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Resplendent in white and drinking pink lemonade, Ian McKellen is clearly having a good Pride.
‘Wasn’t all that fun?’ he says, referring to the parade he led as this year’s Grand Marshall. When someone asks him about the presence of hardline religious groups protesting along the route he dismisses it.
‘Where were they? I didn’t see them.’ When informed this might be because someone covered their banners with rainbow flags, he smiles ‘Well, there you go.’
McKellen describes himself as ‘actor and activist’, the two given equal status. While clear that no one should feel obliged to come out – ‘Coming out, your responsibility is to yourself, then everything follows’ – he thinks that being an advocate shouldn’t be seen as a burden. In fact, he feels if others followed his example ‘they would get an awful lot of pleasure seeing what a good influence they could have’.
It’s a refreshing statement when coming out is still seen as a dangerous move for celebrities, especially in the film industry.
He will admit that it comes more naturally to him than others. As well as being ‘an old show off’, he comes from ‘a long line of do-gooders’ with teachers and preachers in his family tree.
Just as nobody thinks they’ll turn into their parents until they catch themselves repeating the past, it took McKellen a while to connect his activism to this legacy: ‘I suddenly realised I’m on that side of the family,’ he says, as if it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
When speaking about the causes close to him, he is measured and straightforward. He never raises his voice, but his passion for making the world better for LGBT people is obvious, and he often makes his point by showing up the absurdities and inconsistencies in society’s attitudes.
The fact that Northern Ireland still doesn’t have equal marriage is contrasted with the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland, the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage by popular vote, and the unfairness that Northern Irish people don’t have the same rights as those in the rest of the UK.
On the subject of football players’ fear of coming out, he archly comments that the rugby player Keegan Hirst has done it – ‘and you can’t get butcher [than rugby]’.
On the whole, he is optimistic. He recounts a time he spoke at a school with no out teachers: one teacher declared he was gay during McKellen’s speech, and was cheered by all the students.
Now it is unlikely that coming out in this country will cost you your job, friends and family, and his experience of being closeted until his 40s is, thankfully, rare.
With ‘devotion’ as this year’s theme for Pride, I ask him what he feels devoted to. As a local lad, having grown up in Wigan and Bolton, he says, ‘I am devoted to Lancashire and the idea of it, my memories of it.’
After a moment’s thought, he adds, ‘I’m devoted to my friends – a lot of whom are here today.’
It seems that right now, there’s nowhere better for him to be.