More strait-laced than the Victorians

Oscar Wilde might not now face imprisonment, but he would be ripe for a damning exposé in the News of the World
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People in Britain often seem pretty self-congratulatory about their new-found capacity for tolerance. It's the one thing that we like to believe separates us from previous centuries; no more censorship, no more frowning on odd behaviour, on drug-taking, on diverse sexual behaviour.

People in Britain often seem pretty self-congratulatory about their new-found capacity for tolerance. It's the one thing that we like to believe separates us from previous centuries; no more censorship, no more frowning on odd behaviour, on drug-taking, on diverse sexual behaviour.

This month sees the centenary of Oscar Wilde's death and, as we have been so often reminded, it was a miserable death in miserable circumstances - the ex-prisoner, hounded out of London, dying in penury in a seedy Paris hotel. Now, he's celebrated for exactly the traits that then left him in disgrace - his rebelliousness and his homosexuality. While then, at the turn of the last stuffy century, everyone had to toe the line, now everyone can be themselves. Live and let live, isn't that right? Sure, whatever turns you on. If no one's getting hurt then no one's interested in how you spend your nights.

That's how we like to think life is today but, oddly, trotting through a new edition of Wilde's letters, I found it hard not to stem a feeling that, his final disgrace apart, he wouldn't find life that much easier today. In so many ways we have cast off the shackles of the Victorian era, but in other ways we still seem to be imprisoned by intolerance and fear of difference. We seem to be living in a divided society, where half the population are happy to live and let live, and the other half are too concerned with looking into other people's windows to enjoy their own freedoms.

For a start, how comfortable would a grand eccentric like Wilde be in contemporary London? Commentators and journalists would be united in sneering at his egotism and his flamboyance. If poor Martin Amis couldn't even have a little dental surgery without finding himself pulled to pieces by the press, how would Wilde have managed his lifestyle of sex and scandal without finding himself constantly ticked off, ridiculed and analysed? Given that Wilde's homosexual affairs were with young men and prostitutes, he might not face imprisonment, but he would still be ripe for a damning exposé in the News of the World.

In fact, wherever you look, our much-vaunted modern tolerance is often exposed as a flimsy veneer. It is mocked by the intensely conventional attitudes constantly on display in much of the media, where journalists feel more than ever compelled to inquire into public people's private lives, to publish the details and to excoriate them for any naughty behaviour - drinking, adultery, drugs, you name it.

It's also mocked by the growing conventionality among politicians. That means William Hague telling religious leaders that he wants to "promote marriage in the years ahead" or it means, as we heard over the weekend, that the government-sponsored National Family and Parenting Institute will be publishing guidelines on how to keep romance in marriage alive. Every week politicians seem to grow ever more eager to tell us just what to do in our private lives.

And it is also mocked by the old-fashioned attitudes that are still in evidence in our legal system, which in some ways hasn't brought itself into the last century, let alone the current one. Legally, homosexuality may be tolerated - but that doesn't quite mean that homosexuals have the equal treatment they might want. On last week's Question Time, when a question was raised on homosexual marriage, all the panellists, from John Redwood to Peter Hain, were careful to sound tolerant of homosexuality, and all of them emphasised that gays, too, could have stable, loving relationships that should be respected by society. That's lovely, isn't it?

Lovely, indeed, but this apparent tolerance is not quite the same as the legal reality. Stable gay relationships may indeed be tolerated by most people in Britain. But there is still no way in English law for such relationships to receive legal recognition. Does that matter? It does, if you're in such a relationship but your partner doesn't have legal rights of residence in Britain and you can't "marry" to enable the two of you to stay together; or if your partner dies and you think you should be entitled to the same inheritance rights as a married couple.

Apart from marriage laws, people probably believe that homosexuals now get treated in pretty much the same way as heterosexuals. It's too often forgotten that homosexuals still live with legislation governing their private behaviour that would never apply to heterosexuals. It is still an offence in English law for men to have group sex, since what is legal for consenting adults in private ceases to be private if you invite another friend to join in. One man, known only as ADT, had to take his case to the European Court of Human Rights earlier this year, after he was convicted of gross indecency when police searched his home and found videos of him having fun with more than one man at a time.

And, what's more, it's still an offence for men to solicit one another for sex - no, not prostitution, just lawful, consensual sex - in a public place. The recent review of the law on sex offences recommended repeal of that law, by which, it said, a man "can be said to be soliciting even by physical action alone; by a smile, a wink, a gesture", and which is still used a means of regulating what would be seen among heterosexuals as chatting one another up. But the proposal to repeal that law raised the hackles of the tabloid press, who fulminated against the disgusting idea that men should be allowed to show affection in public.

Such gaps and elisions in our so-called tolerance are constantly revealed. All sorts of people, not just homosexuals, are still punished or excluded in law just for being different. For instance, it was striking to see the news last week that a transsexual who became a bride after a sex-change operation had lost her high court battle to have a legal marriage. Elizabeth Bellinger did actually get married 20 years ago, and has been bringing up the daughter of her husband, but the marriage is not counted as legal even though she has been living as a woman for so long. This may not be a far-reaching social issue - there are probably fewer than 3,000 transsexuals in the UK. But exactly what purpose is being served by refusing these people the right to have whatever arrangements they choose for their relationships?

The way British law enshrines intolerance is striking and rather frightening. It shows that we are living in a society where, despite all our hyped sexual freedoms and public tolerance of nudity and adultery and pornography, harsh lines are still drawn to keep our private lives within certain boundaries. One of the other most telling ways in which modern society still reveals its inability to tolerate diverse private behaviour is over drug use.

Although the current debate around the legalisation of cannabis has now moved so far that Conservative frontbenchers can now confess to cannabis use and half of the population wants it to be legalised, that doesn't stop people's lives being destroyed on a daily basis over their private use of the drug. The police still go on, day in, day out, prosecuting people for dealing in and possessing small amounts of cannabis. And yet to previous generations this kind of criminalisation would have seemed frankly bizarre, since cannabis was legal in Britain until 1925. Wilde himself wasn't averse to a little cannabis use, and saw no need to hide it: "Bosie and I have taken to hashish," he once wrote. "It is quite exquisite; three puffs of smoke and then peace and love."

But now, just as the debate around drug use seems to be easing up again, the police seem to have been spurred into ever greater activity. The number of people convicted for cannabis possession has more than doubled in the past six years, and currently stands at over 40,000 a year. In 1998, over 2,000 people were imprisoned just for possession of the drug.

We love to believe that our society has moved on in a hundred years, and in so many ways it has. But certain Victorians might think we are still too strait-laced to be comfortable, and they might not be wrong.