Thursday, March 17, 2011

Oscar Wilde's Influence on Gay Identity

In honor of St. Patrick’s Day, I thought it would be appropriate to post this piece on the most famous Irish homosexual (it was Oscar Wilde or Graham Norton, I chose to be a bit more serious, LOL).  Happy St. Patrick’s Day!!!

After his 1895 trial for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde's name became a byword for immorality. But in the 20th century, gay men embraced Wilde as an icon of gay history.

555314_com_ow1Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was an Irish poet, playwright, critic, essayist, novelist, and the preeminent aesthete of the Victorian era, whose unparalleled genius for witty conversation and a well-turned aphorism elevated him to the height of English society in the 1880s and 1890s. But his 1895 trial for “gross indecencies” (homosexual acts), and his defense of love between men, made Wilde an inadvertent hero of the 20th century’s gay rights movement.

Wilde’s Impact on Victorian Social Propriety

Wilde studied with the critic Walter Pater at Oxford’s Magdalen College and adopted Pater’s appreciation of “Art for Art’s sake”—that is, to worship Beauty simply because it is beautiful. Some of Pater’s critics insinuated that Aestheticism was merely a euphemism for homosexuality.

oscar wilde sentenceWilde himself was the opposite of the stereotypically strapping, hale Victorian male: he wore his hair in long waves; the London World reported he favored a costume of “open-work embroidered shirt showing black silk lining, a large yellow silk handkerchief thrust in the breast of the coat, and a high stock [stocking] of the past ages,” and always wore an ostentatious flower (a lily, a green carnation) in his buttonhole.

Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), told the fable of a young aesthete who embraces Youth and Beauty while his soul, embodied in a portrait of himself, reveals the depths of his moral decay. Nevertheless, young men in 1890s London knowingly imitated Wilde’s unique style of dress and comportment, perhaps recognizing Wilde’s coded homosexuality under a socially-acceptable veneer of aesthetic admiration.

Wilde’s Trials and Defense of Love Between Men

wildeIn 1891, Wilde had met and fallen in love with handsome Oxford student Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie to his friends) to the unending chagrin of Bosie’s pugnacious father, the Marquess of Queensberry. In 1895 the Marquess accused Wilde of being a sodomite; Wilde sued him for libel and lost. Soon afterwards, the government charged Wilde with “gross indecencies.” Wilde was asked to define “the love that dare not speak its name,” a phrase from one of Bosie’s own poems:

"It is beautiful; it is fine; it is the noblest form of affection. It is intellectual and has existed repeatedly between an elder and a younger man when the elder has the intellect and the younger has all the joy and hope and glamour of life. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”

Victorian society, unfortunately, made a moral example of Wilde. He was convicted in May 1895 and sentenced to the maximum penalty of two years’ hard labor. Upon his conviction, producers erased his authorship from playbills, and his name connoted immorality, in particular the disgrace of homosexuality, for years after his death in 1900.

Gay men in the first few decades of the twentieth century, identifying with the symbol of homosexuality’s consequences, internalized the shame and self-loathing imposed on Wilde. In E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, set in the Edwardian period, the title character seeks a cure for his homosexual feelings, admitting that he is “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.”

Wilde’s Revival in Mid-to-Late Twentieth Century

As the infamy of his trial faded from memory, and as sexual mores relaxed after World War I, a more sympathetic light was cast on Wilde.

770093_com_owbWhen the gay rights movement erupted in the United States and Europe, LGBT people sought historical icons with which to identify. Wilde’s life seemed to encompass the extremes of being homosexual: possessing brilliance, wit, and beauty, but suffering shame, opprobrium, and fear in the name of love. Gays embraced this iconography in the 1960s and 1970s. As one example of Wilde’s reclamation, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop opened in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1967, one block from where the Stonewall rebellion would take place two years later. The bookstore closed on March 29, 2009.

Read more at Suite101: Oscar Wilde's Influence on Gay Identity: Wilde’s Impact on 19th and 20th Century Gay Culture


Chris said...

"The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it" is one that I can't get over. Brutally true.

JoeBlow said...

So very true, Chris, so very true.