How revolutionary gay poet Oscar Wilde left behind a lasting queer legacy

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde was a true revolutionary – not only for his writing, but for paving the way for gay rights through his own public, and very tragic, story. 

In 1895, just a few months after the debut theatre performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labour for “gross indecency”, the maximum sentence at the time.

Prior to being incarcerated, Wilde reigned supreme in the literary sphere, but throughout his life he harboured a heavy secret – he was gay – and due to an unaccepting society, which criminalised homosexuality, he was forced to hide his identity.

16 October marked the beloved poet’s birthday. He died in November 1900 after contracting meningitis, dying in exile at the age of 46.

But his legacy lives on with creatives from all walks of life continuing to be inspired by his works. 

Professor of contemporary writing at the Manchester Writing School at the Manchester Metropolitan University, Andrew McMillan, is an award-winning gay poet whose work is greatly inspired by Wilde.

Andrew McMillan headshot

Award-winning poet Andrew McMillan. (Andrew McMillan)

The author of the collections Physical, Playtime and Pandemonium says he finds Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray “fascinating”.

“A few years ago I wrote a play for Proper Job Theatre that was a contemporary revisioning of The Picture of Dorian Gray, which looked at a lot of the things that often pre-occupy my work; masculinity, body dysmorphia, gym culture,” he tells PinkNews.

Dorian Gray is a fascinating thing because far more people know the story than have ever actually read the book.

“Its central conceit and its key ideas are things which exist beyond the boundaries of the text, it lives outside of itself, which is something very rare I think.”

Queer writer Juliet Jacques, author of four books, including Trans: A Memoir, says she recalls having a poster of Wilde’s quotes on her bedroom wall in her adolescent years. 

“Wilde has influenced me directly, through his writing and his personality, and indirectly through the countless other writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians and thinkers he also inspired during his life and after his death,” she tells PinkNews. 

Queer writer Juliet Jacques at the Oscar Wilde Temple in 2018

Queer writer Juliet Jacques at the Oscar Wilde Temple in 2018. (Callum Whitley)

Juliet says it’s difficult to pick a favourite from Wilde’s works, but says she admires the one-act tragedy Salomé (1891) for its “decadent take on a Biblical story, as well as the Aubrey Beardsley illustrations and the 1922 film by Alla Nazimova that drew heavily on them”.

“One story, ‘A Wo/Man of No Importance’ in my Variations is set around Wilde’s trials in 1895, and it was a real honour to read it at the Oscar Wilde Temple at Studio Voltaire, designed by McDermott & McGough,” she shares. 

“I still see Wilde everywhere – before a football match in Reading this month, I found myself on the Wilde Memorial Walk outside the Gaol – and that moment of recognition is always beautiful.”

Wilde was imprisoned at HM Prison Reading – once know as Reading Gaol – between the years 1885 and 1887.

The former prison, which closed its doors in 2014, housed criminals during the Victorian era, but has since become a become well-known literary landmark because of the time Wilde spent there.

Actor Elliot Page also seems to be inspired by Wilde.

The actor’s 2021 Met Gala appearance sent fans into a frenzy after they spotted a green rose on his lapel. Fans were quick to compare the flower to a famous picture of Wilde sporting a symbolic green carnation on his lapel.

During Wilde’s lifetime, the green carnation became a symbol for queer men. It follows the acclaimed writer asking one of the actors in Lady Windermere’s Fan to wear one, along with a dozen of his followers, on the plays opening night in 1892.