Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE

"Gross Indecencies"

Homosexuality had been illegal in Britain for hundreds of years and prosecuted to varying degrees by different monarchs. From the 16th century to the early 1800s, homosexuality was a capital crime, though the crime was rarely punished so severely. Beginning in the 1830s, imprisonment was the penalty for practicing sodomy, defined as any kind of non-reproductive sexual contact, regardless of gender.

A sexual morality and social improvement movement in the 1880s resulted in strong legislation against pedophilia, as well as sodomy. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885 raised the age of consent from 13 to 16 and section 11 of the act made "gross indecencies" punishable by imprisonment as a misdemeanor. Prior to the Criminal Law Amendment Act a sexual assault against a child between 13 and 16 was not a criminal offense and Parliament had intended section 11 to apply only to pedophilia cases. Instead, conservative judges began to consider homosexual sodomy cases under the gross indecencies clause. (No lesbians were ever prosecuted because when she approved the act, Queen Victoria was said to be flabbergasted at the idea of Sapphic love.) Prosecution was still rare, however, and pursued only in the most indiscrete cases. Wilde, on the other hand, was not a man to be discrete in any activity.

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893 (Library of Congress)
Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred
Douglas, 1893 (Library of
Congress)

In 1894 Lord Alfred published a poem, "Two Loves," in the controversial British literary magazine The Chameleon, which also featured works by Wilde. The romantic poem, probably Bosie's best effort, ends:

What is thy name?' He said, 'My name is Love.'
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, 'He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'
Then sighing, said the other, 'Have thy will,
I am the love that dare not speak its name.'

The poem was published at about the same time The Picture of Dorian Gray was making waves in the literary world. Lord Alfred's poem, considered a paean to homosexuality, caused quite a stir in England, especially in the home of the Marquis of Queensberry.

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