***NSFW images below the fold
Homosexuality became more visible to the average person than ever before following the Wilde vs. Queensberry trial of 1895, and the subsequent prosecution of Wilde for “acts of gross indecency.” The first trial began when author Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry, his lover Alfred Douglas’ father, for libel. Douglas urged Wilde to pursue the case after the Marquess left a card at Oscar’s club calling him a “sodomite.” The trials revealed that the Marquess of Queensberry had amassed a large number of young men willing to testify to sexual relations with Wilde, who proved unable to believably defend himself. Queensberry was acquitted, and Wilde was shortly thereafter arrested for gross indecency, basically gay sex short of sodomy, and put on trial himself.
During the Crown vs. Wilde trial, a string of lower class boys gathered by Queensberry’s lawyers testified in great detail about Wilde’s seduction of them and their formerly private activities in hotel rooms and in Wilde’s home. After the trial ended with a hung jury, another trial put Wilde on the stand beside Alfred Taylor, a pimp who ran an all-male brothel that Wilde frequented. The association doomed both to two years’ hard labor, the maximum sentence. Wilde famously defended “the love that dare not speak its name” on the stand, declaring it noble and referencing the boy-loving tendencies of Shakespeare and Michelangelo.
Lord Alfred Douglas
Though this significant turning point took place in the final years of the Victorian era, gay men had been forming an identity for themselves and an underground culture for decades. In fact, the gay underground had caused a few scandals in the years leading up to the Wilde trials, but they did not involve as famous a figure. Victorian culture is known for being very sexual beneath its strait-laced surface, and the emergent homosexual culture was no exception.
The concept of a homosexual identity began in 1864 with the work of German writer Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs, who coined the term Urning to describe a man attracted to men, or having a “female psyche.” Prior to the work of Ulrichs, sodomite was used to describe a person who engaged in sodomy, but it simply described participation in a particular sexual act, not any inherent identity.
English homosexuals of the latter 19th century adopted the term Uranian, after Ulrichs, to describe themselves. A school of Uranian poets formed, writing of the love between two men. The contemporary Decadent movement in literature also frequently had homosexual themes, some more blatant than others.
Aubrey Beardsley illustration
The Chameleon was an overtly gay publication at Oxford with pieces by both Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde. Important gay erotica of the era includes The Sins of the Cities of the Plain by Jack Saul and Teleny, or the Reverse of The Medal, to which Oscar Wilde was purportedly a contributor. Homoerotic photographs by artists such as F. Holland Day and Wilhem von Gloeden were also in circulation.
Wilhem von Gloeden photograph
Rent boys or Mary-Anns, prostitutes catering exclusively to men, began cropping up in London, some working in all-male brothels. The Sins of the Cities of the Plain was attributed to one of these rent boys and featured homosexuals of the day as characters. Two of the most notorious were the cross dressing team Ernest “Stella” Boulton and Frederick “Fanny” Park.
Boulton and Park performed a drag act together in theaters, and also frequented nightclubs in their female attire. They gained a loyal, if small, following. Supposedly, some people believed they were actually women, even when they appeared in masculine clothing, though these people may have simply been trying to throw the scent off their own sexual proclivities.
Stella Boulton and Fanny Park
Stella was living with Parliament member Lord Arthur Pelham-Clinton in a marriage of sorts in 1870. In April of that year, Boulton and Park were arrested at a theatre where they were performing and put on trial, along with Pelham-Clinton and five other men, for conspiring to commit sodomy. Pelham-Clinton died of scarlet fever just after his indictment, though many suspected suicide. Boulton and Park were acquitted.
Before 1885, sodomy was the only criminal offense related to homosexuality in England. In that year, the Labouchere Amendment made gross indecency, a crime vague enough to encompass nearly gay behavior, a punishable offense. Stella Boulton and Fanny Park likely would have been convicted if their trial had been held twenty years later.
Lord Alfred Douglas and friend
Another scandal involving the homosexual underground erupted in 1889, when a male brothel on Cleveland Street was raided. The owner of the brothel escaped to the continent before he could be prosecuted. The rent boys were given light sentences, and none of the mostly aristocratic clientele suffered any consequences, probably because of their social status.
While these scandals brought the homosexual subculture into the public eye, they also suggest that the subculture was thriving, though largely unnoticed by those who were not involved in it. Boulton and Park gained notoriety for their arrest, but they were only two of many cross dressing performers, both male and female, of the era. Cross dressers were not always involved in homosexual circles, of course, but it’s safe to say they usually attracted a number of gays and lesbians to their shows.
Victorian women in drag
The fact that a male brothel was a lucrative business with an extensive – and prestigious – clientele also points to the size of the subculture. As they would for many decades, until the gay rights movement began in the late 1960s, homosexuals of the Victorian era had subtle ways of identifying each other. Oscar Wilde’s coterie famously wore green carnations in their buttonholes as a symbol of their sexual orientation.
Victorian gay couple: http://www.clga.ca/About/20021115exhibitposter234x320.jpg
Oscar Wilde: http://www.bb.ustc.edu.cn/ocw/NR/rdonlyres/Global/C/CCBB4CFA-D125-4D4C-A242-7E3DC0F62C00/0/chp_oscar_wilde.jpg
Lord Alfred Douglas: http://www.anthonywynn.com/bosiebiography/bosie.jpg
Gay Victorian porn photo: http://www.ohmybiscuits.com/scratch/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/gay-victorian.jpg
Beardsley illustration: http://petulantrumblings.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/beardsley.jpg
von Gloeden photo: http://www.colourplanet.cz/image.aspx?itemid=64094&width=200&height=&q=80
Boulton and Park: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_xORg3JKr7v4/SINivPIoZzI/AAAAAAAAAfE/dacOqgPqF6Y/s320/boulton-park.jpg
Douglas and friend: http://www.besuche-oscar-wilde.de/fotoshow/alfred_douglas/Images/05.jpg
Women in drag: http://arts.monash.edu.au/publications/eras/edition-5/newmanfigure1.gif
Green carnation: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a6/Green_Carnation.jpg