Did Oscar Wilde Set Back Gay Rights?
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Published in: March-April 2006 issue.


AS GLBT PEOPLE, or at least those in Europe and North America, have approached the mountaintop and can at last cast their eyes on the promised land of true liberation, we are in the process of redefining our identities, which also means reexamining our histories. Perhaps the seminal event in the definition and fate of the modern “gay movement” was the late 19th-century disgrace and tragic end of Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s two trials made homosexuality a public moral, social, and political issue in Europe and the United States, and provoked widespread conservative reactions against homosexuality across two continents. Did Wilde’s wavering and reluctant but ultimately open defense of his sexual orientation promote or retard the cause of GLBT rights? Was Wilde a liberating figure comparable to Lincoln or Martin Luther King or did he set back the “movement” as it would be defined today?

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