Oscar Wilde once said, “It’s an odd thing, but anyone who disappears is said to be seen in San Francisco – it must be a delightful city and possess all the attractions of the next world.”
This was in 1882. Oscar Wilde and San Francisco had two things in common at the time; the city and the author were both wildly progressive. 133 years later, both Wilde and San Francisco remain progressive and relevant. Just as every gay man at some point should visit San Francisco for its contributions to the gay rights movement, every gay man should know about Oscar Wilde. Not just because of his literary genius, but because of how his trials and tribulations helped shape the universal gay experience. His life’s tragedies illuminated to the public the suffering of gay people who endure the forbidden love ‘that dare not speak its name’.
Besides that, his quotes and literature carry a lot of wit, humor, wisdom and camp. Wilde was taking queens to the library, reading and throwing shade long before the vernacular even existed.
Wilde was at the forefront of a philosophical movement that most gay men could relate to: aestheticism, a movement which believed that all things should be beautiful and look good. Deeper meaning was not unimportant–just less important. Life, art, music and social company were there to provide hedonistic sensual pleasures. Gay people, naturally make the world around them more beautiful. We clean up neighborhoods that people don’t want to live in, create innovative fashions, work towards sexual acceptance and freedom, throw fun parties, and work behind the scenes to produce some of the best music, art and visuals that anyone has ever seen. Essentially we are the embodiment of aestheticism’s ideals. Besides that, no one is better at hedonistic pleasures than gay men & women. A Wilde quote that best summarizes aestheticism “It is better to be beautiful than good, but it is better to be good than to be ugly.”
Oscar practiced what he preached. He lived a wild hedonistic lifestyle. The Victorian prohibition against homosexuality most likely forced Wilde into a sham marriage. He was married with two kids, but this did not prevent him from expressing the ‘love that dare not speak its name’. Although society tried to force him into a closet, he began a public affair with Robert Ross, who is said to have introduced him to all the pleasures of Gay sex. After this, his desire became unquenchable.
The thirst was real and in between marriage, affairs, opulent spending on hotels, sex with prostitutes, crazy parties, top shelf liquor, and becoming a notorious f?igure in the Gay Victorian underground, he managed to also become one of the greatest literary minds of the 1800’s producing successful plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest, Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance. He also produced a novel that is regarded as a literary classic, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this novel the handsome, gorgeous protagonist Dorian, wishes that a painting of himself would age in place of Dorian. Every time Dorian does a vile thing to someone, the painting ages and becomes ugly, while Dorian‘s appearance remains the same. The painting ?inally re?lects who Dorian really is inside. This is a biting commentary on what indeed is real beauty. Wilde also wrote a book of fairytales, a book of poems, Salome’ a play in French, among many other things.
He was a literary genius.
Unfortunately his expression of love, under the tyrannical Victorian ideals, landed Oscar in jail. Around 1891, he was introduced to a college student named Lord Alfred Douglas, who went by his nickname Bosie. Bosie was incredibly handsome and charmingly spoiled. Oscar was immediately drawn to him. Oscar fell madly in love with him, and this made him disregard his marriage, and Victorian laws all together. Wilde lost all sense of discretion and was blatant with his affair. Bosie as well was reckless and liked to brag that he was banging one of the greatest literary minds of the era. One could surmise that they both felt strongly about each other — so strongly that remaining in the closet was impossible.
Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, did not approve of the relationship or of Lord Alfred’s behavior. He suspected Wilde and Douglas of “buggery” which was a crime at the time. He publically attacked Oscar at one of his premieres and accused him of homosexual acts, and called him every homophobic insult in the book. Bosie, who wanted revenge against his father, begged Oscar to take Marquees of Quensberry to court for libel and slander.
All of Oscar Wilde’s friends, including Robert Ross advised against it. Robert stood on the sidelines of Oscar’s life, worried and still in love with Oscar. Even though Oscar favored Bosie who was bad for him, Robert pleaded for him not to go through with the court case. Bosie, however, insisted.
The libel trial became a homosexual, slut-shaming extravaganza in which a team of Queensberry’s lawyers invaded the Victorian homosexual underground and blackmailed, bribed and threatened gay men for information against Wilde. Eventually a love poem, that Bosie wrote for Wilde entitled Two Loves that includes the famous phrase ‘the love that dare not speak its name’, was used against Wilde. After an exhausting slut-shaming public trial, Queensberry’s lawyer kept demanding that Wilde tell him “What was the love that dare not speak its name” Wilde eventually snapped and said:
‘The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century 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 ?ind in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. 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 ?ine, and it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man 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.”
Eventually Oscar went to prison for homosexual acts; Bosie was able to remain free. During the Victorian era, jail was a death sentence; very few people survived. Oscar ended up loosing his family, his fortune and his reputation — all for just being gay. Most of his friends went away, and Bosie never visited him or wrote him. The hard labor, and cruel conditions in the jail destroyed Oscar’s health. While in jail he wrote a 50,000 word letter to Boise which he wasn’t allowed to send, but was allowed take with him upon his release. This was entitled De Profundis. No one knows if Oscar ever sent the letter to Bosie, but it was published shortly after Oscar’s death. The piece of writing was a deep re?lection of Oscar’s life, and also a read and shade towards Bosie. It is a tremendously beautiful piece of literature.
Oscar’s health never fully recovered after jail, and Robert Ross took care of him until his death on November 30th 1900. Robert commissioned a tomb designed by Sir Jacob Epstein, for Oscar Wilde with a small compartment on the side. The tomb is in Paris’s famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery and can be best described as a sculpture of a nude modernist angel — penis and all. Grave robbers have since removed the penis. When Robert Ross died 50 years later, he requested that his ashes be put into the small compartment on the side. Throughout all of these years Robert loved Oscar. Oscar, like many of us gay men, picked the wrong one.
The epitaph on Wilde’s grave is a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will ?ill for him Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
For a long while, Oscar’s life was looked at with a lot of shame. He was considered vile, salacious and a person that sacrif?iced fame for the perversion of homosexuality. His books were censored and removed from many literary circles and yet people gravitated towards his work and his life story. A remarkable shift happened. People from all over the world would visit Oscar Wilde’s grave. Not only because of his literature, but because they were touched by his life, and his life’s stories. People would put on lipstick and kiss his grave. They would write messages of love and sorrow on it. They would share experiences about how their love was misunderstood on his grave — and this happened for years.
Eventually the love that landed him jail, the love that was so misunderstood, wasn’t so misunderstood afterall. However, many understood all the lipstick kisses on Oscar Wilde’s grave. In 2011, the tomb was cleaned of the many lipstick marks left there by admirers, and a glass barrier was installed to prevent further marks or damage. Today Oscar Wilde is one of our most respected literary ?figures — he even has a plaque on San Francisco’s Rainbow Walk of Fame.
Like so many outcasts, he ended up in San Francisco.
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He lives in San Francisco with his cat, Oscar.
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