Do you know where that phrase comes from? A love that dare not speak its name.
It is a line in a poem written by Lord Alfred Douglas in 1894 called “Two Loves.” Douglas intended it a romantic message to another person you may have heard of: Oscar Wilde.
Lord Douglas’s father despised his son’s relationship to Wilde. The year after the poem was published, 1895, the father — a twice divorced man with several illegitimate children– orchestrated criminal charges against Wilde for “indecency.” In Wilde’s time, Victorian England, it was illegal to be gay.
The love that Douglas and Wilde shared was far from conventional.* When they met, Wilde was an international celebrity; often considered the most famous man in England outside the royal family. Wilde was famed for his style—-he never went anywhere unless he had a green carnation protruding from a button hole on his chest–but he was also a literary genius. A combo David Foster Wallace and Lady Gaga.
Wilde’s fame and genius were no help when he stood before a judge in May of 1895. The man on the bench exclaimed Wilde’s “crime” of falling in love with someone of the same sex “akin to murder.” The judge growled, “It is no use for me to address you. People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame […] I shall, under the circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence that the law allows.”
Oscar Wilde was immediately led from the courtroom and served several years of hard labor in prison. A bankruptcy sale was held while behind bars; he lost everything.
Prison was insufficient for Victorian England. He was released on May 25, 1987 around lunch, but it wasn’t until 4 a.m. that he found an actual place to lay his head. No boarding house or hotel would allow someone of his “character” to stay. He fled to continental Europe the next morning, securing passage only through the charity of a small band of friends. Two years later, living in the streets of Paris, an old friend happened upon Oscar at a cafe . Wilde was uncharacteristically silent. He soon realized that Oscar had lost most of his front teeth, had no money to fix them, and was embarrassed to open his mouth.
He died two years later, surrounded by the small group of friends who never deserted him (mostly closeted gay men). Twelve people attended his funeral service.
Oscar Wilde turns 159 years old next month. This year, on his birthday, representatives in Illinois will meet in a veto session and perhaps vote on a bill which would treat same sex love equal under the law. The love that dare not speak its name.
After his conviction, Wilde was a laughingstock, called a “beast.” He responded: “the true beasts are not those who express their love, but those who try to suppress other peoples.”
When same sex couples are allowed to marry–and they will be allowed–it won’t be a mere victory for gay couples. It will be a win for Oscar Wilde. It will be a win for millions of others who lived, suffered, and died in communities where their love was not just invisible, but poison. How many people went to their grave in shambles…because of love?
Lawmakers who vote on marriage equality must know that this vote will be part of their legacy.
Do they truly want to explain to their grandchildren why they resisted it to the end? Do they want their name enshrined forever in the long history of injustice?
*Reams are written on Douglas’s good looks–and greed, immaturity, selfishness, and temper. But from the time they met until Wilde’s death, they could never quit one another.
**The best that I could tell, running for re-election next year, Rep. Kate Cloonen does not have an active campaign website.