Recently I read a column by The New York Times Arts & Entertainment writer Erik Piepenburg, in which asked several notable figures to talk about the gay film that changed their lives. I found this interesting but want to expand on the idea from a historical perspective.
Any list of movies that people have found influential in accepting their sexuality is very much related to the individual viewer’s own period of coming out.To broadly reference the historical perspective, few people thought about what awakened their concept of sexuality before Oscar Wilde’s famous trials. Victorian England was awash with the scandal of Oscar Wilde’s relationships with young men, including not only the nobility (the Marquess of Queensberry’s son) but also those who were regarded as younger ‘uncouth’ males.
Whilst it was true that there were previous ‘scandalous’ individuals, like Lord Byron, none brought the issue of homosexual persecution under British law to the public’s notice like the trials of Oscar Wilde. For the first half of the 20th Century, it became fashionable among artists and thinkers everywhere to consider that the British law and justice system “had killed the modern incarnation of Shakespeare.”
Even so, the impact of Oscar Wilde’s three notorious trials would not have encouraged awakening the soul of homosexual love if Wilde had not made his famous declaration of “the love that dare not speaks its name.”
Oscar’s statement from the courtroom dock reached back into antiquity. It revealed the origin and purpose of homosexuality for all who cared to realise what being a lover of the same sex and youth (not children) actually meant, in classical and more modern terminology.
From the second trial:
Charles Gill (prosecuting): “What is ‘the love that dare not speak its name?’”
Wilde: “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 glamor 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.
Unfortunately, many people preferred to regard Wilde’s speech as a plea, to recognize only the wholesomeness of a purely Platonic relationship.
The physicality of expressing homosexual love is inherent in same sex affection, and Wilde knew that, and most effectively, most eloquently and challengingly, expressed that from the dock. In this regard many of today’s activists have much to learn.
It isn’t just a matter of “coming out,” it’s a matter of claiming the human right to love whom we will, without condemnation by any culture, religion, law or ourselves.
There are parallels between the judgement of Wilde and that of Socrates in ancient Greece; not so much from the point of view of martyrdom, but from their stubborn refusal to take advantage of the escapes from prosecution that both were offered. They abided by their faith in the justice they believed was inherent in their culture and were betrayed by their expectation that rational argument and a sense of common decency would surface in their judges.
For its part, the British government seems intent on apologizing for Wilde’s incarceration, by funding articles and movies about the injustice Wilde suffered, but of course the funding is rarely, and never openly, acknowledged as being such.
Two movies were made in 1960, on the times and trials of Oscar Wilde. One, with Peter Finch, was somewhat instrumental in encouraging a change to the British law under which Wilde was charged. That movie was released under two titles, “Trials Of Oscar Wilde” and “The Man With The Green Carnation.”
The change of name was due to the early release of the other film called “The Trials of Oscar Wilde” starring Robert Morley, but that one was not as sympathetic or as elaborately produced as the Peter Finch movie. Even so, it contributed to the awareness of the unjust law under which Wilde was prosecuted.
It is interesting, scandalously so, that “The Man With The Green Carnation” does not seem to be available on DVD. It won the Golden Globe Award for Best English-Language Foreign Film. Peter Finch won the BAFTA Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role and the film also received four other BAFTA nominations including Best British Film, Best Film from any source and for John Fraser as Best British Actor for his role as Wilde’s lover, Bosie. Peter Finch (tied with Bambang Hermanto) also received the Best Actor Award at the Moscow International Film Festival.
Also, whilst these two films were revealing the injustice perpetrated on Oscar Wilde, Stanley Kubrick was probably instructed to hack the scene out of Spartacus where Tony Curtis was almost intimately bathing Laurence Olivier.
However, innuendo, and suggestion of homosexuality, has been a constant feature of movies since the beginnings of the industry. Most of the time, any gay roles in plays and movies were, with rare exception, sad, suicidal, or caricatures of effeminate men.
The point being made is that from the time Wilde was tried and convicted, up to the 1960 movies, and including the Dirk Bogarde movie, Victim, in 1961, there was an influence, if not a concerted effort, politically, artistically, and individually, to prepare the way for the repeal of the legislation criminalizing homosexual relationships in the UK, and subsequently in Australia and the U.S.A..
Would this have happened without Oscar Wilde’s trials? Probably not.
If we take into account the association of Wilde’s fame to “the love that dare not speaks its name,” then we see that every time one of his works was published, or a film made of one his works, such as “The picture of Dorian Gray, 1910, 1913, 1916, 1917, etc., up to 1973, and beyond, then we can easily draw the conclusion that without Wilde’s plea from the dock gay liberation may well have taken much longer to surface despite the many heroic efforts by activists and defenders of the human right for mutual consensual love.
It is not unreasonable to maintain that the works and movies that were inspired by Wilde’s life and trials did in fact change the lives of all gay people, even if we associate our own coming out with the vast number of subsequent movies as personal experiences.
That’s the way it should be, but knowing the origins are important too, if we are to avoid what we may learn from history. Re-criminalization of homosexuality is an all too frequent occurrence, especially with religions reimposing their narrow tenets on a trusting society.
Our current frustration with the Abrahamic religions is our continuous need to challenge their religious view that so-called ‘traditional values’ precludes LGBTQ people from the human right to marry their beloved, even those who are not part of that religion. It seems that marriage is now the recognition of love that dares not permit our names to be heard, or for us to say, “I do.”
Historically, most cultures have reversed the freedoms granted to homosexual people to live their lives without threat from authority of the state, or of religion. We can almost judge the regression of cultures by how speedily they reimposed laws against the freedom to love someone of the same sex, openly, physically, and without prejudice. (See the Wiki Timeline LGBT History.)
Regressive cultures do not just oppose gay relationships, they attack the ability of people to live their lives without interference.
Women’s rights, children’s rights, minority’s rights, and of course racial equality, and respect, all suffer under regressive, authoritarian cultures. Only religions which understand that they cannot dictate what others should believe merit being added to the above list.
The recent ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that “Gay marriage is not a human right,” is a decision that appears to be regressive, oppressive, dangerous and retrograde to all human beings’ right to express their love with each other.
Even more horrifying is that it invites the return of an intolerant and active prejudice against minorities, who all have the birthright to expect their individual freedom to be protected from the scourge of religious inquisition, and its attendant persecutions. The religious attitude against homosexuality is for the religion and its followers to consider for themselves, and must not be imposed on those of us who reject such religious tenets.
After all, LGBTQ people only desire to realize their right to love each other, not impose it on others.
Don’t fool yourself, the mob rule of democracy will shift the discussion to a determination of what marriage means for the majority, rather than the protection of minority rights by judicial rule of law. This protection is inherent in the U.S. Constitution, but many of the Abrahamic religious followers do not understand this, or even when they do, they do not value it or accept it.
Equally worrying, and dangerous, is the reported legislation to deny women’s rights to planned parenthood, abortion, as well as contraception, not to mention insistence on abstinence from puberty until marriage or death, whichever comes first. It should be obvious that religion is attempting to force its intolerance into legislation just as it once tried to silence ‘the love that dare not speak its name.”
Minorities must be prepared to shout their claim to human rights without being marginalized by the mob mentality of the religious.