Sir John Major: ‘I learned a great deal’ about gay people from Ian McKellen

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Former British Prime Minister Sir John Major has hailed progress on LGBT rights.

Sir John Major was Prime Minister from 1990 until 1997, at a key time when the Conservative government was facing growing pressure on LGBT rights.

The former PM lowered the age of consent for gay people from 21 to 18, and ended the ban on openly gay people serving in the diplomatic service.

Since leaving office he has become a supporter of LGBT rights, backing equal marriage in 2012 when David Cameron was pressing legislation through Parliament.

The former leader, 74, addressed an LGBT reception at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office last week.

The ex-Prime Minister reflected on his high-profile Downing Street meeting with gay actor and Stonewall co-founder Sir Ian McKellen in 1991.

Ian McKellen

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 Number 10!

“It was absurd. Here was one of our greatest actors, and a powerful advocate for a cause affecting the lives and freedom of action of many British people – and some thought the Prime Minister should not even meet him.

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

He added: “By sheer coincidence, later that same day, I met Edith Cresson, the then Prime Minister of France, who famously remarked – and I quote verbatim – that ‘half of Anglo-Saxon men are homosexual’. Observing diplomatic niceties, I refrained from asking how she had gone about her research for this particular statement.”

Referencing the current “sour, uncertain mood” of the country over Brexit, he said: “I am reinforced in that view by the extent our present miseries remind us how much – during my own lifetime – some attitudes have changed for the better.

“In the 1950s, much public opinion was anti-Black and anti-gay. No-one would have ever imagined that so many black and gay people would become the icons of today.”

He said: “I was fortunate enough to be in a position to end the discrimination against gay members of the Civil Service. My only regret was that this liberation was so long delayed.

“Throughout my time in Government I was aware that those in public service who were gay forged their way towards the top through hard work and ability yet – despite those attributes – most stopped short of the very top jobs. Once again, thankfully, that is no longer so.

“I recall a very senior Civil Servant suggesting to me that one very able candidate put forward to join my Private Office might – as he put it – ‘attract attention’ because of his lifestyle. My only thought about that proposition was that it was wrong.

“I would never have denied a politician a Ministerial job on the grounds that he or she would ‘attract attention’, and there was no logic (or fairness) in treating civil servants any less well.

“So that candidate did join my office – on merit – and was a real asset to it: nor did he ever attract any unwanted attention either from within – or beyond – the Civil Service.

“Subsequently, no such concern was ever put to me again and I continued to enjoy working with officials of differing personal lifestyles.”

He added: “As we look back I am glad of this wider tolerance. The rigid prejudice of the past caused many people, who harmed no-one, to live in fear and isolation. No- one should be forced to live their lives in this fashion due to their personal life choices.

“We are what we are. We are what fate made us. And, whatever that may be, we are entitled to give and receive affection. A life without affection is a life lacking an essential ingredient for happiness. I am proud that, overwhelmingly, most people today – and especially the young – have moved on from the social prejudices of earlier generations.

“If people do not go out of their way to frighten the horses, or gratuitously shock their neighbours, then their lifestyle should be for them to choose without condemnation or stigma.”

“To me, that certainly merits a celebration.”