I am a long-time Tolkien fan, foaming at the mouth in anticipation of Peter Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring, opening barely more than a week from now. And while my knowledge of JRRT lore and LOTR trivia does not run as deep as the more serious scholars' on the Imladris discussion boards (or even so deep as that of my brother, who knew without blinking the name of Legolas Greenleaf's father, and chastised me for remembering incorrectly that he was one of Elrond's folk of Rivendell), I think I am on the fairly extreme side of the bell curve when it comes to being a real LOTR fan - I just finished re-reading the trilogy for perhaps the fourth time, I watch the trailers endlessly, and I perform a daily check of a half-dozen fansites, looking for new tidbits or some picture I might not yet have seen. And yet, in the midst of my giddy anticipation for the film that may well overshadow Star Wars* in the hearts of all of us children of the 80s (okay, maybe not), I can't help but wonder, "why is it that nobody is mentioning the fact that Gandalf is gay?"
Okay, so Gandalf isn't gay. Or, maybe he is - Tolkien never broached the subject, and he does wear a dress and spend an awful lot of time traveling with groups of sweaty men. Whatever. What I mean to say is that the actor playing Gandalf, Sir Ian McKellan, is gay. In fact, McKellan is one of the most openly gay mainstream actors working in film today, and he is a tireless activist, joining with the Stonewall Group, UK and many others to promote Gay and Lesbian rights and equality.
You're probably saying to yourself, "So what? It's no big deal at all." But you are wrong. It is, or could be at least, a huge deal. Not in that it will somehow hurt the movie - McKellan is arguably one of the best actors working today in film, and in that sense his sexuality is neither here nor there. But Gandalf is a beloved character, arguably the most beloved character in Fantasy literature. And, like I mentioned before, the LOTR films are going to be huge. Huger than huge. Lots of people are going to see these films. And what's more, lots and lots of those people, especially those who will be repeat viewers, will be the RPG and Fantasy Geek set - hordes of social misfits and self-conscious loners, pale skinned from endless hours in front of a PC or hunched over piles of d20s in a dark basement (I say this with love, for I am one of these geeks). Most of these will be young people, teenagers struggling to discover who they are, and how to maneuver through a world that brands them as upsettingly different. Many are having trouble finding dates. Many are pretending to be someone they are not to fit in at school, at home. Others are pretending not to care that they don't fit in - pretending the ridicule and cruelty they endure each day at school does not hurt. Some may be slowly discovering they are gay. Some may have broken through that gamer glass ceiling, and be dating someone more socially acceptable, and that person may be having a hard time with the ridicule.
What better role model for all of these folks (and frankly, everyone else) than a 50-some year old actor who, in addition to being openly, defiantly gay, is stunningly talented, charismatic, intelligent, caring, and, most of all, wildly successful, despite the fact that the majority of his audience still views his lifestyle as aberrant? Ian McKellan is a wonderful example of how our differences are not harmful or shameful, and of how we can be proud of ourselves and not hide those things about ourselves of which others may not approve or understand. How we can still "fit in," even excel, and be accepted for who we are, because we accept ourselves.
I do hope somebody picks up on this. I think it is important. Young people don't have a lot of good examples set for them, especially in the entertainment industry. Not only are many of the big players in the industry less than the fine human beings you'd hope for in a role model, most young people just can't identify with the perfectly sculpted ridiculously rich who fill our TV and movie screens, who have had barely a day of trouble in their lives, and who can't leave their homes without their retinue of handlers and bodyguards. But I think that these kids I'm talking about can find a way to identify with McKellan. He's a man who has fought against stereotypes and public opinion and bigotry, and who appears to have won, at least in his personal struggle.
I also hope that, thanks to Ian McKellen, there will be some general public discussion of an openly gay man playing an important literary (and now cinematic) icon. And I hope that lost and confused kids (and adults) can find a lesson in that, too. I hope that America (and other places) can find a place for homosexuality in mainstream culture, apart from in sitcoms.
And I hope I can get good tickets to see FOTR at the Chinese theater on the 19th. Damn, that movie is going to kick ass.
*I refuse to call it A New Hope or Episode IV. I know that, technically, both of these are correct, but for the first 27 years of my life it was simply Star Wars, and so, in my mind, it shall stay.