Gay History – October 16th: Happy Birthday Oscar Wilde and Germany’s Paragraph 175
1856: Oscar Wilde is born in Dublin, Ireland.
After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, Oscar Wilde became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. Today he is mostly remembered for his keen wit and for his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the circumstances of his imprisonment and early death.
At the height of his fame and success, while his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), was still on stage in London, Wilde had the Marquess of Queensberry prosecuted for libel. The Marquess was the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The charge carried a penalty of up to two years in prison.
Queensberry was arrested with the charge carrying a possible sentence of up to two years in prison. Under the 1843 Libel Act, Queensberry could avoid conviction for libel only by demonstrating that his accusation was in fact true, and furthermore that there was some “public benefit” to having made the accusation openly. Queensberry’s lawyers thus hired private detectives to find evidence of Wilde’s homosexual liaisons. They decided on a strategy of portraying Wilde as a depraved older man who habitually enticed naïve youths into a life of vicious homosexuality to demonstrate that there was some public interest in having made the accusation openly
The trial caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with other men. After two more trials he was convicted and imprisoned for two years’ hard labour. In 1897, in prison, he wrote De Profundis, which was published in 1905, a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials, forming a dark counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure. Upon his release he left immediately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he wrote his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life.
Oscar Wilde died destitute in Paris at the age of forty-six.
1929: The Reichstag Committee voted to repeal Paragraph 175. The Nazis’ rise to power prevents it from being removed from the books and they in turn use it as the tool to persecute hundreds of thousands of gay, lesbian and transgender German citizens which they beat, torture and kill, sending many to concentration camps from which they will never return.
Paragraph 175 made homosexual acts between males a crime, and in early revisions the provision also criminalized bestiality as well as forms of prostitution and underage sexual abuse. All in all, around 140,000 men were convicted under the law.
While the Nazi persecution of homosexuals is reasonably well-known today, far less attention had been given to the continuation of this persecution in post-war Germany. In 1945, after the concentration camps were liberated, some homosexual prisoners were recalled to custody to serve out their two-year sentence under Paragraph 175. In 1950, East Germany abolished Nazi amendments to Paragraph 175, whereas West Germany kept them and even had them confirmed by its Constitutional Court. About 100,000 men were implicated in legal proceedings from 1945 to 1969, and about 50,000 were convicted. Some individuals accused under Paragraph 175 committed suicide. In 1969, the government eased Paragraph 175 by providing for an age of consent of 21. The age of consent was lowered to 18 in 1973, and finally the paragraph was repealed and the age of consent lowered to 14, the same that is in force for heterosexual acts, in 1994. East Germany had already reformed its more lenient version of the paragraph in 1968, and repealed it in 1988.