“I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws,” wrote Oscar Wilde in 1897, from a cell in Reading Gaol.
These are a few of the 50,000 words that make up De Profundis, a letter that Wilde wrote to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), while incarcerated for “gross indecency” with another man. Homosexuality remained a crime in England and Wales for a further 70 years, until 1967; in Scotland until 1980 and in Northern Ireland until 1982.
This autumn, Reading Prison, which was a working institution until 2013, was opened to the public for an exhibition dedicated to its best-known inmate. While seven weekly performers read De Profundis in its entirety in the prison chapel, the rest became a gallery. Cells, still home to iron bunk-bed frames, now contain works by artists and writers from Ai Weiwei to Jeanette Winterson. The pieces – including letters, paintings and sculpture – are all relevant to Wilde and De Profundis, touching on political imprisonment and infatuation.
I am struggling to sit still while Ben Whishaw reads out Wilde’s letter so convincingly that it is hard to believe that he didn’t write it himself. It turns out that prison chapel chairs are not comfortable. They are wooden and straight-backed and, I’m guessing, intended to be “morally corrective”.
The rich vocabulary clashes with the austere surroundings in the same way that Wilde must have been a misfit in this place: the same Wilde who, according to De Profundis, travelled from London to Brighton with grapes for a flu-ridden Lord Alfred, because Bosie wasn’t content with the grapes already available at the Grand Hotel.
Wilde’s cell in Reading Prison – with genuine “Dave woz ere”-type graffiti on the walls left by more recent inmates – smells like roses now. A bouquet has been left on the desk. It is easy to smell flowers in a place that used to smell like excrement (there’s a toilet right behind the desk) and think, “We won.” A place once used to punish someone for being gay has been transformed into a place for sombre reflection on the brutality of the Victorian values enacted against him. But there are still cells just like this all over the world – cells that contain people, not roses.
This is not about having won. The struggle for LGBT equality is not over now that we can get married and have sex scenes on television. Wilde’s cell and Reading Prison as a whole serve as reminders that we still live in a world where people are locked up – even executed – because of the people they love and the opinions they hold. Same-sex relationships remain illegal in 72 countries.
In one Reading Prison cell, there is a letter by the Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina. In it, he reveals his sexuality – as a cathartic exercise, I suppose – to his dead mother. “Mum, he is so handsome,” Wainaina writes. In a country where gay sex can lead to a 21-year prison sentence, this simple statement is both political and risky.
In the UK, we are lucky enough to be able to look at Wilde’s cell as a throwback. It is true that LGBT people in this country are no longer in prison for their sexuality or gender identity, but many – a disproportionate number – are living on the streets.
According to the LGBT housing charity the Albert Kennedy Trust, LGBT young people make up 24 per cent of the UK’s population of homeless youth. Many of these are likely to have been rejected by their families.
A 2015 survey by the LGBT rights charity Stonewall found that 48 per cent of trans people under 26 had attempted suicide. It is difficult to look at these statistics and fail to see the new prison cells we have constructed. How long it will take for this new kind of confinement to become a mere memory, as Wilde’s cell has, it is impossible to know. In the UK, at least, we seem to have entered a post-legislative stage in the fight for LGBT equality.
De Profundis is both arrogant and full of deep self-loathing. It is a shame that one of history’s best-known same-sex relationships – that of Wilde and Bosie – was so dysfunctional. As I listen to Whishaw utterly eviscerate Wilde’s selfish and shallow lover, it is difficult to understand why these men were together in the first place. The pathos of conducting a post-mortem on a destructive relationship (which happens to be the reason you are in prison at all) from a prison cell borders on the comic.
Perhaps prisons, even non-functioning ones, will always be places of grim reflection. On one cell wall, an inmate has scrawled the phrase “room service” next to a buzzer used for getting the guards’ attention. Maybe some of that Wildean wit lived on.
This article appears in the 01 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the liberal mind