But Wilde is the last person gay marriage advocates should want as their poster boy. The Victorian playwright’s views on marriage were so comically toxic that, he would shame any self-respecting gay right out of the license office. His life reads like a burlesque of the academic field of “queer theory” and is a warning to society against letting its little Oscars run wilde.
Wilde’s views on wedlock unfold in witty ripostes he made at table, written epigrams, and countless aphorisms which blossom on the lips of his characters. Imagine Oscar Wilde in Paris at “Les Deux Magots” café. He’s sipping absinthe. Someone asks his opinion on gay marriage. Most likely, what would fizz from his lips would be what Lord Henry says in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “The real drawback to marriage is that it makes one unselfish. And unselfish people are colorless. They lack individuality.”
For Wilde, marriage was a stage farce that drained the soul of personality. Lord Illingsworth in “A Woman of No Importance” said, “Twenty years of romance make a woman look like a ruin; but twenty years of marriage make her something like a public building.”
Wilde would never want to condemn gays to the Reading Gaol of select soccer tryouts, parent-teacher conferences, and family cell phone packages. Let’s not mention the wear and tear of endless haggling with surrogate mothers over money. The man who said, “One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art” would never wish anyone to wear a public institution.
Wilde was gay in the original sense: frivolous to the bone. On his deathbed he said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” Out of this gayness ripened an insatiable fancy for being contrary.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was many men. He was a Rosicrucian and a Catholic, a Free-Mason and a Royalist, a socialist and a snob. The man who posed with lilies entertained American miners and cowboys. In this changeling, we see the pattern of the ever-changing identities that gay Americans deploy: butch and femme, sissy and rough trade, queen and closet case, bull dyke and granola crunchy. Like his modern day followers, Wilde was a kaleidoscope of shifting identities.
From Rome, on April 21, 1900, Wilde wrote to his friend Robert Ross that he felt sure that the Pope’s blessing had cured his food poisoning. In the next paragraph he related his affairs with two Italian rent boys. Irish, Royalist, ultra-montane, and socialist, a pious Catholic and a fan of half a dollar trade boys, Wilde’s watchword was his greatest epigram: “The well-bred contradict each other. The wise contradict themselves.”
So, if gay rights activists want to take Wilde as their patron, they’d better face the fact that Oscar gave much too much away about the frenetic style of gay radicalism. Beyond the gay identity — usually depicted as a couple of guys in Dockers and Polo Shirts sitting on a deck with a couple of beers, each wanting nothing more than to adopt a kid to teach baseball — beyond that mainstream, vote-getting identity, there is another.
There is the mysterious “queer” identity comprised of dominatrices and slaves, fat hairy male bears and fat little love-cubs, transgendered women who wish to make love to men, and the biological men who wish to make love to women as surgically created lesbians. Then there are the naturally-born males who apply to Seven Sisters’ colleges because they identify as women and will be taking estrogen upon matriculation.
All of this is analysed in “queer theory” journals whose theme is that there is no essential gayness, only queer characters who belong to a spectrum of sexual types. This will eventually become a major political problem for gay rights. Gay politics is founded on identity politics and gay identity politics is splintering. Soon there will be so many sexually schismatic special interest groups that the gay essence will melt away.
However, at the heart of Wilde’s gayness there was a Thomistic essence. In his essay, “Oscar Wilde”, Chesterton pointed out that of the many Wildes there was only one that really mattered. Chesterton wrote that Wilde,
“…had, in his own strange way, a much deeper and more spiritual nature … Queerly enough, it was the very multitude of his falsities that prevented him from being entirely false. Like a many-coloured humming top, he was at once a bewilderment and a balance. He was so fond of being many-sided that among his sides he even admitted the right side. He loved so much to multiply his souls that he had among them one soul at least that was saved. He desired all beautiful things – even God”.
The God-craving side of Wilde was always there. That was not a pose. That was not a piece of the spectrum. His yearning for God was the very prism which created the spectrum.
Shortly before his death, Wilde told a reporter that he regretted not having converted to Catholicism saying, “The artistic side of the Church and the fragrance of its teachings would have cured my degeneracies.” (Not long afterwards he was received into the Church.) He told his friend Reggie Turner, “The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people the Anglican Church will do.”
Does this suggest that the only thing that will unify proliferating gay sub-species is joining hands in church and working out their issues as souls seeking God? A nice thought, but not something I see declaring itself soon in LGBTQ politics.
Four days after the Irish referendum the Vatican declared the vote “a defeat for humanity.” Pope Francis will probably reiterate this at his much-anticipated Synod on the Family in October. Yet it will also be a chance for the Church to revisit what it can do about prodigal sons like Oscar.
Mark Milburn is a Midwestern businessman with a wife, three children, two dogs and a master’s degree in philosophy.