First let me acknowledge the inherent anachronism of referring to Wilde or his work in any sense that implies knowledge of a “closet.” However, as Wilde’s trial in 1895 demonstrated, the invert (today’s homosexual) had a vested interest in remaining somewhat hidden in Victorian England.
However, Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine seemed almost to use open bisexuality as a publicity stunt. This is made even more interesting due to the fact that Brian does so using direct quotes from Wilde – often seemingly in a more genuine way than Oscar himself. For example, when Slade is answering scripted questions from a press audience, the following exchange takes place:
Press: “Brian! Maxwell Demon is the story of a space creature who becomes a rock and roll messiah only to be destroyed by his own success. Are you saying this is your destiny? Are you Maxwell Demon?”
Slade: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.”
Here Slade directly quotes Wilde from “The Critic As Artist” (1891) after an apt introduction that he would be describing “his views on morality in art.”
This is interesting for a few reasons. Firstly, this represents one of Wilde’s essays (when speaking in his own person). By comparison, the next quote Slade rattles off is directly from The Picture of Dorian Grey, a piece of illuminative fiction. In as much, this answer is the only one Slade/Wilde gave without a mask. Second, it ties back to an earlier discussion (also with the press):
Press 1: “Brian, why the makeup?”
Brian: “Why? Because rock and roll is a prostitute. It should be tarted up! Performed! The music is the mask, while I, in my chiffon and taff – well – varda the message!”
Press 2: “What about your fans, aren’t they likely to get the, uh, wrong impression?”
Slade: “And which wrong impression is that?”
Press 2: “That you’re uh, a [inaudible] fruit.”
Slade: “Well thank you sir, and no. It doesn’t concern me in the least. I should think that if people get the wrong impression of me – the one to which you so eloquently referred, it wouldn’t be the wrong impression in the slightest.”
Stuart [At home]: “That’s me! That’s me, that! That’s me!”
Slade: “I mean, everybody knows most people are bisexual.”
It’s remarkable that Slade is so open and candid. Though the distinction between Brian, Maxwell Slade (his performing alter-ego) and Thomas (his birth name) is an entire arc on its own, here we see him openly embracing a controversial aspect of his identity in a very public setting. This allows Stuart, then a teenager at home with his parents, to imagine an open life of his own.
By comparison, Wilde sued John Sholto Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry (and father of Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie, Wilde’s lover). Wilde claimed that Queensberry had committed libel by insinuating that he had been involved in a relationship with Bosie. The resulting lawsuit brought forth the evidence that would later be used to convict Wilde with “gross indecency,” and sentence him to two years of hard labor. While it is unlikely that Wilde would have known the eventual outcome, the point stands that he worked so avidly to distance himself from the ideas of inversion that he ended up in prison.
The movie examines the questionable nature of these choices early on, with Wilde’s (character’s) only line in the entire movie: “I want to be a pop idol.” It seems almost fitting that in a movie chock-full with Wilde quotes, that the only line directly attributed to Wilde is one he never said at all. Indeed, that line is a quote from Iggy Pop. However, Wilde has undeniably become an idol in the LGBT community. The natural extension, then, is to question what qualities we look for in an idol. Oscar Wilde is one of the few easily recognizable LGBT individuals from the Victorian era – is that existence enough?
While Wilde cannot respond to the criticisms we have outlined above, it’s perhaps possible that his lasting works can. The Importance of Being Earnest focuses largely on the ideas of public image, as Lady Bracknell points out: “We live, I regret to say, in an age of surfaces.” This is the root of perhaps the easiest argument against our previous investigations of Wilde’s martyrdom. Perhaps Wilde lived in an era where, for whatever reason, it was more difficult for him to “come out” than it was for Brian Slade.
Indeed Wilde lived in a time where acts of inversion were punishable with jail time. In Velvet Goldmine it seemed almost as though Slade profited from his sexuality. By no measure would we consider these consequences equivalent.
There are several complicating factors in this interpretation, however. First and foremost, Wilde very literally started the campaign that would later indict him. Second, Wilde had the opportunity to simply move to France or Germany, where he could have continued his life largely unaltered – even potentially joining in the voices criticizing The Criminal Law Amendment Act that eventually put him behind bars.
However, this law was slow to leave – some male homosexual acts were decriminalized in England in 1967, but remained on the books in areas such as the Isle of Man (part of the UK) until 1994. Further, a group of 7 men engaged in consensual sexual activities were convicted for “gross indecency” in 1998 because decriminalization did not yet apply to more than two adults. As for public opinion, as recently as 1965 a staggering 93% of adults saw homosexuality as a disease requiring medical treatment. Perhaps Slade did not realistically have life much easier than Wilde.
It seems to me that the difference was more in attitude. I envy Slade’s characteristic apathy towards public opinion. As he said in the quote above “while I […] varda the message!” Varda here is drawn from archaeic Swedish to mean “become.” Slade uses himself as a vehicle for public change meanwhile Wilde attempts to make statements only when his voice is carried by a fictional character to obscure accountability. Indeed even in his trial Wilde said that his letters to Bosie should be interpreted as the work of a poet, and not the work of a person in love.
There is room enough in the LGBT pantheon for people like Wilde and Slade alike. However, there is some merit to remembering why we idolize the people we do. Do we appreciate their resilience, their courage, their talent, or their daring contributions to change the world they inherited? This is fundamentally a discussion I think either Wilde or Slade would have been happy to have a part in starting, and one I think is crucial as we move forward into an era where the idea of criminalized consensual sex seems foreign. Things were not always as they are now, in large part due to the concerted effort of thousands of men and women in history. Their work deserves at least our consciousness.