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Stage Actors and Actresses  
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Sir John Gielgud

Olivier's principal rival as the greatest Shakespearean actor of his day was Sir John Gielgud, who realized as a young man that he was gay. In his early twenties he became partners with another young actor, John Perry. The two shared lodgings and traveled together, but Gielgud discreetly avoided calling attention to the relationship, which not only might have harmed his fledgling career but could also have made him subject to prosecution.

It was running afoul of the law that pulled Gielgud from the closet. In 1953, with homophobia running high in Britain, police organized a sting operation in which Gielgud was caught and charged with solicitation. To his great distress, the matter became fodder for the press. There was a flurry of attention, but in later years the incident was rarely mentioned by journalists--and certainly not by Gielgud, who never alluded to it in his memoirs.

Although he spent the last four decades of his life with another man, Martin Hensler, Gielgud remained reluctant to discuss his sexuality or to become actively involved in the gay rights movement.

When gay director Derek Jarman criticized Sir Ian McKellen for accepting a knighthood from the notoriously homophobic Thatcher government in 1991, Gielgud declined to subscribe to a letter from other gay men and lesbians supporting McKellen's decision. Neither did he accede to McKellen's requests to participate in gay rights demonstrations.

Sir Ian McKellen

Although McKellen may now be best known as a film actor, he initially achieved fame as one of the leading Shakespearean actors of his time. It was for his contributions to British theater that he was knighted in 1991.

McKellen, who came out publicly in a 1988 radio interview, was able to turn the flap over his knighthood to advantage, using his status to become an effective spokesman for gay rights.

In addition to meeting with Thatcher's successor as prime minister, John Major, to discuss gay and lesbian issues, McKellen became a founding member of the British lobbying group Stonewall. He has also been a vigorous fund-raiser, using proceeds from international performances of his autobiographical one-man show A Knight Out to benefit gay and lesbian groups.

Harvey Fierstein

Harvey Fierstein first came to the fore as a drag performer, but later won acclaim as a playwright as well as actor. He has become an accomplished character actor, familiar by virtue of his gravelly voice and warm personality.

But for many theater-goers Fierstein remains most memorable for his Tony Award-winning performance in his autobiographical play Torch Song Trilogy (1982). With this work, Fierstein said, he became the first "real live, out-of-the-closet queer on Broadway."

Simon Callow

Another highly visible gay presence in the theater is actor-director Simon Callow. From early roles in productions at London's Gay Sweatshop, Callow has risen to international stardom for his wide-ranging work in both theater and film.

A prolific writer as well, Callow has been extremely candid in discussing his sexuality. He is also the author of several biographies. His subjects have included Oscar Wilde and gay actor Charles Laughton.

Sir Anthony Sher

Another actor whose honesty about his homosexuality seems not to have damaged his career is South African-born Anthony Sher, a distinguished Shakespearean actor who has recently been knighted. A member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he is best known for his Shakespearean roles, especially his fool in King Lear, his Richard III, and his Macbeth, but he has also played a wide variety of classic and contemporary roles.

Widely regarded as one of the finest actors on the London stage, Sher has recently appeared in television and film roles. Perhaps his most notable film role is in Nancy Mecklar's Alive and Kicking (1997), which features a screenplay by Martin Sherman. Sher plays a gay therapist in love with an HIV-positive dancer.

Nathan Lane

Tony-Award-winning actor Nathan Lane has played a wide variety of roles on stage and also in movies and on television. His repertoire includes a number of gay characters, including several in plays by Terrence McNally. He won Drama Desk awards for his performances in McNally's The Lisbon Traviata (1989, directed by John Tillinger) and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994, directed by Joe Mantello).

Long out to family and friends, Lane said that his sexual orientation was "never . . . something [that he] kept a secret," but he refrained from public comment until 1999. He cited the murder of gay university student Matthew Shepard as a motivating force behind his decision, and he expressed the hope that his public acknowledgment that he is gay "might make it easier for someone else."

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