The lesser-known literary figures of the early LGBTQ+ rights movement, beyond Oscar Wilde.
Oscar Wilde always imposed. Meeting him in 1892, the French writer Jules Renard reported: “He offers you a cigarette, but selects it himself. He does not walk around a table: he moves the table out of the way … He is enormous, and carries an enormous cane.” The affectations of dress and manner; the extraordinary, magnetic talk; the flourished epigrams; the startling, needling essays, stories and plays – all these were impositions. They were how Wilde forced himself on the attention of the world, made himself notorious, and then famous. And in the ugliness and despair of his downfall – in 1895 he was found guilty of homosexual offences (acts of “gross indecency”) and sentenced to two years of hard labour – he imposed himself again: on the contemporary and historical imagination. But also on the lives of gay men, for 128 years and counting.
There is a famous passage in the novel Maurice by EM Forster, originally written in 1913 but not published until after Forster’s death in 1971. Maurice, who has struggled to suppress his sexual desires, decides to seek medical help for his problem. He confesses, “I am an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort,” revealing that he is homosexual. This term, “Oscar Wilde sort,” was used to describe gay men, but it also raised questions about their similarities to the iconic writer Oscar Wilde. For Forster’s generation and those after, this was a major concern until homosexuality was legalized in England and Wales in 1967 (Scotland in 1981, Northern Ireland in 1982, Ireland in 1993). The scandal surrounding Wilde created a set of societal assumptions and prejudices that persisted for more than 50 years and affected how gay individuals viewed themselves. One of these beliefs was that gay men, like Wilde, stood out from society due to their differences in appearance and behavior. It was also believed that their relationships were solely based on sexual desires and were exploitative and unequal in terms of age and class. There was also a fear that their vulnerability to blackmail made them prone to criminal behavior and suspicion. It was thought that tragedy was always looming for them. Maurice attempted to challenge these ideas, but Forster’s decision not to publish the novel during his lifetime shows how deeply ingrained these beliefs were.
The hold has relaxed. In the 1960s and 1970s, as the contemporary movement for gay rights gained momentum, Wilde was hailed as its original martyr, the most infamous target of discrimination against homosexuality in history. He was slowly being acknowledged for his contributions to literature. But now, he was also seen as a gay icon and eventually, a popular figure. For those who identify as gay, Wilde remains a prominent figure to be acknowledged and reckoned with: Oscar.
Does Wilde truly deserve all of this? There is no doubt that he faced discrimination due to his sexuality. The Marquess of Queensberry, who was driven to madness by the belief that Wilde had corrupted his son Lord Alfred Douglas, left a card at Wilde’s club with the misspelled word “sodomite.” However, the real trouble began when Wilde decided to take legal action for defamation. Both Wilde and his friends were aware that Queensberry’s accusation, though distasteful, was true. Despite his efforts, Wilde lost the case and was subsequently arrested by the police based on the evidence presented in court. On May 25th, he received his sentence. This sparked a moral panic. Months later, while being transferred between prisons, Wilde was recognized at Clapham Junction station and jeered at by a crowd.
The widespread hatred and tragedy that befell Wilde has overshadowed the fact that the early 1890s marked the emergence of Britain’s first gay rights movement. After Wilde’s imprisonment, another homosexual man, Edward Carpenter, wrote to a supportive acquaintance stating that there was a long battle ahead. The use of the word “campaign” is significant. While Wilde did not publicly advocate for gay rights, he often made veiled references to the subject. However, others were actively involved in campaigns for gay rights. A few years prior, Carpenter assisted in collecting personal accounts from over 30 homosexual men for a book called Sexual Inversion, co-authored by John Addington Symonds and Havelock Ellis (whose partnership inspired my novel, The New Life). Sexual Inversion aimed to prove that homosexuality was not a sin or illness, but a harmless aspect of human nature. It also argued that the law used to convict Wilde was flawed, unjust, and should be repealed. The book also included testimonies from six lesbian women, acknowledging the societal prejudice they faced and the need for their liberation from stigma. Carpenter also wrote his own defense of homosexuality, titled Homogenic Love and Its Place in a Free Society, with plans to publish it in 1894.
Carpenter, Symonds, and Ellis were motivated by their personal backgrounds. Carpenter’s partner, George Merrill, had been in his life since 1891. Symonds had struggled with his own sexuality before accepting it later in life. Ellis, although heterosexual, was married to a lesbian and had his own unconventional desires, including being aroused by women urinating. These men were influenced by European ideas, as researchers in France and Germany had begun to view homosexuality as a medical issue rather than a social or legal one. In countries like France and Italy, where homosexuality was already legal, it seemed possible that Britain could also achieve this same acceptance.
Inspiration from the United States took a different form: Carpenter, Symonds, and Ellis were brought together by their admiration for Walt Whitman’s poetry (Wilde was also a fan). They interpreted Whitman’s work as promoting love between men as a positive force for societal improvement, embodied by the ideal of democratic and cross-class “comradeship”. It is no surprise that many socialists also praised Whitman – Carpenter, Symonds, and Ellis all identified as some form of socialist (as did Wilde). It is also not unexpected – given the current connection between the LGBTQ+ movement and feminism – that supporters of homosexual rights also advocated for women’s rights. Therefore, the burgeoning gay rights movement in Britain was intertwined with larger reform movements during the late Victorian era, all driven by a desire to find new and better ways of living in the modern world.
The Wilde trials caused the destruction of the intellectual connection between Wilde, Carpenter, and Symonds. Carpenter’s Homogenic Love pamphlet was rejected by his publisher, who also decided to remove Carpenter’s poem Towards Democracy from their list. Symonds passed away at the young age of 52 in 1893; Ellis hesitated to publish Sexual Inversion and finally released it in 1897. However, the first edition was destroyed after Symonds’s executor objected on behalf of his family. Despite this setback, Ellis persisted and published the book under his own name. Unfortunately, it was seized by the police and deemed obscene, resulting in its destruction once again.
However, that was not the end. Although Wilde had become a cultural figure to be feared, his influence continued into the 20th century in subtle ways. Carpenter lived until 1929 and formed a friendship with the young Forster. Maurice was inspired by a playful gesture from Carpenter’s partner, Merrill, which Forster described as “going straight through the small of my back and into my thoughts.” Carpenter’s ideas also influenced DH Lawrence, a more outspoken advocate for sexual liberation. Ellis remained active until 1939 and gained international recognition as a sexologist, known for his taboo knowledge found in the volumes of his Studies in the Psychology of Sex (published in the US to avoid censorship). Sexual Inversion was the first of these volumes. Even Symonds, who passed away in 1893, continued to have an impact. Forster found inspiration in his sexually candid autobiography, which was kept locked up in the London Library until 1984. Symonds’s homosexuality was finally revealed to the public in 1964 by biographer Phyllis Grosskurth, whose book received widespread attention. This was one of many factors that contributed to a change in societal attitudes and eventually led to the legalization of homosexuality three years later.
As we acknowledge the advancements of LGBTQ+ rights, it is important to recognize and highlight stories like Oscar Wilde’s in history. The past is not just filled with tragedy and injustice, but also moments of inspiration and glimpses into a brighter future.