British actor Sir Ian McKellen, known as a celebrated theater actor and also for his starring roles in films like Gods and Monsters, The Lord of the Rings and X-Men, has embarked on a nationwide "role model" tour of Britain's schools to try and prevent anti-gay bullying.
Holding himself up as an example of a gay man, McKellen, working alongside gay rights group Stonewall, is trying to prevent bullying by breaking the "otherness" that surrounds LGB identity. He admits, however, that until he embarked on this school tour, he didn't realize how prevalent anti-gay bullying was.
From The Guardian:
"Do you know any gay people?" asks Sir Ian McKellen. Silence. Heads shake. "Well, you do now. I'm gay."
Gandalf has worked his magic in 54 secondary schools over the last two years. His dream? An education system free of the homophobia that has plagued it for years – and a curriculum that fully includes lesbian, gay and bisexual people.
How has he found the pupil reactions? "Until I visited secondary schools recently, I hadn't realised how much anti-gay bullying goes on," he says. "By talking frankly about my own life as a gay man and listening to the concerns of staff, students, parents and governors, I hope the visits may make a difference and also give confidence to gay students about their lives in the future."
It's time for the all-school assembly, the grand finale of Gandalf's visit. "I'm not useless ... but when you use that word as an insulting adjective, that's what you're saying about me. So please, watch your language. Because if you don't, you mightn't watch your actions…" He goes on to tell how Ian Baynham was recently killed in a homophobic hate attack by teenagers. "The girl who stamped on his head might have used 'gay' to mean anything rubbish and useless. And that probably convinced her that gay people were rubbish and useless – and don't deserve to live."
This has a profound effect on two year 10 friends, who tell me: "We didn't realise calling things 'gay' could offend someone. It was touching when he talked about never being able to tell his mum he was gay. One of our best friends is gay and he gets abused for it. We hope it will stop now."
According to The Guardian, McKellen's appearances in schools have not only helped pupils come out but also teachers who have finally been able to be open about their sexuality with colleagues.
McKellen was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 1979, and knighted in 1991's New Year Honours for his outstanding contributions to theater. Recognizing his work in both drama and the pursuit of equality, McKellen was also made a Companion of Honour (CH) in 2008.
Among his most notable stands on gay rights issues was his opposition to Section 28, a 1988 law that banned positive mention of homosexuality in British schools. A repeal of Section 28 became effective as of 18 November, 2003. You can read McKellen's speech against the law over at his website.
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