Oscar Wilde's First Gay Lover by Adam Bunch

Robbie Ross was born into one of the most powerful families in Toronto. His father was a lawyer, a senator and, for a while, the President of the Grand Trunk Railroad. His mother was the daughter of Robert Baldwin, one of the most important figures in all of Canadian history—the co-architect of responsible government, the foundation of our federal system. But Ross didn't get to live in Canada very long. Before he was two years old, his father had died and the family had moved to England.

There, Robbie Ross would soon become one of Britain's most scandalous and controversial figures. He was gay and he didn't hide it, a fact that didn't go over very well in Victorian England, where they were busy passing bigoted laws against such things. The harassment started early—he was bullied in school—and would continue throughout his life: he would be threatened with jail time, dragged into court, demonized in the press and eventually forced to leave the country altogether. During the First World War, an MP even wrote a pair of articles—one of them called "The Cult of the Clitoris", if you can believe it—accusing Ross of being part of a conspiracy of 47,000 treacherous "perverts" helping the Germans to "exterminat[e] the manhood of Britain" by turning Britons gay.

It didn't help, of course, that Ross happened to be sleeping with the most famous gay man in the entire British Empire.

Or, at least, the most famous bisexual man. Oscar Wilde was a husband and a father when when he first met the 17 year-old Ross. And it seems that up to that point, the writer really had been attracted to his wife. But she was pregnant with their second child in 1886, and as she underwent the whole growing-another-person-inside-your-own-person thing, Wilde got seriously turned off. Disgusted even. And there was the young, attractive Ross, "determined to seduce Wilde" according to at least one biographer and already experienced from his time in boarding school. The two hooked up. Ross moved in. And the pair would remain close for the rest of their lives.

The Canadian stood by Wilde even when things started to go sour. And they did so pretty quickly once the author began an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. Douglas led Wilde into the seedy Victorian underground of gay prostitutes and brothels. And it was Douglas' screwed up relationship with his crazyass homophobic bully of a father (the oh-so-ironically-titled Marquess of Queensbury), which eventually landed Wilde in jail. When Queensbury left Wilde a poorly-spelled calling card denouncing him as a "somdomite", Wilde sued Queensbury for libel. But when it turned out there was plenty of evidence against him because, you know, he was Oscar freakin' Wilde, he was forced to drop the case. In the aftermath,  Ross begged Wilde to flee, but the author ignored him, was arrested, tried and eventually convicted of sodomy and gross indecency.

When Wilde got out after two long, miserable years in prison, Ross was waiting for him with a house in France. And though Wilde would forgive Douglas for his role and see him on and off over the next few years, it was Ross who was with him when he died. And it was Ross who took care of his affairs after his death, securing his legacy by buying back the rights to his works—which the author had been forced to sell during his trial—and stamping out the fake porn which was being published under his name.

For his part, Douglas went off the rails. When he wasn't accusing Winston Churchill of playing a role in an imaginary Jewish plot to assassinate the Secretary of War, he was denouncing homosexuality, attacking Ross, testifying against him in court and declaring that Oscar Wilde was "the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years".


As a touching postscript, Robbie Ross' ashes are now at rest inside Oscar Wilde's tomb. And this story isn't the only connection Toronto has to Wilde. He came to town in 1882 as part of a year-long tour of North America that helped cement his growing fame. He lectured at the Grand Opera House  on Adelaide and the old pavilion at Allan Gardens, hated all the ads painted on our buildings, loved University College at U of T, and made fun of our yellow bricks. blogTO has got more about that visit in an article over here.

Photo: Robbie Ross

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. He's been on the Polaris Prize jury, lectured at Trampoline Hall and written for PopMatters, Crawdaddy!, 24 Hours and a whole bunch of other places. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at adam@littleredumbrella.com.

This post originally appeared on the Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog, which tells stories about the history of Toronto, including tales of bank robbers, duels and 100 year-old fish. You can read more highlights from it here, or visit it yourself here.


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