Wilde as a Gay Icon
published in Queensland Bar News, December 2003
From: Anthony John Hunter Morris QC
It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays saying things against one behind one's back that are absolutely and entirely true.
- Oscar Wilde,
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), Ch. 15
Wilde's persecution has made him something of an icon for the modern gay community. In September 1997, a poll conducted by a gay magazine listed him at number 2 in the top 500 lesbian and gay heroes - curiously, first place went to Diana, Princess of Wales, a person who would never have become a celebrity but for her marriage.
But Wilde was, at best, a reluctant martyr. He did not remain in England, proudly to confess his conduct and make a political statement - he remained in England to perjure himself, falsely denying on oath the acts to which he later admitted in De Profundis, in the pathetic belief that his own intelligence and wit would enable him to deceive the jury. He was no more a martyr for gay rights than Bill Clinton was a martyr for the cause of adultery, or of heterosexual men who choose to take advantage of female subordinates in the workplace.
However, Wilde's notoriety as a convicted homosexual inevitably led to his adoption as patron saint of the gay rights movement, which began in the United Kingdom in the 1950s, but is now usually thought of as an American phenomenon and dated to the Stonewall riots in 1969. Wilde's trademark green carnation became one of the first symbols adopted by homosexual men to identify themselves, although latterly supplanted by the pink triangle (adapted from the distinctive markings used to identify homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps), the rainbow pride flag, the lambda symbol, and, more recently, the red AIDS awareness ribbon.
This may well have surprised Wilde, because, when asked what the green carnation signified, he replied: "Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess". When a novel was published anonymously with the title The Green Carnation in 1894, satirising the relationship between Wilde and Bosie Douglas, and Wilde was suspected of being its author, he wrote to the Pall Mall Gazette:
I invented that magnificent flower. But with the middle-class and mediocre book that usurps its strangely beautiful name I have, I need hardly say, nothing whatsoever to do. The flower is a work of art. The book is not.
In fact, it was Wilde's successor as the most fashionable playwright of his era - Noël Coward - who, in his 1929 musical Bittersweet, publicised green carnations as a symbol of homosexuality, with the lyrics:
Sir Noël Coward
Pretty boys, witty boys,
You may sneer
At our disintegration.
Haughty boys, naughty boys,
Dear, dear, dear!
Swooning with affectation ...
And as we are the reason
For the Nineties being gay,
We all wear a green carnation.
Coward was not a particular fan of Oscar Wilde. In his Diaries - not intended for publication during his lifetime - Coward wrote:
I have read the Oscar Wilde letters and have come to the reluctant conclusion that he was one of the silliest, most conceited and unattractive characters that ever existed. His love letters to Lord Alfred Douglas are humourless, affected and embarrassing, and his crawling letter from prison to the Home Secretary beneath contempt. De Profundis is one long wail of self-pity. It is extraordinary indeed that such a posing, artificial old queen should have written one of the greatest comedies in the English language. In my opinion it was the only thing of the least importance that he did write.
Elsewhere in the Diaries, Coward wrote:
Read the unexpurgated De Profundis. Poor Oscar Wilde, what a silly, conceited, inadequate creature he was and what a dread self-deceiver. It is odd that such brilliant wit should be allied to no humour at all. I didn't expect him to enjoy prison life and to be speechless with laughter from morning till night, but, after all, there are people even in gaol and he might have had a little warm human joke occasionally, if only with the warder. The trouble with him was that he was a 'beauty-lover'. Read Maughan's Writer's Notebook. So clear and unpretentious and accurate after that poor, podgy pseudo-philosopher.
The significant difference between Wilde and Coward, in terms of their homosexuality, is that Coward practised both honesty and discretion. Coward never married, and was apparently faithful to his long-term male lovers. There are clues to his homosexuality in much of his writing, but one has the impression that these were "in" jokes intended for the amusement of those who understood the references - nothing like Wilde's heavy-handed allusions to homosexuality, particularly in Dorian Gray, which appear almost as an unconscious attempt to "out" himself. Coward lived most of his life under the same legal regime as Wilde, but behaved with the kind of discretion of which Wilde was seemingly incapable. Privately, he expressed his views in these terms:
Any sexual activities when over-advertised are tasteless, and for as long as these barbarous laws exist it should be remembered that homosexuality is a penal offence and should be considered as such socially, although not morally. This places on the natural homo a burden of responsibility to himself, his friends and society which he is too prone to forget.
Coward welcomed the decriminalisation of homosexual conduct in 1967, recording these thoughts in the Diaries:
The Homosexual Bill has passed through the House of Commons with a majority of fifty-five votes. I read the debate in the Telegraph. Really some of the opposition speeches were so bigoted, ignorant and silly that one can hardly believe that adult minds, particularly those adult minds concerned with our Government, should be so basically idiotic. However, now all will be well apparently and the law will be changed at the next session. Nothing will convince the bigots, but the blackmailers will be discouraged and fewer haunted, terrified young men will commit suicide.
Still, when encouraged to "out" himself in solidarity with others of his sexual orientation, Coward declined to do so, saying "There are still a few old ladies in Worthing who don't know". It is not surprising that Coward's discretion and sense of duty has made him much less fashionable than Wilde, in circles of gay activism.
The landmark Wolfenden Report was published in 1957, recommending the decriminalisation of homosexuality in the United Kingdom, but the Government was slow to adopt the majority recommendations. The situation was not assisted by the subsequent disclosure that the son of the Committee's chair, John Wolfenden, was gay: Wolfenden reportedly wrote to his son requesting "1) That we stay out of each other's way for the time being; 2) That you wear rather less make-up."
In the decade between the publication of the Wolfenden Report and its legislative adoption, Oscar Wilde was trotted out as a posthumous champion for the cause which he had so desperately tried to convince three successive juries was not his own. It is no coincidence that, in 1960, two different movies about Wilde's life were released - the Robert Morley movie, and the Peter Finch movie. Both were aimed squarely at shoring up public opinion in favour of the Wolfenden recommendations.
One might think that a more natural champion for the gay rights cause would have been a man like Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician, creator of the first working computer, and leader of the code-breaking team at Bletchley Park which decrypted the German "Enigma" code during the Second World War. In 1952, Turing was arrested after he reported to police the theft of his wallet by a rent-boy whose services Turing had engaged. Unlike Wilde, Turing made no perjured attempt to deny the facts: he admitted his conduct, and sought only to argue that what occurred between consenting adults, in the privacy of his home, could not be characterised as indecent. He was convicted and, offered the alternatives of a year's imprisonment or chemical castration, opted for the latter. As the details of his wartime work were still heavily classified, his immeasurable contribution to the war effort - the huge number of British and Allied lives saved through his code-breaking efforts, his decisive contributions to victory in the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Atlantic, and the likelihood that he alone advanced the Allied victory by as much as 12 months - could not be taken into account on sentencing. He committed suicide two years later.
Alternatively, if one looks for a more dashing and chivalrous gay icon, numerous names spring to mind, from Alexander the Great, to Richard the Lionheart, to Lawrence of Arabia. Then again, if artistic talent is the criterion, surely Michelangelo and Tchaikowsky have claims which at least equals Wilde's. Or if pathos and tragedy are the necessary ingredients for a gay hero, could there be a more awful story than that of Edward II, King of England, who, after affairs with Piers Gaveston and Hugh Dispenser, was agonisingly murdered at Berkeley Castle in 1327 by the insertion of a red-hot poker through his rectum?
Yet it is Wilde, more than any other historical, literary or artistic figure, who has become the standard-bearer of gay activism. Though he never wrote a single line which was openly supportive of homosexuality - though he lived a life of deceit to his wife, family and friends - though he was so upset by the mere suggestion that he posed as a homosexual, that he prosecuted Queensberry for a libel which nobody else ever read until Wilde himself chose to place it in the public domain - though, through his counsel, he characterised homosexual intimacy as "the gravest of all offences" - though, by his own sworn testimony, he vehemently (and falsely) denied both the inclinations and the acts for which he is now promoted as a champion - despite all of this, he has been canonised as patron saint in the gay Martyrology. Why ? Maybe because, at his first indecency trial, the prosecutor Charles Gill - lacking either the finesse of his leader (Carson) at the libel trial, or the aggression of his leader (Lockwood) at the second indecency trial - offered Wilde the opportunity to say something meaningful, rather than something witty, flippant or shallow. Gill's seemingly innocuous question - "What is 'the love that dare not speak its name'?" - produced this remarkable ex tempore response, possibly the profoundest thing Oscar Wilde ever uttered, and certainly the most sincere remark that passed his lips throughout three successive trials:
'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 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 elder and a younger man, when the elder 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.
A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.
- Oscar Wilde,
The Critic as Artist (1888)