Constructing the Homosexual: The Trials of Wilde and Timarchus

By D. R. Gayton

51sETkY0yWLAlthough vastly removed in time and cultural context from one another, the trials of Timarchus and Oscar Wilde share many elements. While on one hand the purpose Timarchus’ trial was to test his “credentials” as a speaker of the Athenian Assembly, and on the other the purpose of Oscar Wilde’s trial was to determine whether or not he had committed acts of “gross indecency” (punishable under § 11 of the Labouchere Amendment), what links both these trails is that at the core of each, the sexual activity of both men is brought into questioning. In the case of Timarchus’s trial, the charge that he prostituted himself to other men is raised against him by Aeschines in order to demonstrate that was unfit to speak at the Assembly and thereby direct public policy. In the case of Oscar Wilde’s trial, however, the charge the he committed acts of “gross indecency” with other men is raised against him by members of the British government in order to not only upkeep the law, but, as the sentencing speech of Justice Wills suggests, to upkeep “the cause of decency and morality.” What the raising of these charges implies about the cultural norms surrounding both trials is that in both cases the sexual activities of an individual are seen as being indicative of the overall behavior and character of that individual.

In the case of Timarchus this idea of the sexual act as determinant of the overarching behavior of the individual can best be seen when Aeschines, when enumerating the type actions for which a man should not be allowed before the Assembly, identifies those who have “lived a life of shame.” Then he goes on add that “the man who has willfully sold his own body would…casually sell out the interests of the city” (34). The implication here is double, for not only does it designate certain actions as shameful, but it also designates the person who committed these certain actions as worthless.

Illustrerad_Verldshistoria_band_I_Ill_165In this way, Aeschines manages to conflate the private life of the individual with his public life while adding that, “the legislator [of the Assembly] could not conceive that same individual could be worthless in private life and useful to the public good.” What is more, although Aeschines (like many of our lawmakers today) never clearly specifies how the act of prostituting oneself is shameful or injurious to the self, through the examples of individuals associated with Timarchus, the understanding arises that Aeschines is linking the act of prostituting oneself with the act of lowering oneself to the position of social inferiors. For example, when describing the relationship between Timarchus and Mislogas, “who has a phenomenal passion for this activity [prostitution] and is always in the bait of having male singers and lyre players in his company” (38, emphasis added), Aeschines implies that in dwelling with Mislogas, Timarchus played the same role as these male musician who above being slaves, often played the role of prostitutes (note 46).

HomosexualitywildeIn the case of Oscar Wilde on the other hand, having been found guilty of seven counts of “gross indecency” with Charles Parker, Alfred Wood and another unidentified “male person,” the idea that ones sexual activities are determinants of ones overarching behavior can best be observed in the sentencing speech of Justice Wills. Stating, “[i]t is no use for me to a address you. People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them” (272) Justice Wills implies that the behavior of both Wilde and Taylor was so deeply rooted within their being, or character that the punishment he is imposing on account of it cannot by any means alter it. Furthermore, by adding that he deems “inadequate” the severest sentence that “under such circumstances” he must impose, Justice Wills in indicating that as an individual he finds such behavior to be “so bad,” that he, out of his own volition, would have imposed a severer sentence.

What this means is that any behavior that is deemed to be indecent characterizes the individual himself as an indecent being, an indecent person, an indecent individual. That is to say, it is the person, the individual itself that is marked as being indecent and consequently needing removal from society lest it corrupt or contaminate others. In fact, Justice Wills emphasizes this point of corruption when in his sentencing speech he adds, “[a]nd that you Wilde, have been the center of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men, it is equally impossible to doubt” (272). It is then this last aspect of Oscar Wilde’s trial that remarkably links it Tirmarchus trial. By being removed from society and public influence through imprisonment his case very much approximates that of Timarchus who having been stripped of his right of citizenship was effectively removed from public influence. Underlying both cases then, there is the idea that the “corrupt” will corrupt others.