I grew up in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The turmoil of the Troubles was matched by my inner turmoil. I knew I was a queer (or a “fruit” in the slang of my school) as it was shouted at me on a regular basis. I also knew that I was the only example of the kind then living. Homosexuality was universally denounced as profoundly evil in the world I lived in, the only thing on which the Pope and Ian Paisley could wholeheartedly agree. No attempt was made to distinguish between gay men (lesbians did not exist) and paedophiles. It was also still completely illegal, even by two adults in private, as the 1967 Act did not apply to Northern Ireland. That didn’t change until Jeff Dudgeon took the UK Government to the ECHR who ruled that his human rights were being breached and the law was finally brought into line with the rest of the UK in 1982.
As a teenager, I visited my aunt in London for a week’s holiday and my older cousin kindly let me have her bedroom. At that time, Heron Books was a very successful book club which published classics in faux leather bindings. A different book was sent to members every month and my cousin was a member. Looking for something to read in bed one night, I discovered a pile of Heron Books in the bottom of her wardrobe, all still inside the cardboard packaging in which they were posted. I went though this pile and discovered a book that was simply entitled “Stories” and the author’s name on the spine, Oscar Wilde. Had I heard of him before? I’m not sure and I can’t remember now. I think I’d heard of him as a great wit and a successful playwright and I was proud that he was Irish. So I took his stories to bed.
The book had an introduction which gave a brief outline of his life. As I read this, I came to a sentence which, fifty years later, I can still quote word for word. “At the height of his fame and success, he started appearing in public with loathsome male prostitutes.” This was unutterably (literally) thrilling to me. Who knew that there was such a thing as "loathsome male prostitutes”? And how did one become one? When I returned to Northern Ireland, I ransacked my local library for biographies of Oscar Wilde and his contemporaries and became something of an expert on the homosexual underworld of Victorian London. (The library was in a rather fine Victorian building and had an excellent collection but, despite the fact that the library was in a Catholic area and served only the Catholic community, the IRA saw fit to blow it up some time later, an act of cultural sabotage equal to Nazi book burnings. For days afterwards, charred pages from burnt books blew round the area.)
Oscar was the first gay person I ever met and he introduced me to others. His great speech from the dock at the Old Bailey in defence of "the love that dares not speak its name" put me on the trail of Shakespeare and Michelangelo. Whilst I knew that there were no other living homosexuals (only paedophiles and I knew I wasn’t one of those), I took comfort in the fact that they had existed in the past and had made great contributions to world culture.
I finally met some living homosexuals when I went to university and, after graduation, I moved to London where there were still more. On a trip to Paris, I fulfilled a promise I had made to myself as a teenager and went to Père Lachaise cemetery to lay flowers on Oscar’s grave. Not white lilies unfortunately - the flower stall at the entrance didn’t have any - but some substitute white flowers nevertheless. A friend took my photo, leaning against Jacob Epstein’s imposing monument, my flowers on a ledge on the tomb behind me. Back in London, I showed my holiday photos to another friend and, I’m not sure what elicited the comment - maybe the tight jeans which were de rigeur at the time or perhaps I had struck an unintentionally louche pose. But, when he came to this photo, my friend said “Séamus, you look exactly like a rent boy!”. Not quite a loathsome male prostitute, but close enough. Thanks Oscar.