Ian McKellen helped lower gay age of consent in UK

A meeting with Sir Ian McKellen prompted the former Prime Minister John Major into lowering the age of consent for the gay community in the UK.

Major met the actor in September 1991 to discuss gay rights and within three years, parliament had voted to bring the consenting age down from 21 to 18.

According to Government files released by the National Archives, Sir Ian raised concerns such as “criminal law” and “police harassment” at the meeting, along with “abusive language in the press”.

The meeting was planned as informal, after officials were told Sir Ian “lacked self-confidence in discussing these issues and might be slightly overawed by a meeting with the Prime Minister.”

During the meeting, Sir Ian 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.”

Although a Government note said this was an “extreme reading of the law”, it also acknowledged that the police sometimes used this loophole as an “excuse for harassment” against gay men, AP reported.

Sir Ian McKellen at Pride London.

Sir Ian McKellen takes part in the annual Pride In London parade (John Phillips/Getty Images)

After the meeting, Sir Ian wrote to the then-Prime Minister: “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.”

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.”

In another document, the Prime Minister was warned to be careful with giving an “enlightened lead to public opinion” on gay rights.

A 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.”

The Prime Minister wrote after the meeting: “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.”

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

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.