Oscar Wilde rejoiced in having the last word and, 117 years after his death, he may have managed to do that again today. “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much,” he advised.
Today, Britain passed a law to pardon thousands of gay men convicted of homosexual offences. That may include the 19th century Irish playwright and wit. Problem is that all of them, like Wilde, are – rather conveniently – long dead.
The new law is modelled on the 2013 royal pardon granted by the Queen to Alan Turing, the maths and computer genius who broke the German Enigma codes during World War II. His story was dramatised in The Imitation Game, the 2014 movie starring Benedict Cumberpatch. Don’t believe the 2001 thriller Enigma: the Americans didn’t do it.
Turing killed himself in 1954, at the age of 41, after his conviction for gross indecency.
Justice minister Sam Gyimah said: “This is a truly momentous day. We can never undo the hurt caused, but we have apologised and taken action to right these wrongs. I am immensely proud that ‘Turing’s law’ has become a reality under this government.”
Under what is known as the disregard process, anyone previously found guilty of past sexual offences that are no longer criminal matters can ask to have them removed.
A disregard can be granted only if the past offence was a consensual relationship and both men were over 16. The conduct must not constitute what remains an offence of sexual activity in a public lavatory. If the late George Michael had been convicted in a UK court, it would not qualify.
No lists of past pardons will be published but the new law will allow future historians to point out that those imprisoned or fined for consensual gay relationships would not have committed a crime under modern legislation.
Rewriting history will not be easy. The evidence that led to Wilde’s 1895 conviction for gross indecency – including evidence of procuring male prostitutes – would make it difficult to assess.
Stonewall, the gay rights organisation, has suggested the playwright and author, who was sentenced to two years hard labour in Reading prison, inspiring two of his greatest works, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis, should be entitled to a pardon.
The justice ministry declined to say whether Wilde would be among those deemed posthumously pardoned.
A Stonewall spokesperson said: “This is significant. And it’s as important to the whole lesbian, gay, bi and trans community, as it is for the gay and bi men affected.
“The more equality is enshrined into our law books, the stronger our equality becomes, and the stronger we as a community become.
“This month the government issued a clear and powerful apology to every gay and bi man who had been unjustly criminalised for being who they are. This is not just equality for gay and bi men; the passing of this law is justice.
“We’re working to ensure that this new process is brought quickly and correctly, and to ensure all gay and bi men unjustly persecuted and prosecuted can finally receive the justice they deserve.”
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “This pardon is an important, valuable advance that will remedy the grave injustices suffered by many of the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 men who were convicted under discriminatory anti-gay laws between 1885 and 2003.
“A pardon has connotations of forgiveness for a wrong done. These men and the wider LGBT community believe they did no wrong.
“The legislation has a few omissions. It does not explicitly allow for the pardoning of men convicted of soliciting and procuring homosexual relations under the 1956 and 1967 Sexual Offences Acts.
“Nor does it pardon those people, including some lesbians, convicted for same-sex kissing and cuddling” – for example, when farewelling a partner at a railway station or wharf.
The last men executed for homosexuality in England were James Pratt and John Smith, hanged in 1835.