sports critics

Why 70-Year-Old Theater Queen Ian McKellan Cares About Closeted Footballers

Sir Ian McKellen has long spoken against gay bullying in its many forms: he called Prop 8 “unseemly and unnecessarily cruel,”, visits schools to fight school bullying, and rips anti-gay pages out of Bibles. Yesterday he spoke to BBC Radio 5’s Tony Livese about anti-gay bullying in UK football and at first we wondered why Gandalf would give a damn. But then we realized, it’s all about showmanship.

Or something to do with International Day Against Homophobia in Football.

Here’s what McKellen had to say:

“It’s not easy to identify a gay person, you know. Uh, they don’t all have the same colored skin, the same colored hair, speak in a particular accent, y’know? We’re everywhere and we’re all different. And um, we’re just part of society. And so identifying gay people isn’t easy. Um, so it can be a shock when somebody tells you that they’re gay.

The sports world should be ashamed of itself. It’s full of all these macho men and strong women who go out and dedicate their lives. They’re absolutely admirable people in many senses. And yet when it comes to the business of simply being honest about who they are, some of them become little shrinking violets because they’re afraid, probably, of being booed from the terraces, and that must be a horrible experience and shame on people who do it.

But it ain’t going to stop someone being a fantastic footballer because they’re honest about their private lives, is it? I don’t believe so and the world is changing and sport, I’m afraid, is very slow to catch up”.

Athletes, like McKellen, are performers. Their respective skills take lots of practice and dedication and on the world stage, their personal lives can easily fall into the media spotlight. Consider Welsh British Lions rugby player Gareth Thomas. Sure, he lives in a country where gays can get civil-unionized, and U.K. rugby has created a more gay-friendly climate by pursuing an anti-homophobia campaign (their slogan: “Some people are gay. Get over it!”). But Thomas also had the full support of his team. By the time he came out, he’d already established himself as a solidly capable rugger who’d been playing professionally for well near two decades. Imagine if he’d been less well-known or less capable; his teammates might have abandoned him or even gotten upset for his “making his private life public.”

The Advocate incorrectly concluded McKellen is encouraging closeted athletes to come out.

That’s not true.

McKellen says coming out “ain’t going to stop someone being a fantastic footballer”; that is, if they’re already fantastic. Had McKellen been a less accomplished actor (like, say, Rupertt Everett), he might have agreed with Rupert’s conclusion that coming out too early in your career can kill it. As it was, McKellen was well established as a fantastic actor before he came out too, so at that point his success and star power shielded him (like a magical spell) against severe industry or fan backlash.

That coming out can still harm your professional career is an unfortunate state of affairs, says public relations guru Max Clifford on Livese’s show. Clifford, who has spoken out against homophobia in football, says he advises footballers to remain closeted until the attitude towards homosexuals in the sport changes. And it will change not only by more players coming out, but by football clubs and arenas combating homophobia in their staff and fans’ behavior.

The U.K.’s football leagues have attempted to do the same by instating a zero tolerance policy for homophobic fans. In comparison, American sports fans don’t seem to have the coordinated anti-gay chants (“Sol, Sol, wherever you may be, You’re on the verge of lunacy, And we don’t give a f*** when you’re hanging from a tree, Judas c*** with HIV”). Instead it’s the coaches who scream “faggot” and media that dance around the sexuality of gay athletes. Or disingenuously ignore it altogether.

One commenter on Livese’s show said that he couldn’t care less about a footballer’s personal life, but it’s rarely the athletes that “make an issue” of their personal lives—it’s the fans and the media. So if sports is ever gonna “catch up”, like McKellen wants, the real change is gonna have to start within the professional organizations and media outlets. Thus far, they haven’t done a great job of that… but the game’s far from over.

(NB: Tony Livese’s show leads into an discussion between Livese, Clifford and Derek Munn, director of public affairs for the British organization Stonewall. You can listen to the whole interview here. The sports discussion starts on 00:09:20 and the full McKellen interview starts at 01:52:24. The conversation and McKellen’s elegant voice are worth listening to, no matter if you’re a sports nut or a theater queen, or both.)

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