Our Gay Ancestors: Who Was Oscar Wilde?
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
One of Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s most famous quotes, and no one is more of an expert on being themself in the face of adversity than Oscar Wilde.
Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1854. His full name is Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. He grew up in a classy, scholarly family, and his writing was encouraged by his parents, who were also both writers. He attended Trinity College in Dublin from 1871 to 1874, and later Magdalen College in Oxford from 1874 to 1878. After university, Wilde became known as a witty scholar and an important face for the Aestheticism movement, which supported the notion that art should exist solely for the purpose of beauty.
While he spent most of his life among artistic scholars and speaking on the importance of aestheticism, Wilde didn’t actually produce his best works until the last decade of his life. His first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in book form in 1891. The book was heavily criticized for being “immoral,” but Wilde insisted that art was allowed to be amoral, as part of the aestheticism movement. In 1891, he published Intentions, a series of essays relaying his thoughts on art and aestheticism. That year, he also published two different volumes of short stories, A House of Pomegranates and Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, and Other Stories. He was the most successful with his society comedies, such as Lady Windermere’s Fan.
Aside from being an amazing writer whose work helped propel the aesthetic movement, his daring personality and natural wit also helped the gay community. In 1884, Wilde married Constance Lloyd, but it’s believed that she was not his only partner. In the mid-1890s, the marquess of Queensbury accused Wilde of sodomy, because Wilde was sleeping with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde’s friends insisted that he let it go and leave the country, but Wilde refused. He tried to sue the marquess for libel (spreading disinformation about his character), but the evidence stacked up against him and Wilde spent two years in jail. During this time, he wrote a long letter to Douglas that was published posthumously in 1905 under the title De Profundis, which translates to Out of the Depths. The book was edited down for length, but close friends of Wilde thought he would want his last writing to be published.
In May of 1897, Wilde got out of prison. He went back to France and wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol about his time in prison. Wilde died suddenly of acute meningitis in November of 1900. He left behind two children and his wife, Constance, along with a lengthy repertoire of excellent writing.
I have a fascination with the tales of our gay ancestors who did jail time because of their sexuality (see my article about Alan Turing). I have to wonder if they spent any of those long days behind bars thinking about their future. Did they have any idea that their actions were becoming legendary historical timestamps? Were they looking out for the good of their people with the intent of making things better? Oscar Wilde must have known that he would lose the libel case when everything the marquess said about him was true. When he was tried for gross indecency, he had the opportunity to run and hide in France where he would be safe, but he chose to stand his ground.
Wilde’s legacy has remained notable. During his time in the London theater scene, he popularized the gay indicator of wearing a green carnation on the lapel of his coat. The aestheticism movement also cast a shadow on the perception of men in theater. The periodical Punch used Wilde as the center of a satire piece mocking the “unmasculine devotion to art” that the movement represented. Wilde’s writing also displayed a repetitive theme of a dark, forbidden sin or secret, which he related to his “reckless pursuit of pleasure” in his real life.
Oscar Wilde’s life is commemorated in an elegant, extravagant bar on 27th Street in Manhattan, New York. Frank McCole and Tommy Burke opened the bar to honor Wilde as an Irishman and his struggles. The bar is located inside a building that was one home to a prohibition enforcement group and the mob, which was a selling point for McCole and Burke. Inside the building is nearly four million dollars worth of fancy decorations from all over the world, including a life-sized sculpture of Wilde himself, with his hand poised as if he were holding a pint of Guinness.
England didn’t let up their anti-gay laws until over halfway through the twentieth century, and there are hundreds of thousands of people who suffered because of them. As the world continues to move in a better direction, a lot of us no longer have to worry about being arrested and jailed for who we are. We should still honor the memory of those who suffered so we wouldn’t have to. We have the freedom to be ourselves without fear, unlike those who came before us.