The Importance of Being Wilde

I’ve commonly heard “gay rights” or perhaps “gay marriage” cited as an example of a recent social movement. “It really just took off in the last two years or so,” someone told me.

And to some extent, that’s true. Marriage between same sex couples became legal in Massachusetts in 2004, and in the last couple of years other states have adopted similar positions.

There have been many recent victories in the gay rights movement.

But is the movement new?

Gay people, of course, have been around a long time. The existence – and often acceptance – of homosexuality is well documented in ancient cultures around the world.

But even with these ancient roots, the modern disdain for homosexuality has served major setbacks to equality.

Gay people were persecuted in the Spanish Inquisition and exterminated in the Holocaust.

Discriminatory Americans laws have only been the recent assault that the gay rights movement has confronted. The fact that the gay rights movement has been successful in changing these laws doesn’t make the movement new.

The “invisibility” of gayness has brought unique tones to the movement.

In the late 1800s, everybody knew that Oscar Wilde was gay. I mean everybody. That was no secret, nor was it intended to be.

Wilde was eventually imprisoned for the “crime” of sodomy not because he suddenly came out, but because he chose to sue a lover’s father for libel.

When Marquess of Queensberry left a card at Wilde’s club inscribed, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite” [sic], Wilde could have walked away. He chose to sue. When he was found to be “guilty” of sodomy, he could have walked away. His friends begged him to flee town. He chose to stay. He chose to serve two years hard labor for his “crime.”

History doesn’t well document Wilde’s motivations. He was in love, and he honestly thought Alfred Taylor – his lover and the son of his accuser, Queensberry – he honestly thought Lord Taylor would speak out to save him.

But I like to think as well, that Wilde followed the path he did because he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong. He’d been insulted in his own club. He’d been confronted and publicly shamed. It was his right to step up and face his assaulter.

But, of course, Wilde went to jail and spiraled down a dark path prior to his death. Each man kills the thing he loves, he wrote, but each man does not die.

I couldn’t say whether Wilde intended to become one of the many martyrs of gay rights indelibly spread throughout history. But he is.

And his but one story of many. Gay people have fought for lifetimes for acknowledgement, for acceptance, for equality.

Is the gay rights movement “new”?

No, I think not.


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