BY BAY COLT
Oscar Wilde was an Irish playwright, poet, and aestheticist from the 19th century, well-known both then and now for his witty personality, critically acclaimed writing, and the blazing scandals that characterized his life. He is largely considered to be one of the most famous homosexual authors to have lived and wrote in Victorian London, a city that held a very different attitude towards queer people than it does today—most notably in regard to England’s now cessated sodomy laws, which criminalized same-sex relations between men and played a large role in facilitating Wilde’s spectacular fall from grace.
The inciting incident for Wilde’s infamous prosecution had its roots in his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, which struck up in 1891 when they were introduced by a mutual friend. At the time, Wilde had recently discovered an affinity for writing satirical plays—and was enjoying his freedom to irritate Victorian society in entirely new ways—while Douglas was an undergraduate at Oxford. If Wilde was flamboyant in personality, then Douglas was reckless; their affair was tempestuous and dangerously public, and Wilde indulged Douglas’ every minute whim. This indiscretion, something that might be considered merely a nuisance today, was deeply risky in 19th century London, when such things could be criminally prosecuted.
Unfortunately, Wilde was thrilled by the peril of his and Douglas’ behavior. In the past, his dalliances with other members of his close circle of friends was contained, if not exactly subtle. Now, Douglas enamored him with public displays of affection, unabashed exhibitionism, and homoerotic rivalries with Wilde’s other paramours, most notably Robert Ross.
The excitement of it all began to quickly transform into apprehension when the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas’ father, grew rightfully suspicious of his son’s acquaintance with Wilde. He attempted to confront Wilde multiple times about it, but the poet had managed to mollify him. Finally, in June of 1894, he made his stance towards Wilde abundantly clear: “I do not say that you are it, but you look it, and pose at it, which is just as bad. And if I catch you and my son again in any public restaurant I will thrash you.” To this, Wilde is quoted as responding, quite famously, “I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight.” Relations between Wilde and the Marquess had never been warm, but the tensions between them reached new heights following this encounter, especially since Douglas and Wilde had no plans to cease their intimacy.
All of this came to a head in 1895, when the Marquess quite deliberately accused Wilde of posing as a sodomite. Douglas encouraged Wilde to sue for libel, and though his friends attempted to persuade him otherwise, Wilde initiated a private prosecution against the Marquess—problematic, because the Marquess’ claims were true. Though Queensberry was arrested, he was given the opportunity to prove his claims, a task which he approached in earnest. Now very worried, Wilde’s friends begged him not to continue with the prosecution; one of them, Frank Harris, told him, “They are going to prove sodomy against you,” and pleaded with Wilde to flee to France. Wilde refused.
Unfortunately, the Marquess had hired a team of private investigators, and very quickly Wilde’s illicit activities became public spectacle. There were records of his dealings with male prostitutes, cross dressers, and brothels, as well as intimate details about his courtships with Alfred Taylor and Douglas. The amount of evidence leveled against him was staggering and left the press in hysterics over what would happen next.
The trial began in earnest in April of 1895. Wilde was confronted with all manner of questioning by the Marquess’ lawyer, Edward Carson QC; he was forced to defend his writing, his private letters, and his conversations, which now all took on a dubious cast in light of the recent revelations about his proclivities. Wilde was incapable of being anything he wasn’t, even in such dire circumstances, and so many of his responses were flippant, glib, and drawlingly clever—when cross-examined about the moral content of his work, Wilde retorted that writing was neither moral nor immoral, and that only “brutes and illiterates” whose views on art are “incalculably stupid” would make such judgments. Though these witticisms drew laughter from the court, Carson was undeniably scoring more legal points against Wilde, and finally, in the opening speech for the defense, when Carson announced that he had located several male prostitutes who would be testifying against Wilde, the poet chose to cut his losses and drop the prosecution. The Marquess was found not guilty; Wilde was declared to truly be a sodomite. The acquittal meant Wilde was financially liable for the defense, and the incurred costs left him bankrupt.
Following this, a warrant for Wilde’s arrest was issued on grounds of sodomy and gross indecency. Robbie Ross pleaded with him to try and board a boat for France, while Wilde’s mother encouraged him to stay and fight. Wilde was paralyzed with inaction, did neither, and was arrested.
When the trial began, many of Wilde’s friends and acquaintances, also fearing prosecution, fled the country. Douglas tried to insist on staying and providing evidence in Wilde’s defense, but was eventually convinced to flee as well.
This time, Wilde did not try overly hard to defend himself. When questioned, he gave eloquent speeches about the beautiful and noble affections that existed between himself and other men, insisting that “there is nothing unnatural about it” and that he was being treated wrongly for being prosecuted in this way. This did make him more sympathetic to some; Reverend Stewart Headlam paid for the majority of Wilde’s bail, freeing him from prison for the time being, and even Carson, the Marquess’ lawyer, approached the Solicitor General, Frank Lockwood, and asked, “Can we not let up on the fellow now?” to which Lockwood answered that he would like to, but feared that the case had become too politicized to be dropped. Finally, in May of 1895, both Wilde and Taylor were convicted of gross indecency and given the maximum sentence, two years of hard labor.
Wilde’s story, already rife with injustice, takes a sharp nosedive into tragedy at this point. After two years of imprisonment, Wilde’s fragile health had suffered a harsh blow, and he languished in exile, poverty, and alcoholism for three years before dying of meningitis in 1900. In that time, he utterly lost his joy for writing, and published nothing else after his final poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The hopeless trauma of prison life had robbed him of his sparkling and lively nature as swiftly as any degenerative disease. The only bright spot amongst these final miserable years was Wilde’s reunification with Douglas; they spent several months in one another’s close company, even living together for a time in Naples, until their respective families forced them apart on threat of financial support being withdrawn. In the end, Wilde spent his final moments with Robbie Ross, his most faithful lover and friend.
Wilde’s misfortune is far from unique. History is choked with tales of queer people suffering all manner of indignities at the hands of heteronormative societies; lovers torn apart by the law, children and young adults sentenced to abusive therapies to “cure” them, innocent people tortured and murdered for the crime of existing beyond the confines of predescribed normality. It would not be difficult to look at the lives of people like Oscar Wilde and decide that there was nothing but heartache.
However, as unlucky as he had been, it would be foolish to disregard the very real happiness and joy that Wilde experienced as a homosexual unashamed of himself. He spent his life surrounded by a close circle of friends and companions who shared deep, true affections with Wilde, despite the hostile society they lived in. Robbie Ross, loyal far beyond death, even went on to commission Wilde’s tombstone, including a small compartment for his own ashes to be interred once he passed away. Thirty two years after Ross’ death, on the fiftieth anniversary of Wilde’s passing, Ross’ ashes were finally placed into Wilde’s tomb where they belong.
Though he died in dishonor and infamy, over a hundred years later, Wilde’s name is once again spoken with praise and warmth. His works are widely circulated, and he has been commemorated in numerous ways for his contributions to art, literature, and LGBTQ+ visibility in England and abroad. A tradition has even struck up where people apply lipstick and kiss his tombstone, as well as leave behind flowers, cards, and mementos in his honor. Some people have denounced this practice as disrespectful and disgusting; but Stephen Fry, English actor, comedian, and author, said this of the lipstick tributes: “Here’s this man who believed when he died that his name would be toxic for generations to come. For hundreds of years his work wouldn’t be read. He would stand for nothing but perversion. Utter disgust of a society that couldn’t bear people like him… his tomb had to be restored because the polished stone of its surface had corroded through kissing. Thousands and thousands… Wouldn’t it be allowed once to just wake him up for five minutes just to tell him that, then he can go back to sleep again?”
In 2017, Wilde was one of many thousands of queer men, living and dead, who were officially pardoned for homosexual acts that are no longer considered crimes. Perhaps too little, too late—but then, perhaps not.
Wilde’s story—not only his radiant life, but the adoration that has followed in the wake of his death—remains one testament out of millions to the enduring nature of queer devotion throughout history: we existed. We were not aberrations. We were happy. We were loved. A timeless rallying cry shared by all the outcasts and freaks, the oppressed and the struck down, the disobedients who rebelled against rigid stratification, every one striving ceaselessly for some far-flung world of freedom they could scarcely imagine.