Declassified files: John Major meeting with Sir Ian McKellen spurred change in gay age of consent

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A meeting with Sir Ian McKellen appears to have spurred then prime minister John Major into pushing for the lowering of the age of consent between homosexuals.

Mr Major met the celebrated actor in September 1991 to discuss gay rights – and within three years parliament had voted to drop the consenting age from 21 to 18.

Following the meeting, the “grey man” of British politics wrote: “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.”

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Sir Ian raised concerns affecting the gay community like “criminal law”, “police harassment” and “abusive language in the press” at the meeting in Number 10, according to government files released by the National Archives in Kew, west London.

Sir Ian McKellen met then prime minister John Major in 1991 to discuss gay rightsSir Ian McKellen met then prime minister John Major in 1991 to discuss gay rights
Sir Ian McKellen met then prime minister John Major in 1991 to discuss gay rights

The documents show Number 10 wanted to make the meeting as informal-feeling as possible after being advised that one of the greatest actors of his generation “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.”

A government note said this was an “extreme reading of the law” but acknowledged that the police sometimes used this legal loophole as “an excuse for harassment” against gay men.

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Following the encounter, Sir Ian wrote warmly to Mr Major: “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.”

Mr 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.”

Mr Major was advised to tread carefully over giving an “enlightened lead to public opinion” on the issue of gay rights in another document.

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A handwritten 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.”

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

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.”

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In 1994 the age of consent was lowered from 21 to 18 by parliament.

Sir John added in his speech: “Two years later, with my encouragement, Parliament voted to lower the age of consent to 18 – not quite the 16 that the now Sir Ian McKellen had advocated, but a lowering nonetheless.”

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