My LGBT Hero: Oscar Wilde

WILDE1Watching Rupert Everett’s impassioned West End performance in The Judas Kiss a few weeks ago reminded me of just how important the story of Oscar Wilde is to gay history. I feel the need to champion his story again and again because many young people in the gay community are often only vaguely aware of some relevance he once had, or oblivious to his legacy altogether. We must all fully understand and appreciate the stand he made.

Oscar spoke up for same sex love at a time when it was barely even understood, let along accepted, or tolerated – and for it, he paid a great price. Victorian England was not particularly welcoming to the prospect of homosexuality. It was still illegal and carried a prison sentence. Old Queen Vic herself famously refused to believe lesbianism existed. Wilde was a one of a kind, flamboyant genius from Irish aristocracy who arrived in London armed with staggering intelligence, a killer wardrobe and astonishing wit. Soon, he was documented in newspapers and his name spread to America, where he then travelled to deliver lectures. He was a celebrity in a time before celebrities existed.

His appeal was extraordinary, and when he took to playwriting, he became the star of the London stage. But his private life earned him many enemies, who resented his relationships with young men, which he unashamedly played out in public, despite having a wife and children. The irony was that it was largely young men who had led him into the gay lifestyle and not the other way around. It was his one ill-fated love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), which put him in the bad books of the boy’s father Lord Queensbury, and ultimately led to his arrest for ‘gross indecency’. The scores of men who had followed Oscar so faithfully around London society, and basked in his fame and fortune, were suddenly nowhere to be seen – including Bosie himself. The links made in The Judas Kiss to the story of Jesus are slightly exaggerated but not without relevance. Oscar suffered the same arc of fame, adoration, envy, betrayal and ultimate destruction – all the while holding his head high in defiance of contemporary society.

WILDE2Oscar could have fled abroad and never had to face the charges that most publications dared not even describe – but he chose to stay. His trial in 1895 was quite literally the trial of the century, on account of his celebrity, and the shocking charges placed against him for living life so openly as a homosexual. The judge called it ‘the worst case I have ever tried’. Taking the stand in London’s Old Bailey, Oscar gave one of the most spellbinding testimonies in history, defending what he referred to as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. When asked to explain what that was, he declared:

‘”The love that dare not speak its name” in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dare not speak its name,” and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.’

Wilde served the maximum sentence of two years hard labour, which the court ruled ‘totally inadequate’, but his real punishment was much worse. Upon leaving prison, Wilde was forced into exile in Europe – far too infamous to stay in England, with a reputation too toxic to be allowed anywhere near his wife and children. He was penniless, in terrible physical and mental health, and suffering from writer’s block when he died in Paris at age 46. There is nothing more tragic than considering how – on his death bed – he surely thought his crime had resigned him to the dustbin of history.

But a genius like Oscar’s – much like many of our LGBT heroes before and after – is one which could never be erased. As the tide turned on sexual politics in the 20th century, and his legacy began to be reassessed, Wilde was soon catapulted back to the fore of the literary canon and his legacy is now remembered with wonder, not blocked out in shame as it was in his lifetime. Plays like The Importance Of Being Earnest and A Woman Of No Importance are some of the most performed works in theatre, and many would cite him as the greatest playwright since Shakespeare. His letters – including De Profundis, written to Bosie from jail – are some of the greatest to be written in the English language.

Aside from his political importance, Oscar’s famous wit was equally revelatory and more than just satirical banter for his contemporaries. It was the foundation of camp, which remained the unofficial language of the gay community for the century to come. Oscar concealed knowing references to same sex love in his jokes and plays, and played out a certain fabulousness through characters like Lady Bracknell, to the delight of Victorian high society, who never knew what he was really talking about. As a result, the gay community grew to communicate with one another in ways that didn’t reveal its true nature to outsiders. As gay equality becomes more of a reality, there is less of a need for this unspoken sensibility, but we should never forget where it comes from and how it was used for decades as a means of both friendly dialogue and social survival.

As with any great movement, there are many people who chip away at the issue before it sees its full glory. Certainly the 20th century gave us more gay icons than we can shake a stick at, but in my opinion, Wilde is our founding father. He opened the door through which everyone else would pass, and in doing so, sacrificed his reputation, his art and ultimately his life. A special place should always be reserved for him in LGBT history.

WILDE3This article originally appeared on SoSoGay online.

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North Sea Texas

Last Sunday I had the honour of attending the UK premiere of the Belgian film North Sea Texas – directed by Bavo Defurne, and selected as the closing film at the 2012 BFI Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. It’s a beautiful tale of teenager Pim, whose youthful affair with his neighbour Gino becomes a painful unrequited love as the pair grow up.

The setting is a rural Belgian town in the 1970s, which is so far removed from the real world, that there’s a distinct sense that Pim’s love for Gino really is all he has to bother him….but for any young gay teenager who’s ever fallen in love with a handsome straight boy, that is fairly often the case. His neglectful mother and her escapades offer a comic subplot to the narrative, and if you want to dig deep there is a lot to be said for absent fathers in the two families involved. The most poignant moment comes when Gino’s mother joins the hands of the two boys on her deathbed – signalling her silent understanding that they should be together.

A special mention must go to Anton Merton’s cinematography which makes colour into one of the film’s main characters. From vibrant yellow clothing to the perfectly captured textures of the rural landscapes, this is a story with a backdrop as beautiful as its main narrative.

The evening ended in a Q&A session with director Bavo Defurne (who looked wonderful in a white Tom Ford suit), who was thrilled to have this – his first feature film – gain such a positive reception, after years of making shorts (some of which you can preview on his Vimeo page). He’s got an undeniable style of his own, and North Sea Texas shows an incredible capacity to lay an emotional journey so bare and so honest, that even amidst such an obscure setting, most of the audience could relate their own experience to that undergone by Pim.

North Sea Texas is released in UK cinemas on April 6.

We Were Here

 

We Were Here is a powerful new film about the effect of AIDS on the gay men of San Francisco in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Last week I was fortunate enough to attend a gala screening of the film in London, jointly hosted by Attitude magazine and the Terence Higgins Trust.

The documentary is a combination of archive footage and new testimonials from a few figures who were fully involved in the Castro Street scene – who had just begun to bask in their own liberation when the terrifying disease, yet to be recognised as AIDS, infiltrated their community and struck down more than 50% of the gay population. The director

interviews a few people whose circumstances meant that greatness was truly thrust upon them. There was the newly trained nurse who became a researcher, a samaritan, and a shoulder for many a bereaved family member to cry on; the young volunteer who felt at odds with his community at first but eventually became a major political activist; and the artist who lost two partners, countless friends, and still battles with HIV today himself. All in all, the demonstration of camaraderie this film depicts is unique, admirable, and a moving snapshot of a period in time that we will hopefully never experience again.

During the Q&A conducted by director David Weissman after the film, many audience members were keen to relate what they saw on screen to what they themselves had experienced in London, and for some of the younger viewers like myself, it helped to bring the topic a little closer to home. People voiced the usual concerns over younger generations acting more careless with casual sex – perhaps because of advances in HIV treatment. However much truth there is in that, it is important that people who did not live through the days when AIDS really was a death sentence get to educate themselves through this film. It is doubly staggering to see both what this disease is capable of, and what epic feats people performed in tackling it.

The San Francisco AIDS outbreak is often glossed over as a mere moment where the epidemic began, ‘and the rest is history’. In fact, this period which the film covers is a history all in itself, and one which should be acknowledged and understood not only by the gay community, but by people from every background, because AIDS does not discriminate – it threatens all. The film is informative, moving, devastating and very much life-affirming. I implore you to see it.

We Were Here opens at selected UK cinemas on 25 November.