The Danger of Being Different

photograph by Wesley Moore

And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

                                    Oscar Wilde, “Ballad of the Reading Gaol”

In 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Charleston, South Carolina, a late stop on his tour of the United States and Canada.  Although the tour had begun triumphantly with a fawning press hanging on the Irishman’s every word and with Wilde’s having killed a bottle of wine with Walt Whitman at his Camden home, trouble ensued when Wilde shared a train from Philadelphia to Baltimore with Archibald Forbes, a Scottish war correspondent who, according to Richard Ellmann, “found Wilde’s knee breeches [. . .] particularly repellent” and who “stung Wilde with stupid jokes about the commercializing of aestheticism.”  

Wilde was, in fact, on his way to attend a lecture by Forbes entitled “The Inner Life of a War Correspondent,” but after suffering Forbes’ slings and arrows, Wilde decided to skip the lecture and head to Washington.  This slight spurred Forbes to mock Wilde in that lecture and in letters to various newspapers. This negative publicity spilled over to influence other philistines of the press who found Wilde’s clothes and manners effeminate and ostentatious.

Forbes
Wilde

I say who is without ostentation cast the first stone.

At any rate, by the time Wilde rolled into the Holy City, he was an inviting target for smug homophobes like the News and Courier reporter who provided the following story excerpted from  Oscar Wilde in America, The Interviews:

Of course, that Archibald Forbes and the unknown Charleston reporter are mere footnotes to Wilde’s story would not surprise Wilde, who said about his treatment by the press during his tour:

“I have no complaints to make.  They have certainly treated me outrageously, but I am not the one who is injured; it is the public.  By such ridiculous attacks the people are taught to attack what they should revere.  Had I been treated differently by the newspapers in England and in this country, had I been commended and endorsed, for the first time in my life I should have doubted myself and my mission.”

As a former teacher in a middle and high school, I am all too familiar with this ostracizing of people who are different, and I warned students that bigoted impressions they make could become indelible, and though I won’t name names, I consider several people of classes who graduated in the early years of the previous decade cruel, the latter-day equivalents of Archibald Forbes, that boorish metal-bedecked blowhard Lilliputian pictured above.  Unfortunately, for him, his boorishness lives on whereas those student bullies’ acts of unkindness will be merely remembered by their victims. Perhaps they have changed, but perhaps they’ve merely become more circumspect in expressing their contempt.

The good news, however, is that, for whatever reason, students today are so much more open-minded, especially towards homosexuality, than ever before, which no doubt is part of the sea change that has occurred in this country in the last three decades.

Tolerence, on the whole, is on the rise.

Shadow Self-Portrait with Judy Birdsong at Wilde’s tomb.

2 thoughts on “The Danger of Being Different

  1. I’ll say that about ten years ago I got, in response to a piece I wrote about “It Gets Better,” a beautiful apology from somebody who had been a year above me at PG.

    I actually gave an entire speech about it at a conference: http://www.joelderfner.com/blog/2013/03/6960.html

    If I read your post right, you don’t have a lot of hope that many of the people you’re talking about have changed for the better, but the proof I have that one certainly has makes me think that you might have the wrong odds.

    • The Trump phenomenon suggests you’re probably right, Joel.

      After typing the above, I just finished reading the link, which is very powerful. I love your observation that leaving high school broadens opportunities for meeting more like-minded people, which should be obvious, but it’s something I’d never considered. I wish I had because I could have used it in class.

      Thanks, for reading and commenting. I really appreciate it.

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