My dear friend,
I was saving you for when I needed lighter fare. You are one of my very favourites, and yours is one of the voices I aspire to – your wit, your charm, your sauciness have informed my own for 32 years. Your plays are among my best friends in literature. I was looking forward to a good romp among words with you.
But life, as it tends to do, has provided a call for serious pause. A week ago (only a week? Really?) a man opened fire in an Orlando nightclub. He credited a terrorist group, he has been remembered as unstable, abusive, mentally ill, and these are words we have heard often in relation to random, mass shootings. The United States, in their refusal to place effective regulations on the purchase of guns, have developed a rich lexicon for words to describe mass shootings. ‘Horrific’, ‘senseless’, ‘devastating’. They are usually the acts of individuals who are very broken, very lost. They are tragedies, every time. There are no words.
But this is a new kind of tragedy. This was not random. This was a gay nightclub. This was an attack on a specific community of people, which brings this particular tragedy into a larger call to awareness. This is a very specific type of hate, and it is acted out daily, all over the world, on many different levels. It is endlessly frustrating that so many human beings all over the world have to fight so hard to be accepted for who they are. I take this act personally. I have many friends who identify as LGBTQ+ and without exception I have been welcomed into their arms, their homes, their creative projects, and yes, their nightclubs. I can say from vast experience that you would be hard pressed to find a warmer, more joyous, more inclusive community.
In 1895, after enormous literary success, you were sent to prison for two years and hard labour. You had a lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, ‘Bosie’, an aristocrat, whose father openly accused you of being a ‘posing sodomite’. You charged him for libel. After some time you withdrew your charges, but this act, which you later regarded as a mistake, drew enough attention to have you subsequently charged and imprisoned for ‘gross indecency’. You refused to admit wrongdoing. At this time in England, under the Labouchere Agreement, ‘gross indecency’ was a criminal act, and this was used to persecute homosexual men in particular. Your trials gained a feverish attention, there was much public humiliation at your expense. You did not deny the charges. You did not admit fault, as per the law’s description of your charges. When the prosecution asked (quoting the ‘incriminating’ poem ‘Two Loves’ by Bosie, “What is ‘the love that dare not speak its name?'”(a phrase that also became a euphemism for homosexual love), you responded thus:
“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 that 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… That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it. “
1895, a beloved playwright is forced to stand on a platform in the town square to be mocked for his homosexual acts.
I looked up ‘history of violence against LGBQT+ people’ and the list was so staggeringly long and volatile that it nearly made my heart stop. This list was just was what documented in the United States. It only documented the last 30 years. There are centuries and countries and probably millions of names of people who have been persecuted. There has been progress, Oscar. There has been change. There are many countries around the world where same-sex marriage is legal. I am so proud to live in one of them. There is incredible activism, there are support and inclusion groups in schools, there are artistic festivals and gay Pride is celebrated in various forms all over the world. In the wake of this most recent act of hate, I have witnessed such a pure and steady outpouring of love and solidarity towards the victims, their families, the community. I have read so many personal stories, calls to action, words of heartbreak and frustration. I have seen so, so, so much courage in the words and works of the LGBTQ+ community.
None of this removes their wounds.
June 12th 2016, a gunman enters an Orlando gay bar and opens fire.
Here is what I know about hate: it is almost always rooted in fear. People who hate so actively are threatened by what is unknown to them, what seems different, what they feel invalidates their own values, themselves. People who are so easily threatened are rarely happy, evolved, or truly secure in themselves. The more we learn about the man who expressed his hate so violently in Orlando last week, the more possible it seems that he himself was gay. Perhaps this was something he was unable to accept in himself. How tragic, how he chose to manifest this.
You did not do well in prison. Your health failed. You became depressed. It took a long time, and a liberal warden, do get you access to books, longer still for writing materials. How this must have killed you. You were given a page at a time, and could only write to friends and your lawyer.
You are Oscar Wilde. You found a way around it.
You wrote a letter to Bosie, outlining your past months, your affair, your trial, your feelings of desertion and disappointment in him. You offered your forgiveness. You called it ‘De Profundis’. This, and a poem about your time in prison were your final works.
“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 realising 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.”
I keep thinking about your choice to charge your lover’s father for libel. His aim was to disgrace your name. Did you fight because you were ashamed? You were married to a woman, you had children, you were a public figure. It would have been fair to try to defend yourself for these reasons, in this time you were living in. Were you under Bosie’s influence, part of his efforts to provoke his father? Or were you simply defiant? Were you taking a stand for what you knew to be true, what you felt was fair and valid and worth the fallout? Were you one of the first gay activists, in your own way?
You were released from prison and lived in exile in France for the rest of your years. They were not many. Your spark was gone. You could not write. You died in a Paris hotel, quite broken and broken. This does not define you. Your story holds such power – it is being told (notably in the recent David Hare play ‘The Judas Kiss’, and its star, the perfectly cast Rupert Everett is making a film of your final days).
There are so many stories. There have been so many voices silenced by hate and fear. There are endless cries of ‘love is love is love’ and they are earnest and they are a sweet flicker of light in a dark time. There is a complex and beautiful blend of nuance in identity. There is fierce pride. There is such inspiring courage. Our world is changing. We have a long way to go. We have a lot of healing to do, a lot of stories to tell, and a lot of fighting for basic human rights that many of us enjoy without a second thought. It is on all of us to do this. It is everyone’s responsibility. There will be many more battles to wage.
There will also be dancing in the street in my city, in celebration of the freedom you began to fight for.
I will see you there.