by Carolyn Gage
IN A RECENT GAY-AND-LESBIAN THEATER newsletter, there were two notices about Oscar Wilde. One was recruiting petitioners for a campaign to obtain an official pardon for Wilde, and the other was recruiting support for an Oscar Wilde celebration.
Why is Oscar Wilde, author of the current Broadway hit comedy An Ideal Husband, being marketed as some kind of figurehead for gay and lesbian theater activists? Why are gay men attempting to unilaterally define what is touted to the media as coalition culture? Why are lesbian “theater wives” – for the questionable privilege of a male-funded theater roof over their heads – willing to table women’s issues in favor of those that speak to the interests of their gay male “theater husbands”?
Oscar Wilde is not my cup of tea. His “culture” – arrogantly classist, misogynist, pedophilic – shares nothing in common with lesbian-feminist values. We need to know about the facts before we join our gay brothers in celebrating as a martyr someone whom many of us would consider a criminal.
According to the record, Wilde was sent to jail because of his sexual exploitation of working-class and poverty-class child prostitutes. It was they who presented the testimony against him, and it was their evidence that sent him to prison.
Wilde’s homophobia set the whole legal process in motion in the first place. His lover’s father “accused” Wilde of homosexual behavior, and Wilde, in a fit of pique and egged on by his narcissistic lover, sued the man for libel – in other words, for lying. Hardly a stand for gay rights.
When Wilde approached an attorney to represent him, the attorney advised him, “I can only accept this brief, Mr. Wilde, if you can assure me on your honour…that there is no and never has been any foundation for the charges that are made against you.” As told by his biographer H. Montgomery Hyde, Wilde stood up and declared the charges “absolutely false and groundless.”
Wilde was married with two children at the time that he instigated his frivolous and self-destructive libel suit. It was an action taken without consulting his wife and without the funds to pay the legal fees. Foolishly, Wilde trusted his lover, Lord Alfred, to cover the costs. After his incarceration, his creditors moved in, and his family’s possessions – even the children’s toys – were ruthlessly auctioned off. His wife, compelled by the scandal to leave England, found that it was necessary to change her name and her sons’ names even to obtain lodging in a foreign hotel.
Although Constance Wilde was strongly advised to divorce her husband, he importuned her from prison, and she decided against taking such action. In fact, she continued to demonstrate extraordinary consideration toward the man who had shown so little for her and for their children, traveling in poor health from Switzerland to Reading Gaol in order to convey in person the news of Wilde’s mother’s death. After his release from prison, Wilde proceeded to violate all of the agreements he had made with her to protect the family from any further notoriety.
As a footnote to the marriage, Wilde had not had sexual relations with Constance for several years. The reason he had given was that his syphilis, which he had contracted from a prostitute during his student years and had believed to be cured, was, in fact, still virulent. There is no evidence that Wilde ever shared this information with any of the boys with whom he had sexual relations.
But, back to the trial… Needless to say, the man that Oscar Wilde was suing did everything he could to prove his innocence – and so, not surprisingly, he produced as witnesses a number of the child prostitutes whose “services” had been procured by Wilde.
A number of my gay brothers will no doubt insist that I differentiate here between “child prostitute” and “teenaged prostitute.” I confess that the distinction is lost on me. I will leave it to those for whom qualifiers of age, class, geography, period in history, provide a certain rationale, if not outright justification, for a practice apparently intrinsic to gay male culture yet violently antithetical to lesbian-feminist values.
Some gay brothers will also jump to Wilde’s defense, claiming that either the boys were being paid by the defendant to testify or else they were cooperating with the state in order to avoid prosecution. That some of these boys had histories of blackmailing their “clients” has also been used to discredit their testimony. Leaving for a moment the fact that Wilde admitted to friends on several subsequent occasions that the charges had been true, let us look at these objections.
Why shouldn’t these boys protect their interests against a class of sexual predators who had chosen to victimize them specifically because of their disenfranchisement both as children and as members of a profoundly oppressed underclass? Why should anyone be surprised that Wilde’s affectionately engraved, gift cigarette cases should find their way to the pawnshop? If, as a function of his privilege, Wilde chose to romanticize his sexually exploitive transactions, such sentimentality was a luxury his victims could ill afford. When wealthy members of an elite class pay bargain prices for the sexual services of children, based on the poverty-class economy of these children, can they be surprised if the more enterprising of these boys turn around and charge them premium prices for privacy based on their economy of privilege?
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THE PROSTITUTER AND THE prostituted is not a mutual one. It is the standard method of operation for colonialists, enslavers, and pimps, to brutalize the members of an underclass created by economic and sometimes social violence, and then to point to their brutalization as a rationale for the conditions to which they are subjected. This circular and self-serving logic is in play when Wilde’s defenders attempt to discredit his victims as “blackmailers and thieves.”
Wilde gave a speech during the trial, which is often cited as a testimonial to his gay pride. In fact, he gave the speech as an attempt to prove that his relations with Lord Alfred were not gay, but rather a platonic bonding between an older man and a younger man. The context in which he framed his famous “love that dares not speak its name” speech was profoundly homophobic.
During the trial, Wilde persisted in denying any participation in homosexual activity. Repeatedly questioned about his frequenting of a notorious male brothel, where his “companions” were children who worked as valets, grooms, and coachmen, Wilde stated that he sought the boys out because they were “bright and entertaining,” insisting that he was oblivious to class differences: “I never inquired, nor did I care, what station they occupied.” And again, “I recognize no social distinctions of any kind… “
This is difficult to believe when, on one occasion, Wilde picked up a boy who sold newspapers, and took him to a hotel in Brighton for a weekend. In order to disguise the obvious nature of the relationship, Wilde bought the boy a suit of clothing with insignia that would associate him with a prestigious private boys’ school. In court, he insisted that the choice of the school’s colors had been the boy’s.
In fact, Wilde was very class-conscious. In his famous letter de Profundis, he told a very different story – in which class difference features prominently:
People thought it was dreadful of me to have entertained at dinner the evil things of life… It was like feasting with panthers; the danger was half the excitement. I used to feel as a snake-charmer must feel when he lures the cobra to stir from the painted cloth or reed basket that holds it and make it spread its hood at his bidding and sway to and fro in the air… Their poison was part of their perfection.
To what does “poison” refer if not their class antagonism toward Wilde and his kind? And what a patriarchal reversal of the power relations! It is remniscent of the rhetoric used against incest victims, characterizing them as promiscuous and vampiric.
One of the boys who testified had not been procured for Wilde. He had been employed as an office boy at Wilde’s publishing firm, and Wilde had cultivated the friendship by exploiting the boy’s interest in his writing. The boy testified that he had been ignorant of Wilde’s intentions, that he was traumatized by the sexual contact, and that he was subsequently fired from his job for his association with Wilde. His emotional confusion about his victimization by a “benign” perpetrator was used against him in court as proof that he was crazy.
After his conviction, and halfway through his two-year prison sentence, Wilde wrote the following words in a petition to the Home Secretary. No doubt the homophobia is exacerbated by his desire to win a pardon, but Wilde’s attempt to characterize his homosexuality as a disease or the result of bad company is cowardly to say the least:
The Petitioner…was suffering from the most horrible form of erotomania, which made him forget his wife and children, his high social position…, the honour of his name and family, his very humanity itself, and left him the helpless prey of the most revolting passions, and a gang of people who for their own profit ministered to them, and drove him to his hideous ruin.
Hardly a gay rights manifesto. And after prison? Wilde went to Paris, where he rendezvoused with Lord Alfred, who was being serviced sexually at the time by a 14-year-old boy who sold flowers on the street. This boy claimed to be “keeping” a 12-year-old at home, and Lord Alfred was attempting to gain sexual access to the boy. Wilde himself, in the words of his lover, was “hand in glove with all the little boys on the Boulevard.”
Oscar Wilde was a child molester, a woman-hater, a colonialist, a classist, a coward, and a colossal liar. The record speaks for itself. I call upon my gay brothers to drop the euphemisms surrounding the culture of prostitution and child sexual abuse, and to come out of denial about the nature of the men who participate in that culture.
Contributing editor CAROLYN CAGE is a lesbian-feminist playwright (her catalog is online at http://www.monitor net/-carolyn). In the spring OTI, she revealed “Why Annie [Oakley] Got Her Gun.”