“Dorian Gray isn’t a gay book.”
I have to resist the urge to laugh in her face, and I manage to tone it down to a breathless giggle. “It was used as evidence of Wilde’s ‘sexual perversion’ in court. It’s pretty damn queer.”
The girl shakes her head, brow furrowed. She is resolute. “It’s not gay. Oscar Wilde wasn’t gay; Dorian Gray is a heterosexual!”
I’ve gone red in the face. My lungs are aching with withheld glee. “Maybe he wasn’t gay” – a break for laughter – “but he did the dirty with a lot of dudes.”
An indignant “No!” and she storms off.
In an article about “Why I Don’t Teach Women’s Literature”, a male academic tries to justify his misogynistic superiority complex by claiming that literature written by women is not as “wholesome” or “powerful” as those written by men. His examples of strong, heterosexual, masculine works?? The likes of Homer’s The Iliad, Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road.
And I’m astounded. I’m actually shocked speechless by straight people who feel the need to so vehemently defend these characters’s firm residence in Straighty-Straight’s Lane, Straighttown, Straightbury, Straightsylvania. They can stake their claim on a character’s sexuality and turn around and ban the same book for being “too lurid”, as if the mere presence of queerness makes something inappropriate. It’s reminiscent of a child who licks all the food to mark it as theirs, and then realises they can’t eat everything they’ve taken.
I’m the first to admit that I’m hungry for queer characters. Queer biographies, queer fiction, queer films, queer television, queer music; you name it, I’ll take it. But once I have my hands on a character/book/film/song, I will defend it to the death. I have written a 2,000 word essay about how Enjolras from Les Miserablés is most definitely, irrefutable, hands down, no arguments, not straight. I once went on a 40-minute tirade about people who try to deny Zeus’s homosexual relationships. I will deck a guy who tries to deny that Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby is bisexual. It’s a subject very close to my heart, because there’s so little material to defend. If I don’t stand up for the small pickings I have, I won’t have anything.
The first time I ever even knew you could have queer characters in media was in 2009, when my friend showed me BBC’s over-the-top, painfully flamboyant television series Beautiful People. I watched it all in two days – and I may or may not have cried. It was so precious for me, to see people who were just a little bit like me, on television, doing their thing. It was tiny scraps like this, predictable two-dimensional characters, that pulled me through high school.
Fast forward to now, and I have whole shelves dedicated to queer books and shows. I hear stuff like “You’re only reading that because it has a gay character in it” or “you only like that because you think it’s kinda queer”. And yeah, I feel a little guilty about it sometimes, but finding queerness has become a honed skill. People have careers in it. I get to say that I wrote an essay about the homoerotic subtext in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and got full marks for it. And I get to loudly, proudly, angrily declare that yes, The Portrait of Dorian Gray is a gay book.