While spotlights shine on same sex marriages and homophobia internationally and change is occurring at a reasonable pace, it took over a hundred years for the archaic Victorian law used to prosecute author Oscar Wilde to come under reform. The fact that so much time passed before said reform took effect fuels the flames of veracity as to what is accurate about Wilde, his case and homophobia at the time and from history from then till now. Passions obscure the strongest of historical facts when written through biased lenses and data are not readily available from the subjective parties’ perspective. In Wilde’s case there is ample documentation on his own personal perspective, which lends to a retrospective comparison of his view (his defense while on trial and in his letter to his lover, De Profundis, while serving his prison sentence) and the view of society, including the press.
First, it’s important to understand the history of homosexuality legality in Britain to understand the intensity of scrutiny and bias that Wilde incurred. Years before the formation of the United Kingdom, in 1707, Henry VIII pioneered The Buggery Act, 1533; it was the country’s first civil sodomy laws, punishable by hanging. Previously, homosexual offenses were dealt with in ecclesiastical courts. Since that time the Buggery Act has been repealed and re-enacted and repealed. Although the law changed and the death penalty was removed (Offences against the Person Act 1861), male homosexual acts remained illegal and were punishable by imprisonment. The Labouchere Amendment, of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, extended the laws regarding homosexuality to include any kind of sexual activity between males. Under this broad interpretation of Indecency, Oscar Wilde was tried, convicted and sentenced to two years of hard labor. Once his imprisonment hit the press, human emotion and sensationalism altered the course of history of homosexuality.
On April 7, 1895 The Salt Lake Herald published an article, Damaging Evidence Given which was similarly mirrored in the New York Times and other papers around the world that highlighted the immorality and sensationalism of the trial of Oscar Wilde for criminal activity, violating the law of Indecency. The first sentence in the article was a biased view which read and I quote, The Hero of Impulsive American and English Females Convicted of the Grossest Kind of Immorality Known to Civilized People… The article goes on to describe an action taken by Wilde to remove his hat as indolent and compares this as the way he was on the stand, generating an image of lazy uncaring defendant. The article mentions a witness on the stand, Alfred Woods, made comment that he wanted to get away from Wilde and people like him.
How did an article like this impact on the view of Wilde historically? The view of homosexuals in general? Prior to the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde, homophobia was a whisper in drawing rooms; after which it was openly discussed with disdain and hostility. Prior there existed a conservative tolerance toward people with a tendency toward an affinity preference of a male-to-male relationship, afterward homophobia flared. Wilde’s trial and conviction was a watershed time in history for an escalation of overt homophobia, fueled by biased press reporting and learned hatred.
Wilde’s emotional defense, during his trial, (below) points out the very essence of the misrepresentation of homosexuality by our collective human nature, finding that which digresses or differs from our own preferences (whether made by the dogma of religious beliefs or societal conditioning) when he states: " 'The Love that dare not speak its name' in this country 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 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, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder 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."
The very fact that homosexuals were driven into the closet lends to the veracity of Wilde’s perspective. Can his defense be construed as hubris, vapid words without heartfelt meaning? Of course, but if one were to read what he wrote while in prison (De Profundis) to his lover the reader would see a humbled man, who overtly owns the hubris of which his personality, not his sexual orientation or actions found guilty of, was at fault. In what is a profound and poignant read from a man, broken in spirit, his life forever altered, one sees a truth, an authenticity of spirit, a view into what it is to be homosexual at a time when writers of same wanted to paint it very differently. Wilde was told by friends to lie about his inclination. To this he wrote:
When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realizing what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else – the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one's own experiences is to arrest one's own development. To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.
He goes on to write a tome on his experience prior to the trial and during, how he felt about his lover, his preference—his God given nature, his self-expressed hubris,
and arrogance that he felt responsible for his ruination, not because of a sexual preference but rather because of rubbing shoulders of those in power the wrong way and failing to cater to the powers that be. That he defended his own character and refused to cater or yield casts a different shadow on the whole debacle he lived through that broke his spirit. He was never allowed a life of freedom to be who he was born to be, after that, and fled England to live in France under a pseudonym to his death.
History looks back to Wilde as a criminal of indecency, but to what real crime did he commit and what impact did the biased reporting press have on this view? The consensus is very few see the man, the author of De Profundis, and only see a flamboyant effeminate who was a criminal, they do not see a man who dared to be who he was, despite biased from laws and the press and a large sector of the population he lives in, an untimely unfortunate historical twist, the odds against him. There is no mystery that history has been written from a biased perspective. When such a heated topic as homosexual behavior, condemned by religious and civil laws, when abhorrence exists through societal programming, and it is this same thought process that exists in the hand of the pen that writes the story, history or a non-fiction novel, how can one not question the veracity of bias? How can one not question the intolerance in ones own heart, that wants to believe what is different from what is?