwritten note, which appears to be from political adviser Sarah Hogg, reads: “Prime Minister - I would be concerned that you should not get too far ahead of public opinion before a general election.”

In a Foreign Office speech in 2017, the former prime minister, now Sir John, spoke about the backlash he received for the meeting.

He said: “When I wished to consult Ian McKellen on the concerns of gay people, there were subterranean rumblings that I should never even have spoken to him - let alone invited him into No 10.

“Such an attitude was simply astonishing. Personally, I never regretted that meeting - and learned a great deal from it.”

In 1994 the age of consent was lowered from 21 to 18 by parliament.

Major added in his speech: “Two years later, with my encouragement, Parliament voted to lower the age of consent to eighteen - not quite the sixteen that the now Sir Ian McKellen had advocated, but a lowering nonetheless.”


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