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McKellen Spreads Proud Equality Message

Friday, 16 October 2015

Old Boy Sir Ian McKellen returned to Bolton School to spread Stonewall’s message among current pupils. He was joined by fellow Old Boy James Edgington and Fay Bartram from Stonewall’s education team. The visit coincides with the first day of the Bolton Pride event, which kicks off today with a Football vs Homophobia inter-school tournament at BWFC and the Bolton Pride Dinner and LGBT Awards this evening at the Bolton Whites Hotel.

There was a buzz of excitement in the Great Hall, which was filled beyond its normal capacity as the whole of the Boys’ Division came together to hear Sir Ian speak about Stonewall. After a brief introduction from Headmaster Philip Britton, Sir Ian took centre stage.

He began by taking a walk down memory lane, as the Great Hall was where he did some of his first acting, albeit without a microphone and with the audience sitting on rustling rush-seated chairs. He recalled rehearsing the title role in Shakespeare’s Henry V in 1957: the English teacher at the time walked down the length of the Hall as he gave the famous “Once more unto the breach” speech, going through the doors at the back of the Hall and closing them behind him, only to return and say that he had heard every word! He then delighted the boys with his famous Gandalf line, “You shall not pass!”

Sir Ian then went on to talk about his own experience of being gay at school, and the difficulty of discussing his sexuality when it was considered illegal. Although lesbian, gay and bi people are now protected by the law, he also stated that the situation could be better. There is a long way to go before trans equality is reached and there are still areas of life in where people feel they must deny their private lives, giving professional football as one example among many.

He spoke about bullying and how hard it can be to be considered different, but also that every person sitting in the Great Hall could be singled out for something, whether it be sexuality, race, religion, or even the fact that they wear glasses or were born at home. He celebrated these many differences as amazing and talked about how equality is not about being the same, but rather about being treated the same regardless of the differences between people.

The presentation ended with a hopeful message, saying, “If the world is going to improve in the next fifty years as much as it has in the last fifty, you’re going to have a great life.”

Sir Ian then answered a number of questions from boys about issues related to sexuality and discrimination. He discussed the importance of Bolton Pride and the fact that it is needed, despite the close proximity to Manchester which has its own Pride event, because Bolton has its own community which is unique to the town and should be celebrated. He also discussed how coming out is different for everyone and is a process, but emphasised the importance of telling a family member – be it a sibling, a parent or even a cousin – who is sympathetic in order to get support at home, and spoke briefly of his regret at not being able to tell his own parents about his sexuality. He also talked about the relief that many LGBT people feel after they come out. He was asked about the changes he has seen since the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and noted that even being invited to come into the School and talk to pupils is part of this. However, he also stated that although much has been achieved, there is still so much more to be done: hate crimes still occur, same-sex marriage is still illegal in Northern Ireland, and there are other areas to work on even in the UK, particularly for trans equality.

Finally, Sir Ian gave the assembled students a Shakespeare monologue, as Bolton School and the Great Hall stage was the place where he first performed Shakespeare. He chose a section from Sir Thomas More, which is the only piece of writing in Shakespeare’s own hand. Speaking without a microphone, and with his voice nonetheless filling the whole of the Great Hall as it must have done when he played Henry V, he strode down the centre aisle performing More’s speech to the mob as they riot in London. In this monologue, More appeals to the crowd’s humanity and asks them to be compassionate towards the ‘strangers’ they are complaining about, reminding them that under different circumstances they might be the ‘strangers’, and if so they would not want to be treated in this way. This was a great message to end the talk with, and the performance was met with an enormous round of applause from the assembled pupils.

During his visit, Sir Ian met with a group of Sixth Form boys in the McKellen Studio Theatre to discuss Stonewall. He emphasised Stonewall’s position as a campaigning organisation, working to change minds and achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bi and trans people. He talked about the inception of Stonewall: how Section 28 – which outlawed the ‘promotion’ of same-sex relationships in schools – was the trigger that motivated a group of people to form Stonewall, and how they began to change people’s minds about same-sex relationships. He also mentioned that the organisation took their name from the Stonewall riots in New York, when the LGBT community protested against a police raid at the Stonewall Inn.

One of the pupils asked about how Sir Ian thought it would be possible to make changes happen in countries where LGBT people face persecution.  He returned to the idea of LGBT people taking action for themselves, and noted that it is important that this is done by local people, as they know best how to make the relevant arguments.

The group discussed the School’s attitude towards same-sex relationships and what could be done to improve and help pupils to feel more able to come out. Sir Ian and the boys discussed the possibility of an LGBT society, including the positives of having a safe place for students to turn to, and the potential negative concern that members might feel segregated.

Sir Ian also found time to meet with the School Council, which comprises boys in all year groups. They talked about some of the issues he raised in the Assembly and asked other questions relating to Stonewall’s work. One of the boys asked Sir Ian who was the first person he told that he was gay, to which he replied, “Myself.”

Throughout the day, Sir Ian particularly discussed the impact of language and advocated that the School should ban the use of the word ‘gay’ meaning ‘rubbish’. He discussed this in the assembly, with the Sixth Form group and finally with the School Council. Members of the School Council were keen to come up with ideas to eradicate this use of the word within the Boys’ Division, including using peer pressure and talking to pupils about why it should not be used, which they discussed with Sir Ian.

This visit was a fantastic opportunity for the boys to learn more about Stonewall from Sir Ian. The visit will also have inspired them to work towards creating an even more inclusive and equal environment in the future.

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Sir Ian speaking to pupils in the Great Hall

Sir Ian speaking to pupils in the Great Hall

A group of Sixth Formers talked to Sir Ian about sexuality and discrimination

A group of Sixth Formers talked to Sir Ian about sexuality and discrimination

Sir Ian McKellen, Headmaster Philip Britton, Old Boy James Edgington and Dr Mullins

Sir Ian McKellen, Headmaster Philip Britton, Old Boy James Edgington and Dr Mullins