History Play

As the first act of Gross Indecency drew to a close during its opening-night performance at the Guthrie Lab, I found myself distracted. Not that the play wasn't brilliant: Moises Kaufman's script about the three trials of Oscar Wilde, which eventually resulted in the author's conviction of "gross indecency" and two years in prison, held the audience spellbound. Actor Richard Iglewski, playing Wilde, grew more deliciously charming with each passing minute. Deceit, vengance, forbidden romance--all the elements of riveting drama had come together, accompanied by enough gavel pounding to make the OJ trial look like traffic court.

But I was jolted from my enjoyment when Queen Victoria appeared onstage. Her Royal Highness makes a brief cameo in Gross Indecency, signing into law the act that would bring down Wilde more than a decade later. Guffaws and titters passed through the audience as a male actor with a lace shawl, prudish mien, and flutey voice took his place upon the throne. But such humor quickly turned to shock as another player spoke his lines. As the lights dimmed on Victoria, he informed the audience that the sodomy law remained in effect until 1954. There were audible gasps and murmurs. How stunned would that audience have been to learn that nearly the same law remains intact--an ever-present threat and goad--here at home?

Minnesota's sodomy law is alive and well, seldom enforced but promising a maximum fine of $3,000, a year in prison, or both to homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. Similar laws remain on the books in 19 other states, although six of those outlaw only same-sex sodomy. If you're wondering where such laws were invented, look no further than Merry Ol' England. In 1885, Queen Victoria approved the Criminal Law Amendment Act, which prohibited sexual contact among men. (Oddly, when asked why the bill didn't include similar behavior among women, the Queen reportedly replied, "Women don't do such things.")

As the Minnesota Legislature prepares to return to the capital next month, local queer activists are weighing their prospects for repealing the law. But, as Q contributor Melodie Bahan points out on p. 6 of this issue of Q, the chances of ridding ourselves of such "bedroom laws" anytime soon appears slim. Adultery, fornication, and oral or anal sex with partners of any gender remain criminal in our otherwise progressive state.

A century ago, Oscar Wilde wilted as his sex life came under the microscope. Instead of using his substantial intellect and fame to question why the government should meddle in people's private lives, he bowed out. We shouldn't: It's time to join forces and decriminalize "the love that dare not speak its name."

 
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