Homosexuality in “The Importance of Being Earnest”

Submitted by Nightingale

June may be over, but as they say, the gayness never stops. As pride passes into wrath, comrades and allies shall gather here once again to engage in a quick throwback — to more than a hundred years ago, in 1894. Please meet the beloved Victorian dandy, the magnificent Oscar Wilde.

(An aside to incoming AP Lit students — just as the posh aristocracy memorized Homer to recite at social events, remember these facts to impress your English teachers.)

Oscar Wilde, who is commonly considered the second greatest English playwright of all time, had a not-so-secretive secret — he was of ambiguous sexuality, and “ambiguous” in this context means fabulously gay. His personal life often trickles, whether subconsciously or intentionally, into some of his most famous work: The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Happy Prince, and most importantly, The Importance of Being Earnest. Despite the lighthearted humor in The Importance of Being Earnest, the play employs double entendres to hint at covert homosexual activities during the Victorian era; these euphemisms, much like the characters involved and modern closeted members of the LGBT+, hide behind social masks to fit the conventional, and Wilde showcases the play as an opportunity to highlight the subtle deviations from English sexual conformity, just as LGBT literature today provide reassurance to marginalized sexualities.

Although every character of the slightest importance in Earnest is or becomes married, the entire play is underlined with a thin layer of Adam and Steve. Dear Oscar buried period slangs and euphemisms like easter eggs in grass-green groves of straight-people activities, such as arguing over stress eating, having a butler, adopting secret identities to hide from partners, and the privilege of legal marriage. Take note of the penultimate example, whose official name in the play is “Bunburying” — somewhat sexually suggestive, but perhaps a bit of a stretch. Consider alternatively the phrase “I would rather like to see Cecily,” uttered by Algernon, the author surrogate; consider it in the context that Cecily was a popular trade reference to male strippers. A still more obvious nudge-wink is in the title of the play itself – “Earnest” was straight up jargon for “gay.” Wordplay in the body text is as common as a cliché, but a pun in the title is steak-rare; dandy old Oscar must have been on the same level of witty as Much Ado About Nothing or Deadwood Dick (discussions for another day). The entire play oozes with eloquent flamboyance, so much so that any simple search on Google produces dozens of double entendres that were probably used to testify against Mr Wilde in his trial of “gross indecency.” (Wilde 28)

As the tragic conviction of the darling Oscar reveals, homosexuality were not very popular with the public at the time. However, despite the time period and persecutions from society, they could not eradicate the alternative lifestyles; the only choice was to hide them. The Sweet Prince obviously did a horrible job, since he was forcibly outed and charged, but his personal sacrifices connected well with a certain group of underground Nick Carraway’s and wearers of sensible shoes. Even as the play provides much needed representation for the underground community, it hides behind a deceptive heteronormative mask that might raise a few eyebrows, but not enough to gather a crowd — or a court and a judge.

All men and women are sluts for comradery, and the suggestive works of their lamb Oscar Wilde stuffs them full of LGBT+ solidarity, among some other things for his more intimate “friends.” As an American God (hehe) of modern literature (Neil Gaiman) puts it, “Literature can provide a safe haven of knowledge and reassurance for those whose feelings stray from the ‘normalised’ biologies and identities of human beings.” The socially suffocating era of Queen Victoria seems an especially important age to represent the marginalized groups, as England was a few centuries away from recognizing a “civil union,” as the sexuality of Wilde’s great Elizabethan predecessor has not yet become a recurring debate, and as the most basic homosexual relationships in Homer’s work (Patroclus ❤ Achilles) were not even explored. The subtle and not-so-subtleties of Oscar Wilde’s play, The Importance of Being Earnest, is thus a covert recognition of the “other” sexualities during the Victorian era, all the while wearing a mirage of good societal acceptability. (Stokes 1)

Since then, as modern society no longer recommends stoning as a punishment for homosexuality, younger readers have seen a rise in LGBT+ fiction even amid all the hatred. From the beef-stew slow-roast of Dante and Aristotle Discover the Secrets of the Universe (Benjamin Alire Sáenz), to the shivering-with-anticipation Love, Simon (Greg Berlanti), to the downright existence of the quintessential twink Truman Capote, the players from the other team has crept gradually out of the closets and display their tail feathers like some bird-of-paradise narrated by Sir David Attenborough in BBC Earth. Pride parades, drag, and the “camp” style emerged not as ugly stereotypes, but as a celebration of sexual equality. A variety of celebrity champs such as the fabulous Julian Clary, well-of-wisdom poppet Stephen Fry, and Vicious Old Queens Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen have also become the standard-bearers for Gay Rights, moving to normalize the existence of fellow Greek Scholars, Sapphic Poets and ensuring representation.

Many Karen-from-HR-type people still reject the idea of more LGBT+ in modern literature; chief amongst their greatest and most double-take inducing arguments are “Gay Rights is already achieved and now it’s only forcing gay agenda down heterosexual throats! It’s hetero-suffocating! Hetero-help!” (If only they’re as articulate; ex.) Karen, the suffering of mutton-chop Oscar exemplifies exactly the reason acceptance of marginalized groups in creative mediums culture is still necessary — that soft boy went through “hard labor” for two years! The judge presiding over cinnamon Oscar’s trial, who only shortly before sentenced two men to death for murder and rape, concluded that the “Gross Indecency” was the worst case he has ever seen. If Lord Justice Karen regards love between two consensual adults a more heinous crime than the most established taboos, then she is politely requested to reconsider her life choices.

Furthermore, to regard homosexuality as a generally safe practice today speaks of unbelievable first-world privilege; same-sex relationships are illegal in 74 countries; out of these 74, 11 of them, including Saudi Arabia and Iran, impose a death penalty. There is ridiculous hostility in the Deep American South as well, so much so that several politicians in Alabama quit the marriage business all together: “Gays aren’t getting married; no one’s getting married.” There is a long way to go before the normalization of all under the queer umbrella, so the modern day Oscars and Bosies disguise themselves as “breeders” in schools, offices, Thanksgiving dinner at Granny’s (Authorial Experience) … 

The gigglemug (search it up) Oscar’s ghost would be smiling benevolently down at YA writers who slip in quick suggestive phrases and the brilliant readers brave enough to admit to Bunburying in the other sense, and although the experience of LGBT+ members are not far yet from the dumps, the Wilde Prima Donna of the Dead Poet Society and the subject of this rambling passes wisdom from beyond: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” The Gay Rights activists have miles to go before they rest, but with the determined champions, selected by their collective faith — well, to summarize before this turns into a commencement speech — they’ll get there eventually. (Wilde 44)