LGBT

“One of the Most Fascinating Gay Love Stories”

The Guardian today published a joint review of Nicholas Frankel’s The Unrepentant Years and my own Oscar’s Ghost. called Oscar’s Ghost “a fascinating account of the feud between Robert Ross and Alfred Douglas and of Wilde’s legacy…” and concludes:

 

While the relationship between Wilde and Douglas cannot simply be seen as just a great tragic love story that was thwarted by dark forces, nonetheless the complications that beset it, and the personalities of the two lovers themselves, make it one of the most fascinating gay love stories.

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Treppenwitz

The clever rejoinder that comes too late…

Thank you to the Ann Arbor District Library for inviting me to come and speak this evening– my first speaking engagement on Oscar’s Ghost. I was pleased that there were a number of questions about the book, and inevitably, I spent most of my ride home thinking of better answers to them.

That’s what blogs are for.

The first question was whether Oscar Wilde lived in a circle of artists where homosexuality was not a problem and whether or not Victorian and Edwardian homosexuals used the laws against same sex love as a club against one another.

I replied that Oscar Wilde did inhabit a particular Bohemian subculture– much of it of his making, as he had disciples who imitated him–where being a man who loved men was not a problem. In the wider culture, it was also true that there was something of a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. There was an understanding of a lot of the vices that went on behind closed doors, but the rule was that it was better not to know about it, and as long as everyone kept quiet and did not make a scandal no one would make an issue of it. In that situation, it was not uncommon for gay men who had bitter disputes to use this vulnerability against each other.

And that is where I left things, but that is not really a full answer. England of the late 19th and early 20th century was not a monolith. No culture is. So while it is fair to say that there were elements of society that embraced alternative sexualities, and there were elements that tolerated them as long as they were kept under wraps, there were also elements that were disgusted and appalled by the very notion.  One of the big problems for a homoerotically inclined individual was that he didn’t know with certainty, in any given situation, whether his “eccentricity” (this is what Robbie Ross’s family called it) would be accepted, tolerated, shunned, mocked or punished.

Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross used the courts a number of times to fight their battles. They faced a series of judges, some of whom were even handed and fair, others who were outraged by their sexuality. It was impossible to know in advance how fair or how prejudiced a judge or jury would be. It was always a gamble.

In our time the balance has shifted more towards acceptance, but the same situation remains. There are comfortable, welcoming parts of society; parts that are more concerned about their own lives– live and let live; and parts that are opposed–sometimes violently opposed–to same sex love. In Oscar’s time the percentages, not the actual categories differed and those who were opposed had the backing of the government.

Oscar Wilde sometimes inhabited a world of artists where he sexuality was not a problem. He sometimes inhabited a world where people who admired him as an artist gossiped and whispered behind his back, but looked the other way. And he sometimes wandered through a world where it was necessary to hide that part of his life or to face serious repercussions. Until he was exposed in court, he lived a double life.

My partial answer, I think, might have made it seem like being homosexual in Victorian England was less fraught than it really was. But it would not be fair to say either that the life of a gay man of that era was only fear, hiding and strife. To quote the Facebook relationship status: It’s complicated.

There was one other question that I re-answered on my ride home. I finished my lecture by noting that while no one won the battle between Ross and Douglas, Ross did a better job of shaping the narrative about Oscar Wilde.  In most cases his view of things won out. I was asked what Bosie’s view was. I mentioned a number of cases where Bosie’s version of event was less believed, but better documented.

But a better answer may be this, if Bosie were to tell the story of Oscar Wilde’s life and he were able to speak freely about their relationship, I believe he would have said that it was a great tale of love overcoming all odds.

At least, that is what he would have said before he read the unedited De Profundis.

 

“Religious Liberty”

For some reason, I don’t know why, I am on the e-mail list for the National Organization for Marriage, the organization that opposes same-sex marriage. I know I did not sign up, and I can only assume someone else signed me up to influence my opinion?

In any case, today I decided to click through and take a look at a petition they are circulating asking their members to contact Jeff Sessions and encourage him “to protect the religious liberty rights of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints on marriage, life, gender and similar issues.”

Now, the phrase “religious liberty rights” on its face would seem to mean the right of people to practice their religion without the government taking sides. So you can worship God as a literal judge who sits in the heavens, while I am free to “affirm and promote the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” You can practice religion by wearing a specific costume and doing a particular dance, and I can practice by reciting tales of my ancestors or praying five times a day.

But what this petition is requesting is not liberty in this sense, rather it is asking for the government to take sides and protect a specific set of religious beliefs and practices– they don’t want to protect everyone’s liberty, just the liberty “of individuals and groups who hold traditional viewpoints…” (If you would like to read my views on this notion of “tradition,” incidentally, do a search on that word, and you’ll find a number of old posts.)

This wording aside, an argument could be made that those who created the petition are not asking for their religion to be given preference over others. Fundamentalist Christians who take the Bible literally are a minority religion, after all, in spite of their loud voices. Christians in general make up almost 80% of our population, but most are not Fundamentalists. As I have mentioned here before, a poll done by a Christian organization showed that only 30% of self-identified Christians approach the Bible as the literal and inerrant word of God. So the case can be made that a religious minority is asking to be excused from certain aspects of civil society, as a pacifist Quaker might ask to be excused from participating in war. They will not impose their faith on others if we agree not to impose our values on them.

This point of view, however, is undercut by some of the comments posted on the petition’s page. The very first commenter expresses his or her concern that “My fear is that an Executive Order would also likely have to provide ‘religious protections’ to other religious groups…” This person was especially worried about the “Big Love” scenario, in which fundamentalist Mormons and Muslims would push for plural marriage.  (Plural marriage is, as it happens, quite well represented in the Bible.)

The result of the nightmare scenario of giving other religious groups the same freedom to opt out of mainstream law and practice is clear to the poster.  Plural marriage would be accepted and “the Muslims will be breeding like rats on the public dole until they gain enough numbers to subvert the US into an Islamic Republic under Shariah!” (They’re going to have to get busy, as Muslims currently make up .8 percent of the U.S. population.)

This should make it clear enough that the petition is not really about “liberty.” A second poster agreed that what we really need to do is to “start asserting our right to keep all people who do not want to assimilate to our way of life out of this country.”

Using the language of individualism and choice, these posters are asking to have their traditions, and only their traditions, enforced. They don’t want to just be left alone to practice their minority religion in peace, they want those of us who are not practitioners to assimilate or get out. They are asking for the right to define the “real America” as people like them.

 

 

 

Love and Bravery

“The average woman is far braver than the average man. The common kind of courage-that of the soldier who disregards the danger of death-belongs to the majority of men in the last resort. I mean that if it has to be exercised they exercise it without making a fuss about it. But when you come to moral courage it hardly exists at all among men. There is only one man in ten thousand who will brave the full violence of public opinion. Women, on the other hand, will often do it, if they are in love or to defend their children… The bravest men are those who have a good deal of woman about them.”Lord Alfred Douglas

My great-grandmother was known in family circles as “St. Clara.” She was canonized in family lore for a long life married to a difficult husband. He was a frustrated actor, whose (childless) sister had become a vaudeville star, while he worked as an advertising salesman who got people to buy him drinks for recitations he performed in bars. The whispers are that he was alcoholic, he had a violent temper and he ended his life in the Eloise mental hospital. He did, however, possess a charm and charisma that even his children, who all seem to have had difficult relationships with him, admired. My grandmother, a radio actress, memorized some of his recitations and recorded them in order to preserve them.

One of the things that interests me in the story of Oscar Wilde and his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas is the very different way people often talk about a romantic relationship between two men and a relationship between a man and a woman.  I’ve written a number of articles on the subject here.

One of my most popular posts here is the article I wrote on Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol and its refrain “Each man kills the thing he loves.” The article talked about the effect of Wilde’s incarceration on some of the people in his life, including his wife Constance. I was somewhat surprised to find one day among the comments a post from someone who was mildly critical of Oscar’s wife for not standing by him. In fact, Constance was more loyal to Oscar than I think anyone could have the right to expect. After all, he was a serial adulterer with male prostitutes and others, and his actions tore the family apart, sent him to jail, and caused the family to lose all of their possessions. When he was released from jail she continued to support him financially, and was considering reuniting with him. He was of the opinion that she should continue to give him an allowance so he could live with his young lover Lord Alfred Douglas. This is what put an end to any talk of reunion. She did, however, continue to take an interest in his work and to support him financially until she died.

The idea that anyone could fault Constance Wilde for not supporting her husband enough points to a great difference in our expectations of women and men in relationships. Lord Alfred Douglas believed that women had more courage than men because wives and mothers routinely stood by difficult or bad men no matter what society thought of them, whereas men usually did not. Part of this can be chalked up to how society views the woman who stands by her jailed or difficult husband or son. It is considered noble and good for her to do so, and she is rarely painted with the same brush. Stories of long-suffering wives of difficult artist husbands are legion and they are spoken of (when they are acknowledged) with some admiration.

Douglas had quite a different experience. The thing he was proudest of in his life was how he had stood by Oscar Wilde and so when he read himself in Arthur Ransome’s Critical Study of Oscar Wilde as a young man who had used the playwright and abandoned him when the money ran out he sued for libel. He was prepared to prove that he had not abandoned Wilde at all, in fact he had given him a home and shared expenses with him. What he had not been counting on was that the court would not concern itself with the real matter of the case– whether he’d abandoned Wilde– but with the question of whether he was homosexual himself.  All of his evidence of devotion and loyalty was turned against him.

Many years later, Douglas would write that Justice Darling “literally trembled with outraged propriety when I admitted I had invited Wilde to my villa at Naples. ‘How could you?’ he said, ‘How could you, knowing what he was?’ This, be it observed, although the case of my opponents was precisely that I had ‘abandoned’ Wilde and was responsible for his ruin. One would have thought that even Mr. Justice Darling would have reflected that he could hardly have it both ways. You cannot logically at one and the same time accuse a man of ‘abandoning’ his friend and of receiving him as a guest in his villa!”

Today we take a different view of Douglas’s desire to live with Wilde, but there are still gender differences at play. The expectation of Constance Wilde is that she fulfills the role of wife by sticking with the difficult artist no matter what the circumstances. Douglas was brave in these terms. While Wilde was in jail Douglas had little thought for his own safety. Yet he could not be accepted on the same terms as a wife in his society. When he tried to make the claim that he was Wilde’s other person it was greeted as sickening or humorous by the culture at large. I believe many of his actions while Wilde was in prison would have been interpreted much more sympathetically had he been a young woman rather than a young man.

More interesting to me is the question of how Oscar Wilde’s tempestuous relationship with Alfred Douglas is viewed. Where Constance is admired for staying with a difficult husband who so often put his own needs and desires above hers, Wilde is not admired for staying with the difficult Alfred Douglas. If it was admirable for Constance to remain loyal to her husband as he spent all their money on lavish meals, gifts for rent boys, hotels and entertainment, it should be as admirable for Wilde to remain loyal to Douglas as he was reckless and emotionally volatile. Yet I have rarely heard the relationship described in those terms.

It may be, as Lord Alfred Douglas said, that women are braver than men because they will face the violence of public opinion. On the other hand, it can also be said that women do not need to brave the violence of public opinion because we are expected to make the difficult choice to support a man with all of his faults.

“His Own People”

“…if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at night-time, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, ‘Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.’”-Oscar Wilde

You have undoubtedly by now heard about Sean Spicer’s comments at a White House briefing earlier today in which he compared the Assad regime to Hitler and seemed to suggest that Assad was way worse. After being asked to clarify his statement that Hitler had not sunk to the level of using chemical weapons he explained:

“He was not using the gas on his own people the same way…”

Spicer later went on CNN to apologize for what he said. “I was obviously trying to make a point about the heinous acts that Assad had made against his own people last week, using chemical weapons and gas. Frankly, I mistakenly made an inappropriate and insensitive reference to the Holocaust, for which there is no comparison. And for that I apologize. It was a mistake to do that.”

I give Spicer some credit for saying “I apologize” rather than saying “mistakes were made” and “I’m sorry if you were offended.” But Spicer did not mis-speak, he mis-thought. The problem with his off-the-cuff response was not the comparison or the wording but the mindset that created it. Hitler did not kill “his people,” Spicer said. In Spicer’s understanding of the Holocaust, the category of “Germans” does not include the category of “Jews.” The Jews lived amongst the Germans, but were different from them. Thus the Germans committed violence against another people, not their own. We are used to this framing. Germans killed Jews. But, in fact, Germans killed Germans. They killed Germans who had a different religion.

Timothy Snyder put it powerfully the Guardian:

Under the rule of Adolf Hitler, German authorities, beginning in 1939, gassed millions of people to death. The first victims were German citizens deemed handicapped and thus “unfit for life.” After Germans with local assistance had shot about a million Jews in Eastern Europe, gassing was added as a second technique of mass murder. Jews were killed by carbon monoxide at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, and by hydrogen cyanide at Auschwitz.

This matters because when we fail to recognize the fallacy of the frame then we are at risk of behaving in the same way. When we define some group of our neighbors as fundamentally not us it rarely ends well.

A few days ago I recorded my thoughts after watching the film The Normal Heart, a movie that dramatizes the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community. I wrote about my own shameful lack of action when one of my floor mates cut out the picture of the president of the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance from the student paper and stuck it on the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and the words “No Lezzies.” I was able to stand aside because I did not see myself as the target. In that moment, I had decided along with the tormentors, to categorize that young woman as different, someone I could disassociate from, rather that as my fellow student and therefore like me.

A few years ago I read a book called Love the Sin by Jakobsen and Pellegrini. The authors took a look at newspaper and magazine headlines and examined who “we” were imagined to be, and who the headline writers imagined were “others.”

For example they took the headline “Is AIDS a threat to the general public?” And noted: “Now if the ‘general public’ includes everyone, this question would be meaningless.”

The gay men who died from AIDS were not separate from the general public, they were part of the general public.

This mindset, that people who have a difference are not part of us, but are simply living amongst us, when carried to its extreme sees those others as the enemy within. It becomes quite easy to blame our social ills on them. When this is allowed to go unchecked, the consequences can be deadly.

Daniel Jonah Goldhagen used the word “eliminationist” to describe this point of view in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. The eliminationists, he argued, believed that “For Germany to be properly ordered, regulated, and for many, safeguarded, Jewishness had to be eliminated from German society. What ‘elimination’– in the sense of successfully ridding Germany of Jewishness–meant, and the manner in which this was to be done, was unclear and hazy to many, and found no consensus during the period of modern German antisemitsm. But the necessity of the elimination of Jewishness was clear to all. It followed from the conception of the Jews as alien invaders of the German body social.”

Eliminationist rhetoric focuses on the enemy within and advocates for the elimination of that group.  In 2009 David Neiwart of the Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a book called The Eliminationists in which he described the “core myth” of such movements as palingenesis or “a Phoenix-like national rebirth.”

Today we are once again hearing a lot of talk about alien invaders of the American body social. This is combined with the idea of a national rebirth. We need to tread carefully.

To quote Snyder again, “To recall Hitler as the cartoon supervillain of momentary convenience is to prevent serious consideration of the kinds of politics and policies that made mass killing possible. They begin when authorities invite us to exclude neighbors from the community by associating them with a global threat…The truth is, Hitler did kill his own people. And the killing began with the disowning. It is precisely the stigmatization and murder of the people who were gassed that removed them from the national community to which they believed they belonged. ”

In my article on The Normal Heart, I had originally included one more paragraph about my time at this college. In the end, I cut it out. At the time, it seemed to personal, and I was not sure what point I was making with it. Here is what I left out: Ironically, or perhaps it was divine justice, only a few months later I was discriminated against for being a lesbian. Nothing had actually changed about me, but I had gotten on the wrong side of one of my roommates and she retaliated by spreading false rumors. I did not know that she had been doing this. I only knew that people suddenly seemed to be giving me the cold shoulder. After a few months of this, another roommate confessed that she now realized the other roommate was a pathological liar. She told me what she had heard about me, apologized for believing it and now she wanted to be friends. How could I? If she had been willing to tread me badly when she thought I was gay, how could I accept her friendship simply because she had decided I was not? You may think that you will never find yourself among “the others” but can you be sure of that?

I initially wrote and posted this article last night around midnight and it ended at the previous paragraph. This morning I woke up and read Snyder’s excellent article in The Guardian. He was making the same point I had been, but he articulated something better, I feel, than I did.

As Victor Klemperer, the great student of Nazi language, long ago pointed out, when Nazis spoke of “the people” they always meant “some people.” Mr Spicer has imitated that usage. Some people, our “own people,” are more worthy of life than others.

First the Nazi regime murdered German citizens. Then it murdered others. People who learned to disown neighbors also learned to kill foreigners. And all of the murders were equally wrong. The politics of Nazi killing has two steps: creating the other within, and then killing the other without. It all begins with the nefarious distinction Spicer made without even thinking about it: that murder of others is somehow not as bad as the murder of one’s own.

Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.

Thoughts on The Normal Heart

MV5BMTcyODYyOTk3M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDkwNjc3MTE@._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_I have the song “The Only Living Boy in New York” stuck in my head.

It has been there for a few days since I watched the 2014 film The Normal Heart. The song was used to great effect in the film’s last scene and I can’t shake it.

The Normal Heart won a host of awards including a Screen Actor’s Guild Award for its lead actor Mark Ruffalo, who played Ned, and a Golden Globe for supporting actor Matt Bomer, who layed his lover Felix. It was based on a 1985 play of the same name by Larry Kramer, which chronicles the early years of the AIDS crisis as it ravaged New York’s gay community.

It will come as no surprise then, given its subject matter, that it is a difficult film to watch. It has the intensity of a symphony made up of all crescendos. About 3/4 of the way in, I was longing for a bit of psychic relief, a scene with flowers, puppies and unicorns. But my immediate reaction is only part of the story. The film has lingered in my consciousness, like “The Only Living Boy in New York.” It is haunting.

I am old enough to remember the 1980s. I was a teenager in 1985 when the original play came out. Society has changed a great deal and it is almost hard to bring back the cultural assumptions of the era. I do, however, remember the fear of AIDS. It had the elements of more recent health scares, like the ebola panic. AIDS was seen in many quarters as an epidemic of the other, a sickness that was moral as well as physical, which might escape from the dark corners and infect innocent, moral, bystanders. It was “their problem.” Indeed, it was only when the media started to find sympathetic victims, people like Ryan White who were clearly “innocent,” that society started to mobilize in a big way. I am old enough to remember the fear, but I need the occasional nudge to bring it back.

What happens with any prejudice is that people define what they are in opposition to the group they call the other. To imagine the gay community as morally suspect and physically diseased was to imagine the straight world as its opposite– morally upstanding and healthy.

People are resistant to changing their prejudices because if one group stops being an “other” then the category of “normal” needs to be reconsidered. If you are not sick, maybe I am not well. Put another way, if we are not different, if your heart is as normal as mine, then we are equally prone to moral slips and to the misfortune of disease and unexpected death. If we are the same, our fates are intertwined. That is a responsibility, and it is scary.

And so we allowed fear to override our compassion. It was easier to look the other way and to pretend the health crisis could not touch your kind than to admit how vulnerable we all are. We feared association. If you were too focused on AIDS maybe it meant you were gay yourself or at least some kind of firebrand.

When I got my first job working at McDonald’s, I used some of my earnings to support some AIDS related charities. I think I might have supported the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and PFLAG and probably one or two other organizations if memory serves. This got me onto a mailing list of people who supported liberal causes. I was bombarded with invitations to save the whales and fight for women’s rights. One letter, I swear this is true, came addressed to “Dear Radical.”

I wasn’t a radical, and I don’t think I was exceptional. Spin Magazine, by the late 80s, when I was in my last high school years, was running a regular series on advances fighting AIDS. But how you felt about these things varied a great deal depending on your social circles.

My first year of college, I went to a university that drew largely from more rural parts of the state. There was, in any case, a Gay Lesbian Student Alliance. (They hadn’t added the BT and Q yet.) They announced a Gay Pride day and encouraged students to show their support, but the method was one designed to have plausible deniability. You were supposed to stand in solidarity by wearing jeans.

I was shocked by the reaction of some of the neighbors on my floor of the dorm. Someone had cut out the photograph of the picture of the young woman who led the Gay Lesbian Student Alliance and tacked it to the wall with a big red “no” sign over her face and in red the words “NO Lezzies.”  On jeans day one of my neighbors went door to door reminding students to remember to wear a skirt or slacks.

I was appalled. I was horrified. I was straight.    I said nothing.

How many people on my hall might have agreed with me if I’d had the courage to say, “Hey, that’s not cool.” How many of us were waiting for someone else to speak up? Could there have been a lesbian on my floor whose life would have been made a little bit easier if I had said something?

One of the most memorable lines in The Normal Heart is uttered by Felix, who tells his lover, “Men do not naturally not love. They learn not to.”

The title “The Normal Heart” points to a subplot involving Ned’s brother, who cannot accept his sexuality. The brother believes he is the one with the normal heart. Ned pleads with him that his heart is also normal. But the normal heart is more than that.

The normal heart is full of compassion. We do not naturally not love. We learn not to. If we can learn, then we can, we must, unlearn.

Oscar Wilde and The Irony of Atonement

wilde-fansEngland feels really bad about what it did to Oscar Wilde.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that they just posthumously pardoned him, along with thousands of other gay men. The apologies continue at the National Portrait Gallery where portraits of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas are being displayed side by side to mark society’s change in attitudes. The Evening Standard reports that this is part of a show marking the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967.

We’ve come a long way since William Powell offered to paint Wilde out of his “A Private View at the Royal Academy” in the wake of Wilde’s trials.

There is a small irony, however, in using Wilde to celebrate the 1967 change in the law.
If Wilde had been tried under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967,  he would have received a five year sentence rather than the two year sentence he did under the LaBouchere Amendment. The law that decriminalized gay sex set the age of consent at 21 and almost all of Wilde’s partners mentioned in court were younger than that, the youngest being sixteen and seventeen. (In 1994, the age of homosexual consent was lowered to 18 and then, in 2000, to sixteen bringing it in line with the age of heterosexual consent.)

To paraphrase our president: Who knew that history was so complicated?