John D’Emilio on Oscar Wilde and coming out: New book excerpt

Views John D'Emilio / November 14, 2022 Print this:
At my desk in my small bedroom at 400 Riverside Drive, senior year. (Courtesy John D'Emilio)

John D’Emilio, professor emeritus of history and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois Chicago, formerly directed the policy institute at what became the National LGBTQ Task Force. His 1988 study Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America, co-authored by Estelle B. Freedman, is cited in the landmark Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas, a 2003 ruling that struck down laws criminalizing consensual relations between same-sex partners. 

His most recent book, “Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood: Coming of Age in the Sixties,” is published by Duke University Press. He will be honored with a book launch on November 15 at the Bernardin Center at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. 

In this exclusive excerpt, the Jesuit-educated author recalls the aftermath of a life-altering dinner conversation with a New Yorker named Luis, a Cuban exile working at the United Nations in the late 1960s. 

Maybe because I had now turned a corner and was seeing myself as a homosexual, I began talking to Luis about my life. I told him that I was a student at Columbia, that I was hoping to major in religion, that I had always lived in New York. Luis made me comfortable enough that I felt the freedom to share the struggles I was having.

He listened patiently, talked about the hard times he had gone through earlier in life, and assured me that things would change. I so wanted to believe him. He gave me his phone number and encouraged me to call; as I was about to leave, he signaled to me to wait. He walked to a bookcase in his living room and pulled out a thin volume. 

“You should read this,” he said as he placed it in my hands. “A friend gave it to me a few years ago. It offered a comfort that I badly needed as I was struggling with my love for a man. Maybe it will help you, too.”

The book was De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde. I knew a little about Wilde. His play The Importance of Being Earnest was a standard work on literature reading lists. He was the only historical figure I was aware of who was identified as homosexual, and I knew that the scandal surrounding this had resulted in a prison sentence. I thanked Luis, we kissed goodbye, and I took the subway home to the Bronx. 

That night, I couldn’t sleep. The conversation with Luis had left me awash in feelings. Finally, I got up and tiptoed quietly to the living room, closed the door to the hallway so that I wouldn’t wake anyone, and turned on a light. I opened De Profundis, began reading, and finished it in a single setting. Fifty years later, I still place it among the most profound pieces of writing I have ever encountered.

Nothing else that I have read changed my life to the extent that it did. Yes, James Baldwin made me realize that there were men who desired men. David Hume made me question whether God existed. But Oscar Wilde’s words allowed me to see my sexual desires in an entirely new light and to imagine a life with integrity. 

The lessons Wilde drew from the moral vision of Jesus spoke to me directly. “The real fool,” he wrote, “is he who does not know himself.”

Written while he was still in prison and composed as a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis detailed the story of Wilde’s love for Douglas and how it led ultimately to his trial and imprisonment. Wilde is unspairing in his criticism of Douglas. And yet, even though his passion for Douglas brought complete ruin, De Profundis is very much a paean to love and, surprisingly, one that Wilde grounded in the story of Jesus.

To Jesus, according to Wilde, “love was the first secret of the world.” His power resided in the way that he projected love wherever he went. The lessons Wilde drew from the moral vision of Jesus spoke to me directly. “The real fool,” he wrote, “is he who does not know himself.” Wilde’s peroration, repeated many times in the course of his text—”whatever is realized is right”—was like a clarion call.

My brother Jimmy’s first birthday, with Big Grandma, Big Grandpa, and cousins Laura and Paul, 1958. (Courtesy of John D’Emilio)

I read it as a command to recognize the rightness of my deepest feelings. Reading those pages, I considered for the first time that loving men might be morally good. It is barely an exaggeration to say that De Profundis saved my life. 

At one point in the text, Wilde declared that “to speak the truth is a painful thing. To be forced to tell lies is much worse.” Anyone aspiring to a Christlike life “must be entirely and absolutely himself.” His frequent invocation of Jesus allowed me to embrace my sexual desires and still retain a sense of myself as an ethical being. It was possible both to be gay and to live out the values that I had so deeply internalized in my Catholic upbringing, even if the church as an institution no longer had a place in my life. 

One sign of the indisputable power of Wilde’s words over me is that, a few days later, I “came out” for the first time, though I didn’t yet have those words to describe what I was doing. In a letter that I addressed to both Bob and Vinny in the seminary, I wrote that I was now approaching life and religion “from a path previously unseen.”

I described my reading of De Profundis and how it had wrenched my soul. But the melody of Wilde’s message, and especially his presentation of Jesus as love personified, also was like a revelation. As I explained to them, it was allowing me to recognize that the attractions I had long felt for men, but had never revealed except to priests and a psychologist, were natural to me.

Acknowledging some of the encounters that I’d had in the past few months, I brashly declared, “I don’t feel guilty anymore.” But although I was opening up to them, I asked them not to reveal it to anyone else. “Of course, it’s still a secret thing,” I wrote in closing. “It has to be.” 

It was possible both to be gay and to live out the values that I had so deeply internalized in my Catholic upbringing, even if the church as an institution no longer had a place in my life. 

In many ways, it made sense that my first coming-out was to Vinny and Bob. They had been part of my inner circle at Regis [High School in New York City]. They were making a lifetime commitment to embody the lessons of Christ, and so much of my emotional conflict over my sexual desires was framed in religious terms. For almost a year I had been writing them passionate letters about the upheaval in my religious beliefs. The fact that I was communicating by letter, rather than face-to-face, created the safety of distance. 

An indicator of the transforming power of Wilde’s essay is that it did lead me, soon after the letter to Vinny and Bob, to tell someone, in person, that I was homosexual. Peter was among my extended circle of Regis friends. He had a reputation for an outlandish, irreverent sense of humor.

He provoked uncontainable laughter when he played one of the female roles in a Regis production of Arsenic and Old Lace. Peter was attending Catholic University in DC. I had seen them there in the fall, on a trip which I had also visited Brother August and Mary Ann, whom I had been hoping, without success, to continue dating. 

Kissing Cardinal Spellman’s hand at an award ceremony for the Mooney Essay Contest, 1962. (Courtesy John D’Emilio)

That summer, Peter was working in Manhattan, and we spent more time together than we ever had. He had a willingness to push beyond what was normative that I found liberating. For instance, Peter knew all about Andy Warhol, the avant-garde cultural figure whose name barely registered for me. He had learned where Warhol’s “Factory” was located on the East Side.

We spent more than one evening across the street from it, trying to be unobtrusive while Peter eagerly explained who each of the folks arriving and departing was. Peter had also formed a connection with an older man named Bruce Millholland, who’d had a life in the theater. Bruce was something of a mystic, claiming that flowers talked to him and that he could see through the back of his head.

The first evening I spent with him and Peter, walking through Central Park, I wondered if he was crazy. But Peter’s almost awestruck interest in Bruce—Peter flooded him with questions and seemed to hang on his every word—fascinated me, and I loved listening to Peter as he processed the seemingly fantastical things Bruce had told us. 

An indicator of the transforming power of Wilde’s essay is that it did lead me, soon after the letter to Vinny and Bob, to tell someone, in person, that I was homosexual. 

Peter was also seriously dating Connie, his high school girlfriend. In our wanderings in Manhattan, he talked freely about the euphoria that being with her induced in him and the contrasting dejection he felt when they were apart or when conflict arose.

I think the easiness with which he spoke about the relationship created a safety that allowed me to reveal my struggles. Not long after writing to Vinny and Bob, I came out to Peter on one of our evening jaunts through Midtown Manhattan. 

John D’Emilio, Memories of a Gay Catholic Boyhood, pp. 140-159. Copyright 2022, Duke University Press. All rights reserved. Republished by permission of the copyright holder, and the Publisher. www.dukeupress.edu.

John D'Emilio

John D’Emilio is professor emeritus of history and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. He was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 2005.

All articles by John D'Emilio

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