The Fall of Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas

…and now the thrilling conclusion

With his literary success following 1891’s publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde returned to writing for the theater. He penned the tragedy Salomé, but quickly turned to comedies. Lady Windermere’s Fan debuted at the St. James Theatre on February 20, 1892 and proceeded to tour England — despite the outrage of more conservative critics.  He followed this work up with the 1893 comedy A Woman of No Importance. He was then commissioned for two more comedies. By now Wilde was earning approximately 100 pounds each week — by today’s standards that’s about 12,211 pounds or 15,756 US dollars a week. No longer tied to John Gray, Wilde’s relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas turned romantic, and Wilde used that ample income to spoil his new beau.

In many ways, Douglas quickly became the center of Wilde’s entire world. Douglas and several of his friends founded a magazine called The Chameleon, which was as pro-gay as any publication could be at the time without being shut down by law enforcement. Wilde was a regular contributor. Douglas also led Wilde into the seedy underground of London’s gay prostitution circles. Every time he rendezvoused with a prostitute, it followed the same pattern — Wilde was introduced to a young man by a fellow named Alfred Taylor, Wilde would take the young man to dinner, and then to a hotel room. Sometimes, Douglas would meet them there too.

Douglas’ father was John Douglas, the 9th Marquess of Queensberry (more commonly known just as Queensberry). He’s mostly known in history for being cruel to his family and for creating the Queensberry Rules which, apparently, are what modern boxing rules are based around. Oh, and all of the stuff we’re going to talk about. He’s known for that too. (Spoiler alert: it’s not good.) Now, Queensberry and his son fought like all of the time even before Wilde entered the picture — and even though Queensberry was initially charmed by Wilde, it didn’t take him long to piece together what was actually going on with the two. He was not having any of it. He cornered Oscar in the Wilde family’s London house and threatened him — the initial description of this encounter ended with Wilde giving a clever retort (“I don’t know what the Queensberry rules are, but the Oscar Wilde rule is to shoot on sight”) but later accounts by both Wilde and Queensberry make Wilde sound much less assured and much more afraid — and with good reason.

On February 14 of 1895, Wilde’s greatest script premiered in London at the St. James Theatre — The Importance of Being Earnest. The cast was led by popular actor Allan Aynesworth, who later stated that the first night of that show was his greatest triumph on stage. The show itself was hailed as a massive success, even by most critics. Queensberry had planned to attend the premier and publicly humiliate Wilde by throwing a bouquet of rotting vegetables onto the stage — but Wilde had made sure to ban him from the theater — which didn’t actually help calm things down at all.

somdomiteFour days later, Queensberry left a calling card for Wilde at a club he was known to frequent. The card read: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” (Perhaps history’s most infamous spelling error.) Wilde’s friends, including Robbie Ross, begged him to let it go, but Douglas urged him to sue Queensberry for criminal libel. The problem with that was, in order to avoid going to prison, Queensberry would have to publicly prove that Wilde was a sodomite. (Or a somdomite, I guess.) Wilde had been sleeping with men for years and basically wrote about it in a very popular novel (Dorian Gray), so like not really a bright idea to challenge this. But Douglas hated his father, and was also all too happy to disagree with Robbie Ross — who he often butted heads with. Wilde was all too eager to give Douglas anything he wanted, and so he sued for libel.

Queensberry went for Wilde’s jugular almost immediately. He hired Wilde’s former college friend Edward Carson to represent him in court, and hired a number of private detectives to investigate. They amassed a veritable mountain of evidence. Wilde’s lawyer opened the trial on April 3 by preemptively asking about letters Wilde had written to Douglas (letters which Carson had procured) — Wilde claimed the letters were innocent, “prose sonnets”. Carson, meanwhile, opened by stating that he’d located several male prostitutes who were willing to testify against Wilde. Carson’s cross examination was even more brutal — and although Wilde gave sassy answers that got a lot of laughs, they didn’t help the outcome of the trial.

In the end, Carson discredited Wilde by proving he had lied about his age under oath. He also, using text from The Picture of Dorian Gray, managed to successfully paint a picture of Wilde seducing Douglas (which was almost the opposite of what had actually happened.) Moving on from this, Carson started asking about facts — inquiring about his friendships with lower-class men that he had been seen with at dinner. Wilde insisted they were merely friends and that he did not believe in social barriers.

Then, Carson directly asked Wilde if he had ever kissed a certain man — Wilde proclaimed in no uncertain terms that he had not because “he was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly – I pitied him for it.” Carson demanded to know why that was relevant, and for the first time Wilde didn’t really have any answer. Wilde dropped the charges, and Queensberry was found not guilty. This was disastrous for two reasons: the first being that Wilde was responsible for all of Queensberry’s astronomical legal fees, which was more than he could afford — and the second being that the courts issued a warrant for his arrest on the charges of sodomy and gross indecency almost as soon as Wilde had left the building.

Robbie Ross and another friend named Reginald Turner tried to get Wilde to flee the country, and arranged for a train and a boat to take him to France. Meanwhile, Wilde’s mother wanted him to fight. He was basically paralyzed — either with fear or indecision — until all he could say was “The train has gone. It’s too late.” He was arrested on April 6. Ross and Wilde’s butler, under strict instructions, went into the Wilde family house and packed up all of his letters, manuscripts, and some personal items.  While Wilde awaited trial in prison, Alfred Douglas visited him every day — which was nice since this was actually pretty much all Douglas’ fault, and he hadn’t done anything to help out during the criminal libel trial.

When the new trial opened on April 26, Wilde plead “not guilty”. Douglas left for Paris at the urging of Wilde. Several of Wilde’s other “somdomite” friends also left the country for their own safety — including Ross. This trial had captured the attention of the public around the world, even as far as the United States. While being cross examined, Oscar was asked to explain “the love that dare not speak its name” — a phrase originating in a poem written by Douglas. (And that’s the most Douglas participated in this trial, I’m just saying.) Oscar responded with this speech that literally brings a tear to my eye every time, so I’m going to share it here verbatim even though it’s kind of long:

“‘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 find 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 fine, 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.”

While this was, in my opinion, a beautiful speech….it really didn’t help out with the whole “not guilty” thing. Nevertheless, the jury failed to reach a verdict. Wilde’s friends were able to post bail, and Wilde was free. Sort of. He was shunned by nearly everyone; his wife wouldn’t let him back into the house. He was forced to stay with two of his few remaining friends, Ernest and Ada Leverson. At this point, even Carson attempted to intervene on Wilde’s behalf — asking the Solicitor General Frank Lockwood if they could “let up” on Wilde. Lockwood replied he would have liked to, but that the trial had been so publicized and so politicized that it was not going to be possible.

A third trial followed, taking place on May 25. This trial was against both Wilde and Alfred Taylor, who had also been arrested for procuring prostitutes for Wilde but who refused to turn state’s evidence against the writer. Sir Alfred Wills presided, and gave the harshest punishment the law allowed: two years of hard labor. He was also very clear that he would have given a harsher punishment if he’d been able to, claiming the sentence was “totally inadequate” for what he considered “the worst case [he had] ever tried.” After the sentence came down, Wilde asked, “And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?” But his question was completely drowned out by the very large crowd that had come to see this beloved celebrity’s downfall.

Wilde was immediately sent off to Newgate Prison for processing, and then was sent to Pentonville Prison. His “hard labour” there was walking on a treadmill and separating rope fibers — so, y’know, really productive for society and all. He was later transferred to Wandsworth Prison. While there, he collapsed from hunger and ruptured his right ear drum.

On November 23 1895, Oscar was transferred to Reading Gaol by train. While he was waiting on the platform for the train to arrive, a crowd gathered to spit on him and ridicule him. At Reading Gaol, he was eventually allowed a pen and paper, he wrote a 50,000 word letter to Alfred Douglas (which he was not allowed to send until he was released and which, later, Douglas would deny ever receiving.) Over the course of the self-reflective letter, Wilde does forgive Douglas for his involvement in getting Wilde into this position. The letter was partially published in 1905 under the title De Profundis.

Throughout the trials and his imprisonment, all eyes — even internationally — were on Oscar Wilde. LGBTQ+ people across the Western world, but especially in Europe, in particular were watching with a sort of horrified fascination.  Just before the end of Wilde’s sentence, inspired in large part by the writer’s legal troubles, Magnus Hirschfeld founded the Wissenschaftlich-humanitäres Komitee in Germany — the first organization to work towards securing legal rights for queer people.

After his release on May 18, 1897, he immediately went to France and never went back to Britain or Ireland. He took the name Sebastian Melmoth, and began to advocate — through letters to English publications — for prison reform. He also wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol about a man who was hanged while Wilde was imprisoned there. Also, at this point, Wilde’s wife had gotten him to relinquish parental rights to their kids and had changed their last names to “Holland” (and, yet, poor Vyvyan was still named Vyvyan.) They never divorced but were completely estranged.

In August, he reunited with Douglas, but the two were only together for a few months. There’s differing explanations as to why they didn’t stay together — the truth is probably a combination of both. Some say that, after everything that had transpired in their lives, they weren’t able to get their relationship back to what it had been before the trials. Others say that Douglas’ family threatened to cut him off financially. Personally, I can’t imagine that their relationship wasn’t full of resentment, probably on both sides — and if you’re struggling with a relationship that seems like it’s failing and then your family says to break it off or spend the rest of your life completely broke? Yeah, it makes perfect sense to break it off.

Wilde was impoverished for the remainder of his life, and had only a small collection of friends left to him. With nothing left to lose, he was very much open about his sexuality for the years he had left. By the fall of 1900, Wilde was fighting with illness which physicians later stated was from an infection of his right ear drum — the illness left him weak and depressed and frequently unable to leave the bedroom of the hotel he was living in. He famously quipped, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.” On October 12, he sent a telegram to Robbie Ross saying “Terribly weak. Please come.”

By November 25, 1900, Wilde’s illness had developed into meningitis (the same illness that struck down his little sister so many years earlier). Robbie Ross arrived on November 29, and immediately sent for a Catholic priest. The priest performed a conditional baptism, and Wilde died the next day. His friends Reginald Turner and Robbie Ross were with him when he died. Wilde’s tomb, which is in Paris, was commissioned by Ross, who also requested a compartment be built for his own ashes — which were dutifully placed there in 1950.

In the years since his death, Oscar Wilde has become arguably one of the world’s most celebrated queer figures. In 1967, Craig Rodwell named his LGBTQ bookstore the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop in order to make sure it was recognized as a safe place by others in the community. In 2014, Wilde was one of the first honorees of the Rainbow Honor Walk in San Francisco. He was also one of 50,000 men posthumously pardoned in 2017 under the Policing and Crime Act, also known as the Alan Turing Law.

Willem Arondeus

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Willem Arondeus (1894 – 1943)

Willem Arondeus was an artist-turned-author and — most importantly — a member of the Dutch resistance to Nazi occupation. He was born on August 22, 1894 in Naarden, Netherlands. His parents, Hendrik Cornelis Arondeus and Catharina Wilhelmina de Vries, designed costumes for the theater. Despite being the child of two people in the theatre, and being one of six kids, apparently there was nothing remarkable about his entire childhood. I find that a little hard to believe, but there’s literally nothing written about the first seventeen years of his life. Whatever.

At seventeen years old, Arondeus fought with his parents over his homosexuality, left home, and severed all contact with his family. That part of his story is, unfortunately, all too familiar to too many LGBT+ people even to this day. (It would have been a lot worse, had Denmark not decriminalized homosexuality in 1811. Thanks Napoleon!) He began building a career for himself as an illustrator and painter, and was even hired to paint a mural for the Rotterdamn Town Hall in 1923. However, he never had much success as a painter and was living in abject poverty.

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“Salome” by Willem Arondeus (1916)

(I’m including a picture of his drawing “Salome” which was completed in 1916. I’m not trying to say this explains, maybe, why he didn’t have a lot of success as a painter but like, y’know, form your own opinions. This piece, and other surviving pieces of his, are on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.)

In 1933, Willem met a man named Jan Tijssen, and the two lived together for the next seven years. In 1935 he decided that visual arts might not be for him, and turned to poetry and writing. This turned out to be a good move. In 1938 he published two novels, and in 1939 he published his most famous and, by all accounts, his best work “The Tragedy of the Dream” which is a biography of the artist Matthijs Maris.

And then the Nazis came, and his real work began. When the Nazis came to the Netherlands, they mostly took their time with their policies. There weren’t any immediate deportations, there were no strict curfews. They were trying a subtle approach to keep the Dutch from resisting. This mostly worked. Many of the Dutch were fooled into thinking the Nazis weren’t as bad as everyone was saying. But the Nazis didn’t hesitate when it came to criminalizing homosexuality — and the open and proud LGBT+ populace of the Netherlands was not having any of that. Like many others, Willem Arondeus joined the Dutch resistance almost immediately. (I hesitate to call him a founding member, because no one else seems to be calling him that, but from what I’m reading, he probably missed being a “founding member” by like a day or two.)

Willem’s primary job during the early days of the resistance was to forge fake identity papers for Dutch Jews. Also in his unit were a number of other openly homosexual people, including cellist and conductor Frieda Belinfante. Willem did more than that, however. He also began writing and publishing an illegal magazine encouraging more Dutch to join the resistance. He attempted to call the artistic community of the Netherlands to act against the Nazi regime, criticizing the Nazi’s cultural committee. (He also published another book that had nothing to do with resisting the Nazis. it was called “Figures and Problems of Monumental Painting in the Netherlands”, and he illustrated it himself.) In 1943, Willem’s publication joined forces with a publication run by other Dutch artists, reaching even more people.

By 1943, the Dutch Resistance had a vast underground network hiding Jews from the Nazis. The Nazis, however, were catching on. They began comparing identity papers to those in the Amsterdam Public Records Office. Willem Arondeus would not stand for this. The Dutch Resistance was mostly known for being a peaceful resistance — but this next action would become a symbol for the whole movement. Willem is credited in several places for having the idea.

He determined the only course of action was to blow up the Public Records Office. Joined by his unit, the attack was carefully planned out and executed on March 27. Thousands of files were destroyed. But the success was short-lived — a traitor within the resistance turned the unit in to the Gestapo just a few days later. That traitor’s identity remains unknown to this day. Willem and his cohorts were arrested. Willem took full responsibility for the attack — but the trial was a sham, and twelve people, including Willem, were held responsible and executed on July 1, 1943. The rest of Willem’s unit was forced to flee the country.

Willem’s final words were communicated by his lawyer. “Let it be known that homosexuals are not cowards.”

Frieda Belinfante escaped execution. Most of her participation in the resistance was ignored for years — but more galling to her still, Willem’s role in the resistance was erased for decades. Credit for leading the unit was given to a heterosexual man. She insisted “[Arondeus] was the great hero who was most willing to give his life for the cause.”

In 1984, the Dutch government posthumously awarded Willem the Resistance Memorial Cross. On June 19, 1986, the state of Israel recognized Willem as Righteous Among the Nations (an honorific for non-Jews that risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust). Despite this recognition, and his last words, Willem’s sexuality was not recognized until the 1990’s. Frieda Belinfante’s contribution to the resistance was officially recognized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1994. She died one year later, at 90 years old.

Backtracking just for a second, if I may, I just want to touch on those last words. Because, if there was *ever* a theme for this whole site — it’s that. We’ve been here forever, and we have always been brave. If there’s a thread that connects the LGBTQ+ community together more than our gender identities or our sexualities, it’s courage. And, yeah, that’s mostly been out of necessity. It takes bravery to stand in front of a world that hates you and say “so what? I’m me.” But even in times and places where we weren’t hated, we still have that fire — like Osch-Tisch? She was an incredible bad ass, and she wasn’t battling bigotry (at the time, anyways).

Let it be known that LGBTQ+ people are not cowards.

(Adapted from a Facebook post.)

Karl-Maria Kertbeny

250px-Karl_Maria_Kertbeny_(ca_1865)One thing that makes talking about LGBTQ+ history difficult is that most of this history happened before we had the current understanding of human sexuality and gender identity — and also before we had the words we have now to describe it. So, today, let’s talk about the writer who created the term “homosexual”: Karl-Maria Kertbeny (born Karl-Maria Benkert.)

Karl-Maria was born in Vienna on February 28, 1824, but his family moved to Budapest when he was a child. He grew up to become a journalist, memoirist, translator, and human rights campaigner.

Karl-Maria was also closeted homosexual (except, of course, that word didn’t exist yet). In his youth, he befriended a young man who was also a closeted homosexual (they were actually just friends from what I can tell). This friend would go on to be extorted and blackmailed because of his affections, and would ultimately commit suicide. This event had a massive impact on Karl-Maria, who wrote later in his life that it gave him an “instinctive drive to take issue with every injustice.”

Karl-Maria went on to join the army and — in 1847 — he changed his last name to Kertbeny. (Why, I honestly couldn’t say. Why he left his first name unchanged is also a complete mystery. Neither of these questions, however, leaves me quite as confused as his mustache. What is that and why?) By 1868, he had settled in Berlin.

Although in his public writings, Karl-Maria claimed to be “normally sexed”, his personal diary was filled with an illustrious collection of veiled homosexual encounters. In these diaries, he also describes tremendous fear following the arrest of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Ulrichs was a correspondence of Karl-Maria, but is much more notable for essentially pioneering the modern LGBT+ rights movement.

Karl-Maria began writing extensively on the topic of homosexuality — claiming it was for “anthropological interest”. (I guess “anthropological interest” was the mid-19th century version of “no homo”.) On May 8, 1868, in a private letter, Karl-Maria first coined the terms “homosexual” and “heterosexual”, although the words were yet to be used in public.

In 1869, Karl-Maria published the first of two pamphlets arguing against the Prussian sodomy law (known as Paragraph 143). In these pamphlets, he argued that consensual sexual acts were private and should not be subject to criminal law and — drawing on his own experiences — argued that the law itself was what had allowed his friend to be blackmailed, which led to his friend’s suicide.

He also argued, in these pamphlets, that homosexuality was actually an inborn trait, not something men chose out of their own wickedness (which was the common belief of the time. He was, along with Ulrichs and Heinrich Hössli, one of the first people to take this point of view.) It was over the course of these writings that the word “homosexual” was first used, as part of a system of defining sexual “types” without using derogatory language like “sodomite”. He also introduced the term “heterosexualism” for the attraction between men and women, “monosexualism” for masturbators, and a few other words that are still not widely used — but even if we ignored most of the words he came up with, he did set us up to have a comprehensive, descriptive way of talking about sexuality without degrading people who don’t fit into the “norm”.

After these pamphlets, Karl-Maria’s career faded. In 1880, he did contribute a chapter to Gustav Jäger’s “Discovery of Soul”. His chapter was taken out by the publisher, but his sexual terminology was still used throughout the book. Karl-Maria died on January 23, 1882 — two years later in Budapest, before any of his ideas would really take root.

In 1886, a German sexual researcher named Richard von Krafft-Ebing borrowed the terminology from “Discovery of Soul” for his own work “Psychopathia Sexualis”. This work became so influential that it caused Karl-Maria’s terminology to become the standard, accepted words that we still use today.

In 2001, Karl-Maria Kertbeny’s gravesite was located by a sociologist. The Hungarian LGBT+ community set about having a new tombstone put in place, and since 2002 it has been a tradition at Hungarian LGBT festivals to place a wreath on his grave.

(Adapted from this Facebook post.)