Amid all the Queen’s diamond jubilee nonsense, the queer Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence picnicked on Carlton Hill in Edinburgh yesterday, after visiting key sites in Edinburgh’s gay and lesbian history: ‘Old Queens’ alternative jubilee picnic
The Sisters were formed in about 1979 in response to attacks on the queer community by religious organisations, with a simple twin mission:
- the expiation of stigmatic guilt, and
- the promulgation of universal joy.
“Before their picnic, … [they visited] St Patrick’s Catholic church in Cowgate, where the poet John Gray, a lover of Oscar Wilde, had become priest after his conversion to Catholicism but lived still with his partner.”
Very curious, I thought, John Gray, a Victorian and early Edwardian gay Catholic Priest with a male partner? I had to find out more.
It turns out it’s a very queer Catholic tale of poets, playwrights and artists, Priests and Brothers and of the beginnings of gay equality.
Oscar’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray is named in homage to his lover, John Gray, later a priest
One year before Oscar Wilde’s queer gothic tale The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in a magazine in 1890, Wilde and John Gray met at a dinner party in Chelsea, London, in 1889. Wilde was 34 and John Gray was a “wonderfully handsome” 22 year old. Oscar Wilde was not the first or last posh homosexual to be attracted to ‘a bit of rough’ (“It was like feasting with panthers; the danger was half the excitement”) and Wilde fell for John Gray, a carpenter’s son from Bethnal Green, in London’s working class east end.
John had left school at 13, apprenticed as a metal worker in the Royal Arsenal arms factory in Woolwich, but had worked hard to better himself through attending night school and was now working for the Foreign Office library, and had had his own first literary aesthetic writings published in 1888, the year before he met Oscar.
Richard Ellmann, the author of Oscar Wilde, argues: “Wilde and Gray were assumed to be lovers, and there seems no reason to doubt it.” Wilde later described Gray as being:
“Wonderfully handsome, with his finely-curved scarlet lips, his frank blue eyes, his crisp gold hair. There was something in his face that made one trust him at once. All the candour of youth was there, as well as all youth’s passionate purity. One felt that he had kept himself unspotted from the world.”
A mutual friend, Lionel Johnson, said that John Gray had the “face of a fifteen year-old boy”.
Catholic convert John Gray and the nearly Catholic Oscar Wilde
Shortly after meeting Oscar, in February 1890, John Gray, who had been raised working class Methodist, was baptised a Catholic when he was nearly 23, shortly before Oscar’s Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in its original magazine manifestation. John lapsed from Catholicism shortly after this, but not for long, since Oscar’s legal trials in 1895 propelled John back into the arms of the Church.
Oscar was born in an upper middle class family in Dublin and raised as an Anglican in the Church of Ireland.
However while in his early twenties and studying at Oxford University in the mid 1870s, Oscar was seriously considering becoming a Catholic, and discussed the possibility with priests several times. In 1877, Wilde was left speechless after an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome. He eagerly read Cardinal Newman’s books, and became more serious about conversion in 1878, when he met Fr. Sebastian Bowden, a priest at the Brompton Oratory, London, who had already received some high profile converts. But on the day of his baptism, Wilde had a last minute change of heart and sent Fr. Bowden a bunch of lilies instead.
Married Oscar, 32, charmed and seduced by 17 year old Robbie Ross
Wilde retained a lifelong interest in Catholic theology and liturgy. He married Constance Lloyd at the Church of England St. James Church in Paddington, London in 1884 and they had two sons. After the second son was born in 1886, Oscar became increasingly estranged from his wife, and in 1887 was seduced into a sexual relationship by a precocious and openly gay 17 year old Canadian lad, Robbie Ross. Robbie remained a loyal friend and became Oscar’s hard-working literary executor after his death.
Oscar’s death bed Last Rites
As Oscar lay on his death bed in post-imprisonment exile in Paris, he was baptised a Catholic and given the last rites by an Irish Passionist priest, Fr. Cuthbert Dunne, in late November 1900.
Dorian Gray and the John Gray connection
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s only novel, is an eerie fable with homosexual allusions, about a decadent young man whose portrait ages while he retains his youth. The name ‘Gray’ in the title is Oscar’s tribute to John. Richard Ellmann, Wilde’s biographer, argues:
“To give the hero of his novel the name of Gray was a form of courtship. Wilde probably named his hero not to point to a model, but to flatter Gray by identifying him with Dorian. Gray took the hint, and in letters to Wilde signed himself Dorian. Their intimacy was common talk.”
The first name ‘Dorian’, in sophisticated Victorian circles, would have been seen as an obvious reference to the ancient Greek tribe, the Dorians, proselytes for the culture of paiderastia (pederasty), sexual love between males.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is a very queer tale
Not very surprisingly, critics interpreted the book as promoting homosexuality and suggested this, in a typically indirect Victorian way (indirect because this is ‘the love that dares not speak its name’). Charles Whibley, for example, accused Wilde of writing for “none but outlawed noblemen and perverted telegraph boys” ['perverted telegraph boys' is Victorian code for rent boys, male prostitutes]. On 30th June, 1890 The Daily Chronicle suggested that Wilde’s story contains “one element… which will taint every young mind that comes in contact with it.”
Wilde was concerned by the suggestions that he was trying to promote a serious criminal offence, homosexual sex, and toned the story down when he rewrote and extended it for publication as a book in 1891. Despite this, the book received an extremely hostile reception, with the leading national booksellers W H Smiths describing it as a “filthy book” and refusing to stock it.
John Gray denies any connection
By 1892 the notoriety of the book was such that John Gray was denying and disputing any connection between him and the book and he began to sue the Star newspaper for libel. The paper apologised. John was also somewhat jealous: Wilde had found a new target for his queer affections, Lord Alfred Douglas. In 1893 John Gray wrote “the falling out with Oscar … it is absolute”.
John Gray’s spiritual conflicts
John Gray’s spiritual conflicts of those years, the years that as Fr. Gray he would look back on as his “course of sin”, are suggested in the very best of the short stories he wrote, “The Person in Question”. This obviously autobiographical tale, written in about 1892, was discovered years later in typescript in the Dominican Chaplaincy in Edinburgh and finally published in 1958. It is a doppelgänger narrative about a young man haunted by the apparition of himself as he will be in 25 years’ time if he continues on his hedonistic life. The horrifying vision of his future leads to mania, as John Gray’s own psychological crisis brought him to the edge of suicide.
John comes under the wing of wealthy poet and early gay advocate, Marc-André Raffalovich
John Gray had recently met Marc-André Raffalovich, a wealthy poet and early advocate in France of gay people, and he became John Gray’s most important supporter, and later his life partner. Influenced by Marc-André’s protective and circumspect tendencies, Gray left out his more obviously homoerotic poems when compiling his first collection of verse, Silverpoints. But the collection still has an overwhelming 1890s air of decadence as, for instance, in “The Barber”:
I dreamed I was a barber; and
Beneath my hand, oh! manes
Grays’s poetry book, Silverpoints, was published soon after Dorian Gray appeared in book form, in 1893. It included sixteen original poems and thirteen translations from Paul Verlaine, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.
In 1895, Oscar Wilde unwisely launched a private prosecution for criminal libel against the Marquess of Queensbury, who was the father of his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, for suggesting Oscar was ‘posing as a sodomite’, at a time when having gay sex was a serious criminal offence. Robbie Ross, Wilde’s ‘out’ young gay lover, fled to France for safety.
Gray’s soul-searching and emergent spirituality
Wilde’s trial prompted some intense soul-searching by John Gray and he re-embraced Catholicism in 1895. His third poetry collection was ‘Spiritual Poems, chiefly done out of several languages’ (1896), and defined his developing identity as a Catholic aesthete. It contained eleven original poems and twenty-nine translations of works by many others including Verlaine and the mystic St John of the Cross, both Catholic and Protestant. Gray’s later works were mainly devotional and often dealt with various Christian saints.
Gray goes off to Seminary
Gray quit working at the Foreign Office library and on 28 November 1898, at the age of 32, he entered Scots College, Rome, to study for the priesthood. He was ordained at St John Lateran, Rome just before Christmas 1901.
Fr John Gray’s gay rights advocate and life partner, Brother Sebastian, Marc-André Raffalovich
David Gray’s most important supporter, and life partner, was Marc-André Raffalovich, a wealthy poet and early advocate of gay people. They had first met in an artistic literary salon Raffalovich himself ran in London in the 1890s. Marc-André became a Catholic in 1896 under John Gray’s influence, before John went to the seminary in Rome (Marc-André was a convert from Judaism), and he then joined the tertiary order of Dominicans and became Brother Sebastian, in honour of Saint Sebastian, a saint with strong gay associations.
John Gray and Marc-André were instrumental in converting to Catholicism another famous queer artist, the dying Aubrey Beardsley, and Gray wrote the introduction to Beardsley’s Last Letters, published in 1904.
As a priest Fr John Gray disassociated himself as far as possible from his earlier Wilde homosexual history. His aim was now to work “entirely among the hopeless poor” and he became assistant curate in 1905, serving mainly Irish labourers and their families, at St. Patrick’s, Cowgate, in central Edinburgh.
Marc-André followed him to Edinburgh from London, settling nearby and setting up another artistic and literary salon. Sunday lunches and Tuesday dinner parties at Marc-André’s house in Whitehouse Terrace became a famous meeting point in Scottish artistic and intellectual life. After lunch, the guests would be led into the study to admire the Catholic Eric Gill’s sculpture of Sebastian, the saint whose name Raffalovich took as a Dominican Brother after his conversion. “I have the feeling,” wrote one habitué, “that some of the guests were a little embarrassed by the martyr’s nudity.” Eric Gill’s sculpture of Saint Sebastian is now part of the London Tate Gallery’s collection.
St Sebastian at the Tate
Adored but baffling Parish Priest at St Peter’s Morningside, Edinburgh
Marc-André generously helped finance St Peter’s Church in Morningside, designed by the Scottish Arts and Crafts architect Robert Lorimer, where Gray would serve as its first parish priest for the rest of his life.
As a priest Fr John Gray was adored by the parishioners, although they found him rather baffling. It was not just a matter of the black sheets in the presbytery. Fr. Gray was a creature of “polished reserve”. There are many references in memoirs of the period to his mask-like countenance, his enigmatic, heavy-lidded Mona Lisa eyes. He became a cult figure in church circles, appearing in Ronald Firbank’s novel Inclinations as the eloquent and touching preacher Father Brown.
Chaste until death
Father John and Brother Sebastian maintained a chaste relationship until Raffalovich’s sudden death in 1934. A devastated Fr. John Gray died exactly four months later in an Edinburgh nursing home, after a brief illness.
Marc-André Raffalovich’s advocacy of homosexuality
In 1894, Raffalovich had started to write about homosexuality (‘unisexualité’, he called it) for the Archives de l’Anthropologie Criminelle, a prestigious French journal founded by Alexandre Lacassagne, a pioneer criminologist and professor of forensic medicine. Marc-André soon became recognised as an expert, corresponding with other researchers throughout Europe.
His major work, Uranisme et unisexualité: étude sur différentes manifestations de l’instinct sexuel was published in 1896. In 1897, he started working on Annales de l’unisexualité, and les Chroniques de l’unisexualité, with the aim of cataloging everything published on the subject of homosexuality. These catalogues are still used by historians of sexuality to this day.
Homosexuality and Raffalovich’s Catholicism
There is a close link between Raffalovich’s views on homosexuality and his Catholicism as Brother Sebastian. He rejected the late 19th century idea of ‘inverts’ and ‘intermediates’ as a ‘third sex’, and instead considered homosexuality simply as another expression of human sexuality. He made a distinction between people born homosexual and those who chose to adopt homosexual sexual behaviour. Being born homosexual is to have potential, but people who chose to adopt homosexual sexual behaviour he thought were mired in vice and perversion.
He regarded a heterosexual’s destiny as marriage and having a family, whereas a homosexual’s duty, he believed, was to overcome and transcend his sexual desires with artistic pursuits and spiritual – even mystical – friendships.
These views led him to clash with Magnus Hirschfeld and the members of the Scientific Humanitarian Committee, and in response Raffalovich / Brother Sebastian accused them of being propagandists for moral dissolution and of wanting to destroy whole generations. While they championed decriminalisation, he supported the continuing criminalisation of male homosexual behaviour, as a way to contain moral chaos.
Raffalovich’s attempts to reconcile his homosexuality and his Catholic beliefs pushed him into criticising the early gay liberation movement; in 1910, he finally stopped commenting altogether on homosexuality, the subject which had been such an important part in his life. Instead, he focused on his Edinburgh salon and supporting young artists.
At Queering the Church, about Oscar Wilde and the Vatican – A Church of Saints and Sinners
and at Wikipedia