I am forty-four years old, and I have lived through a startling transformation in the status of gay men and women in the United States. Around the time I was born, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois. Lesbians and gays were barred from serving in the federal government. There were no openly gay politicians. A few closeted homosexuals occupied positions of power, but they tended to make things more miserable for their kind. Even in the liberal press, homosexuality drew scorn: in The New York Review of Books, Philip Roth denounced the “ghastly pansy rhetoric” of Edward Albee, and a Time cover story dismissed the gay world as a “pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life.”
Oscar Wilde was not a man who lived in fear, but early reviews of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” must have given him pause. The story, telling of a man who never ages while his portrait turns decrepit, appeared in the July, 1890, issue of Lippincott’s, a Philadelphia magazine with English distribution. The Daily Chronicle of London called the tale “unclean,” “poisonous,” and “heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” The St. James Gazette deemed it “nasty” and “nauseous,” and suggested that the Treasury or the Vigilance Society might wish to prosecute the author. Most ominous was a short notice in the Scots Observer stating that although “Dorian Gray” was a work of literary quality, it dealt in “matters only fitted for the Criminal Investigation Department or a hearing in camera” and would be of interest mainly to “outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph-boys”—an allusion to the recent Cleveland Street scandal, which had exposed the workings of a male brothel in London. Within five years, Wilde found himself convicted of “committing acts of gross indecency with certain male persons.”
The furor was unsurprising: no work of mainstream English-language fiction had come so close to spelling out homosexual desire. The opening pages leave little doubt that Basil Hallward, the painter of Dorian’s portrait, is in love with his subject. Once Dorian discovers his godlike powers, he carries out various heinous acts, including murder; but to the Victorian sensibility his most unspeakable deed would have been his corruption of a series of young men. (Basil tells Dorian, “There was that wretched boy in the Guards who committed suicide. You were his great friend. There was Sir Henry Ashton, who had to leave England, with a tarnished name. You and he were inseparable.”) At the Wilde trials of 1895, the opposing attorneys read aloud from “Dorian Gray,” calling it a “sodomitical book.” Wilde went to prison not because he loved young men but because he flaunted that love, and “Dorian Gray” became the chief exhibit of his shamelessness.