Watching 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.
Oscar 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.
This article originally appeared on SoSoGay online.