Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
Playwright, poet and author
When we think of heroes we often think of great warriors, or leaders, or people who fought insurmountable odds and won. However, my hero was not really one of these. He did fight against great odds, but, sadly, he was a victim of his time. He lost a great battle for acceptance, and paid a heavy price for it.
Oscar Wilde is not only my LGBT hero, but also my literary one. It was reading his words that first made me want to commit pen to paper and write, for he had a command of the English language which made words seem almost mystical to me. From the gentle comedy of The Importance of Being Earnest, to the dark and decadent soliloquies of The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde proved himself a master storyteller and a true genius. Wilde’s famous wit, flamboyant attire and knowledge about art made him one of the celebrities of his time.
However, as the old saying goes, pride comes before a fall – and for a man like Wilde there was so far to fall. After he became hopelessly enamoured with the young Lord Alfred Douglas, he fell afoul of the thuggish Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas’s father. Queensberry warned Wilde to stop seeing Douglas, and when the pair defied him he publicly accused Wilde of being a ‘posing somdomite’ [sic]. Pushed by Douglas to sue Queensberry for libel, Wilde found himself caught in a scandalously public series of court cases wherein his sexuality was revealed to Victorian society.
Wilde subsequently was charged with convicted of gross indecency with other men and imprisoned for two years, held to hard labour in Reading Gaol. The experience had a deeply destructive effect on him, and barely a few years after his release for serving his sentence he died, destitute and in exile in Paris, at the young age of 46.
When we think about how far the LGBT movement has come since then, it is hard to imagine a man being imprisoned in this country for his choice of sexual partner. This is why to me Oscar Wilde will always be a great unsung hero: a man who was brave enough to live the life he chose to live, and not the life that society deemed ‘acceptable’. The bittersweet tragedy of Oscar Wilde was that he didn’t set out to be a hero. Simply being who he was, and living his life to the full, made him one.
After leaving prison Wilde penned The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a poem about the death of a fellow prisoner on the gallows. The poem recaptured the beauty of Wilde’s lost genius after his own personal tragedy; beneath the pain and heartache, it shows that beauty still lingers and warms all but the coldest of hearts:
And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
If you have yet to read even a small amount of Wilde, I urge you, take a chance, and look it up. It may just change your life.