Ian McKellen Chokes Up While Reading a Poignant Coming-Out Letter

“In 1977, Armis­tead Maupin wrote a let­ter to his par­ents that he had been com­pos­ing for half his life,” writes the Guardian’s Tim Adams. “He addressed it direct­ly to his moth­er, but rather than send it to her, he pub­lished it in the San Fran­cis­co Chron­i­cle, the paper in which he had made his name with his loose­ly fic­tion­alised Tales of the City, the dai­ly ser­i­al writ­ten from the alter­na­tive, gay world in which he lived.” The late 1970s saw a final flow­er­ing of news­pa­per-seri­al­ized nov­els, the same form in which Charles Dick­ens had grown famous near­ly a cen­tu­ry and a half before. But of all the zeit­geisty sto­ries then told a day at a time in urban cen­ters across Amer­i­ca, none has had any­thing like the last­ing impact of San Fran­cis­co as envi­sioned by Maupin.

Much of Tales of the City’s now-acknowl­edged impor­tance comes from the man­ner in which Maupin pop­u­lat­ed that San Fran­cis­co with a sex­u­al­ly diverse cast of char­ac­ters — gay, straight, and every­thing in between — and pre­sent­ed their lives with­out moral judg­ment.

He saved his con­dem­na­tion for the likes of Ani­ta Bryant, the singer and Flori­da Cit­rus Com­mis­sion spokes­woman who inspired Maupin to write that veiled let­ter to his own par­ents when she head­ed up the anti-homo­sex­u­al “Save Our Chil­dren” polit­i­cal cam­paign. When Michael Tol­liv­er, one of the series’ main gay char­ac­ters, dis­cov­ers that his folks back in Flori­da have thrown in their lot with Bryant, he responds with an elo­quent and long-delayed com­ing-out that begins thus:

Dear Mama,

I’m sor­ry it’s tak­en me so long to write. Every time I try to write you and Papa I real­ize I’m not say­ing the things that are in my heart. That would be OK, if I loved you any less than I do, but you are still my par­ents and I am still your child.

I have friends who think I’m fool­ish to write this let­ter. I hope they’re wrong. I hope their doubts are based on par­ents who love and trust them less than mine do. I hope espe­cial­ly that you’ll see this as an act of love on my part, a sign of my con­tin­u­ing need to share my life with you. I would­n’t have writ­ten, I guess, if you had­n’t told me about your involve­ment in the Save Our Chil­dren cam­paign. That, more than any­thing, made it clear that my respon­si­bil­i­ty was to tell you the truth, that your own child is homo­sex­u­al, and that I nev­er need­ed sav­ing from any­thing except the cru­el and igno­rant piety of peo­ple like Ani­ta Bryant.

I’m sor­ry, Mama. Not for what I am, but for how you must feel at this moment. I know what that feel­ing is, for I felt it for most of my life. Revul­sion, shame, dis­be­lief — rejec­tion through fear of some­thing I knew, even as a child, was as basic to my nature as the col­or of my eyes.

You can hear Michael’s, and Maupin’s, full let­ter read aloud by Sir Ian McK­ellen in the Let­ters Live video above. In response to its ini­tial pub­li­ca­tion, Adams writes, “Maupin had received hun­dreds of oth­er let­ters, near­ly all of them from read­ers who had cut out the col­umn, sub­sti­tut­ed their own names for Michael’s and sent it ver­ba­tim to their own par­ents. Maupin’s Let­ter to Mama has since been set to music three times and become ‘a stan­dard for gay men’s cho­rus­es around the world.’ ”

Those words come from a piece on Maupin’s auto­bi­og­ra­phy Log­i­cal Fam­i­ly, pub­lished just last year, in which the Tales of the City author tells of his own com­ing out as well as his friend­ships with oth­er non-straight cul­tur­al icons, one such icon being McK­ellen him­self. “I have many regrets about not hav­ing come out ear­li­er,” McK­ellen told BOMB mag­a­zine in 1998, “but one of them might be that I did­n’t engage myself in the pol­i­tick­ing.” He’d come out ten years before, as a stand in oppo­si­tion to Sec­tion 28 of the Local Gov­ern­ment Bill, then under con­sid­er­a­tion in the British Par­lia­ment, which pro­hib­it­ed local author­i­ties from depict­ing homo­sex­u­al­i­ty “as a kind of pre­tend­ed fam­i­ly rela­tion­ship.”

McK­ellen entered the realm of activism in earnest after choos­ing that moment to reveal his sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion on the BBC, which he did on the advice of Maupin and oth­er friends. A few years lat­er he appeared in the tele­vi­sion minis­eries adap­ta­tion of Tales of the City as Archibald Anson-Gid­de, a wealthy real-estate and cul­tur­al impre­sario (one, as Maupin puts it, of the city’s “A‑gays”). In the nov­els, Archibald Anson-Gid­de dies clos­et­ed, of AIDS, pro­vok­ing the ire of cer­tain oth­er char­ac­ters for not hav­ing done enough for the cause in life — a charge, thanks in part to the words of Michael Tol­liv­er, that nei­ther Maupin nor McK­ellen will sure­ly nev­er face.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Bene­dict Cum­ber­batch Reads a Let­ter Alan Tur­ing Wrote in “Dis­tress” Before His Con­vic­tion For “Gross Inde­cen­cy”

Allen Gins­berg Talks About Com­ing Out to His Fam­i­ly & Fel­low Poets on 1978 Radio Show (NSFW)

Ian McK­ellen Reads a Pas­sion­ate Speech by William Shake­speare, Writ­ten in Defense of Immi­grants

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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