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social sciences

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United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century  
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A political visionary and social reformer, Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) linked his strong advocacy of homosexual rights with other causes to which he was dedicated, including socialism and feminism. Issued in 1894, his Homogenic Love was the first emphatic defense of homosexuality by a British author to be published in the United Kingdom. Defying the fear generated by the Wilde trials of 1895, he published another tract defending homosexual rights in 1897.

Carpenter unified his political and personal ideals in his impassioned relationship with his partner, George Merrill, a younger working-class man whom he initially encountered on a train in the winter of 1889-1890. Against the advice of their friends and associates, Merrill moved into Carpenter's house in 1898, and they lived happily together until Carpenter's death.

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Emergence of a Male Homosexual Subculture in the Nineteenth Century

At the end of the nineteenth century, most homosexual men, including such prominent figures as Symonds and Oscar Wilde, were married to women. The very real possibility of arrest encouraged furtiveness, and most homosexual encounters in parks, public latrines, and other cruising areas remained anonymous. Nevertheless, by the end of the nineteenth century, a significant number of homosexual men established a coterie of like-minded associates, although very few were able to lead openly homosexual lives, as realized by Merrill and Carpenter.

The development of a supportive, but secretive, working-class homosexual subculture was manifested in the emergence by the late nineteenth century of a specific homosexual slang, known as Polari. Ultimately derived from slang of the theatrical and circus worlds and also incorporating Old English and foreign words, Polari provided a means for men to recognize one another and to discuss details of their personal lives without being understood by others. As is the case with any living language, Polari evolved, but many words lasted over time, including "troll" (take a walk), "vada" (look), "omi" (man), and "omi-palone" (gay man). Polari continued to be spoken in homosexual circles until the 1960s, when it largely fell out of use, although there are indications of a revival among younger queer men.

In upper-class British circles at the end of the nineteenth century, homosexuality was often embodied in the exquisitely refined figure of the dandy, associated with the Aesthetic movement. William Rothenstein's portrait of Charles Conder (1892, The Toledo [Ohio] Museum of Art), his intimate friend (and likely partner), is an archetypal image of the dandy; clad in long grey coat and tall top hat, Conder is depicted in the midst of an elegant spiral that evokes the pirouette. Although not visible in this portrait, a green carnation was often worn in the lapel by dandies, as a coded affirmation of sexual preference.

Oscar Wilde

In both his persona and his writings, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) helped to create wide public fascination with the dandy.

While at Oxford between 1874 and 1878, where he was strongly influenced by aesthetic theorist Walter Pater, Wilde had become associated with the Oxford Movement, a group of men who sought to infuse the Anglican Church with the rich ceremony of the Roman Catholic Church and who emphasized the importance of art. Having absorbed a wide variety of theories about art, he sought to establish himself in London as an arbiter of advanced taste. Both his exquisitely refined persona and his reviews on current art exhibitions quickly established Wilde's reputation.

Satirized by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, he was invited in 1881 to tour North America in conjunction with performances of that operetta. During his tour in America in 1882, he gained increasing confidence as a speaker, and he returned to England as an international celebrity. In his lectures in America, he devised highly original aesthetic ideas and largely freed himself from dependence on earlier theorists.

After returning to England, Wilde began a two-year courtship of Constance Lloyd, whom he married in 1884. Over the next two years, the couple produced two sons. Between 1884 and 1888, Wilde was supported largely by his wife's income as he undertook a career as a journalist, assuming editorship of The Lady's World in 1887.

The publication in 1888 of The Happy Prince, a collection of fairy tales, secured his literary reputation, and, during the next seven years, he produced a variety of significant and popular works, including the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890); a political treatise, The Soul of Man under Socialism; a collection of dialogues and anecdotes, Intentions (1891); two collections of short stories; and five plays (among them Lady Windermere's Fan [1892], and A Woman of No Importance [1893]).

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