“I think that God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.” Oscar Wilde
When you write historical fiction people ask these types of questions: Did the Apache men really cut the noses off of women suspected of cheating? Did some people really get addicted to morphine after the Civil War? Did some people really have wounds that wouldn’t heal? Did people really know about homosexuality?
The other day I mentioned stuff I didn’t feel like writing about. I have strong opinions, but like a quiet life. A few years back when I started writing Weary of Running about straight- as- an- arrow West Point Cadet Buck Crenshaw I had no idea that the US would be embroiled in sexual politics on such a grand scale so when a celibate, gay-leaning missionary wrote himself into my story I found it mildly curious. How would Buck and the other characters deal with him? As anyone who’s read my first book knows, I pride myself on creating flawed characters. I wouldn’t be able to relate to anyone else.
Now before someone gets all excited when I say the gay character is flawed, let me ask: is he human? Let me answer: yes, he’s human so he’s flawed. I hate witch-hunts against gay people. I hate witch-hunts against Christians. I hate false narratives that keep us at each others’ throats. I don’t want a Christian, a Muslim, an atheist, a feminist or a gay activist forcing anything upon me. Having said that I’ve lived a pretty cosmopolitan life and have friends who would define themselves as at least one of the things I just listed. We all agree to disagree on certain points.
Once I mentioned this celibate gay character to an artsy straight woman who thought she knew everything about gay people because she worked in the theater. I wasn’t going to get into a gay trivia contest with her, but it alerted me to the fact that I better start researching how 19th century people handled gay-ness. We all love to go on about prudish Victorians, but even when researching straight sexuality back then you’re immediately struck by the sexually transmitted diseases, divorce and prostitution. Flaws, flaws, flaws.
So here’s what I discovered:
Washington Roebling, one of my very favorite engineers (built the Brooklyn Bridge) felt awful when a classmate of his fell in love with him (and who wouldn’t fall in love with Washy?). The love-sick student killed himself when Washy explained to him that he preferred women. The whole thing was handled discreetly. Washy didn’t express the least bit of hatred toward his friend–just a sad sympathy.
Homosexual behavior was alive and well in the 19th century. Walt Whitman had no trouble finding young, working class men to carry on affairs with. No one ran him out of town either–but then he handled things discreetly.
In England in one town they considered closing the parks at night so gay men wouldn’t have sex there, yet in general anti-sodomy laws were hardly ever enforced.
Why would that be? I think last night I discovered the answer in a stodgy academic journal: Victorians were about discretion. Is this just another word for hypocrisy? I’m not sure but I get it. Here’s their reasoning: Sodomy goes against God’s laws (as does adultery, theft, lying etc). We all struggle with sin, but to expose it (sodomy) gives it a force, a power to contaminate young people and weak-minded women (same goes for dime-store trash novels and modern video games?). Best to ignore it, unless someone makes us deal with it.
Enter Oscar Wilde. Everyone KNEW he was not heterosexual (even when he married). He dressed and behaved in what the Victorians believed was a very stereotypically gay way. Victorians weren’t stupid. They knew what Oscar got up to. They whispered about and laughed. They may have judged him, but they loved his wit. He knew all the best people and everyone wanted him at a party.
Enter disgruntled aristocratic father of one of the young men Oscar slept with. This man wasn’t happy. He warned his son to stay away from Oscar. He warned Oscar.
Back in the day, a male prostitute’s word was seen as suspect. No court would convict a man of sodomy based on a prostitute’s words. In fact a court would prefer not to mention the word sodomy. Oscar thought to nip the whole thing in the bud. Bad move.
The Victorians could handle his “deviant” behavior as background noise, but once the papers turned it into a scandal the nails were hammered. The sin was the contamination. the widespread, open discussion of Oscar’s sexual encounters–and the off-the-cuff, defiant way in which Oscar made fun of social norms in court. The tide turned against him then.
In my upcoming novel there is no grand call for gay rights. There is no gay-bashing either. The character’s sexuality is background noise. He is more than his desires. He is more than a stereotype used to illicit some political agenda–left or right. He’s a struggling human who trusts God more than I do and that’s why I find him interesting.
For more about societal norms and Oscar Wilde:
SCANDAL< VICTORIANS AND THE FALL OF OSCAR WILDE
BEING GAY IN NINETEENTH CENTURY AMERICA