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The French Act Up

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The election this March of an openly gay Mayor of Paris--the Socialist Bertrand Delanoë--would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That's one reason the American edition of Frédéric Martel's The Pink and the Black (it appeared in France five years ago) is so pertinent: It's the first attempt at a history of the modern French gay movement, without whose achievements the victory of Delanoë would not have been possible. It all began on March 10, 1971. Radio star Ménie Grégoire was moderating her enormously popular chat show before a live audience in Paris's famous Salle Playel. The broadcast's theme that day: "That Painful Problem, Homosexuality," with experts from law, medicine and the Catholic Church. Suddenly interrupting some priestly condescensions, a group of homosexual women rose from the audience, yelling, "It's not true, we're not suffering! Down with the heterocops!" The lesbians stormed the stage, and the control room cut off the microphones and switched to recorded music. The militants' message: "Homosexuals are sick of being a painful problem." The Front Homosexuel d'Action Révolutionnaire (FHAR), and with it the modern French gay movement, had been born.

The youthful activists who formed the FHAR had their political coming-of-age in the turbulent student-left rebellion of May 1968 that turned into a nationwide general strike in all walks of life, a gigantic outpouring of social protest against the suffocating atmosphere of de Gaulle's France. And while the young far-left soixante-huitards ('68ers) were initially hostile to "supposedly bourgeois homosexuality," as Martel writes, the May rebellion "contained, in embryo, all the ingredients of sexual liberation, for which it was a dress rehearsal." While the FHAR was initiated by women, it quickly admitted men as "objective allies."

One of the first men to join the FHAR was Guy Hocquenghem, who rapidly became the nascent movement's undisputed star. Hocquenghem's political itinerary was fairly typical of the soixante-huitards. After an "apprenticeship" in the Union of Communist Students when he was a brilliant philosophy student at the prestigious École Normale Supérieure in Paris, he was a leader of the National Union of French Students and--rejecting the heavy-handed Stalinism of the French Communist Party--became by turns a Trotskyist and then a Maoist. By the time of the FHAR's founding he was a prominent member of Vive la Révolution (VLR), a libertarian split-off from the orthodox Maoists that was led by Roland Castro (later a prominent architect and adviser to French President François Mitterrand on urbanism).

After joining the FHAR, Hocquenghem proposed that it put together a special issue of Tout!, the VLR's newspaper, which he coordinated. In the issue, 50,000 copies of which were published in April 1971, were articles titled "Our Bodies Do Belong to Us," "The Right to Homosexuality and Every Sort of Sexuality," "The Right of Minors to Freedom of Desire and Its Satisfactions" and, most important, "Let's Stop Cowering in the Corner." Martel records that "thus the theme of coming out appeared for the first time in France.... The FHAR, 'a saw for cutting up reality in a different way,' in Hocquenghem's expression, had found its slogan."

All this became a public scandal when the Interior Minister had Jean-Paul Sartre, who had lent his name to Tout! as editorial director, indicted for "public indecency" and "pornography"; police seized 10,000 copies of Tout! and the vice squad raided its offices. In the end Sartre, and the gay liberationists, won in court, a stunning victory against the justice system.

The FHAR's general meetings, held in the amphitheater of the École des Beaux Arts, grew rapidly from fifty people to a hundred, to a thousand, and they "marked a momentous time in the history of the evolution of mores in France. They got homosexuals talking," Martel writes. In this heady atmosphere, its air perfumed by hashish smoke, the "militants put revolution into practice: they invented cruising relieved of its furtiveness, and, moving through [the school's] hallways...or on the upper floors and in the attic, they experimented with Fourier's 36,000 forms of love."

In January 1972 Hocquenghem, by then teaching philosophy at the University of Vincennes and already moving away from VLR, published a historic and much-discussed article--"The Revolution of Homosexuals"--an autobiography-cum-manifesto in Le Nouvel Observateur, the influential mass-circulation left-wing weekly; and by the end of the year he'd produced Homosexual Desire, the first theoretical work by an avowed homosexual in France. The book influenced a whole generation of gay liberationists in Europe (and when brought out in the United States two years later by Schocken Books, many American gay intellectuals as well). The FHAR, which had strong anarchist tendencies, imploded by the end of that year, as its meetings were overwhelmed by those who came only for sex, not debate. But Hocquenghem--with his "angelic beauty," his assured platform performances and his gifted pen--had become, as Martel puts it, "a hero," "for many...the one who had 'liberated homosexuals'" and "the emblem of homosexuality in France."

The FHAR was not the first organization of French queers. Arcadie was an austere "homophile" review founded in 1954 by an ex-seminarian, André Baudry; as it gained subscribers, it gradually became a discreet movement, a kind of secretive homo Freemasonry dominated by ultramontane Catholics. Baudry preached "sublimating one's sexual and emotional orientation into asceticism," and he opened Arcadie's parties and dinners with sermons attacking homosexuals who cruised parks and toilets. It was supported by the likes of Jean Cocteau and the right-wing novelist and diplomat Roger Peyrefitte; its members included lawyers, magistrates, military men and government officials--all deeply closeted. But it did conduct the first dialogue with mainstream politicians on behalf of same-sexers and was not without influence. Martel's chapter on Arcadie, "Down with Daddy's Homosexuality" (a FHAR slogan), is fine gay historiography.

One of the few prominent leftists to join Arcadie was Jean-Louis Bory. A member of the French Resistance who fought in the Orléans forest in World War II, in 1945 Bory won the Prix Goncourt for his first novel at the age of 26. A socialist, Bory signed the famous appeal of the 121 writers and intellectuals calling for resistance to France's repressive war in Algeria in the 1950s. Over the years he published a series of novels in which "the latent homosexuality of his characters became increasingly clear," and in 1973 he wrote an unambiguous confessional autobiography. A year before the FHAR's founding Bory had "participated in the first mass-audience radio broadcast" on homosexuality, on which "he rejected any idea of a 'homosexual movement' but defended the fight for freedom, declaring that he was obviously a homosexual and a 'model citizen,' and that the two were necessarily linked in his mind." Bory mistrusted the radical aggressive visibility championed by Hocquenghem, but as a fixture on radio and TV in the 1970s he championed the homosexuals' "right to indifference." In 1977 Bory and Hocquenghem jointly published a book in which they outlined their differing views, later summed up by the philosopher René Schérer, Hocquenghem's friend and mentor: "[Bory] was living within the logic of Arcadie and was fighting for integration and tolerance, whereas Guy always insisted on marginality: he wanted integration with exceptionality, integration within marginality."

Exhausted by his role as the "responsible left's" gay spokesman, Bory committed suicide in 1979. Hocquenghem left organized politics altogether and became well known as a journalist, essayist, novelist and broadcaster, teaching all the while. Since Martel makes him such a central figure throughout the book, it's unfortunate there is no more than a cursory and often reductionist presentation of his thought (for an overview in English, see Bill Marshall's Guy Hocquenghem: Beyond Gay Identity, from Duke University Press).

I have emphasized the early years of French gay politics because they are so little known here, but there's much more in Martel's book, which--dare I say it?--doesn't miss a trick. There are chapters on the changing loci of gay male cruising and gay nightlife; a rich chapter detailing the history of lesbians, whose struggle for identity was primarily within the women's movement, not the gay movement; on the ultimately successful effort to repeal the various laws criminalizing homosexuality, of which France was free from the French Revolution (as of 1793) until Vichy; on the rise and fall of the weekly Gai Pied and other organs of the political gay press; on the contribution gays made to the victory of François Mitterrand and the Socialists in 1981--and their subsequent disillusionment; on the retreat from militancy in the 1980s, the triumph of gay commercialism, the gay ghetto.

But the most impassioned chapters in the book are devoted to AIDS. Martel writes that in the early '80s, gay intellectuals, militants, organizations and the gay press were largely in denial about the threat of AIDS. Even the association of gay doctors was in denial. After Michel Foucault died of the disease in 1984, his partner of twenty-three years, Daniel Defert, and a group of friends launched the association Aides, with two goals: prevention education and care for the sick. The heroic loneliness of Defert and his colleagues as they battled the epidemic is as moving as the refusals they met with in the gay world are appalling. Why was organized gay life in France virtually last in Western Europe to respond effectively to AIDS? The sociologist Michel Setbon has argued that "AIDS as a problem specific to homosexuals placed [gay] organizations on the horns of a dilemma that was painful, if not impossible, to address," given the state of medical knowledge at the time: "Either adopt the epidemiological definition of AIDS as a 'gay cancer' and risk being stigmatized, or deny its reality and avoid homophobia."

The analytical theses at the end of Martel's book, which were widely criticized in the French gay press, may remind American readers of the attacks on the gay movement emanating from the Independent Gay Forum, the network of conservative gay intellectuals founded by the likes of The New Republic's Andrew Sullivan and the National Journal's Jonathan Rauch. Moreover, a condescending bitterness creeps into Martel's tone when writing about liberationist militants, which his assimilationist and reformist politics do not fully explain. When I raised this with Martel, he told me that one of those to whom he dedicates the book, at the time his 18-year-old lover, had been "infected with HIV by a militant." Pity he didn't tell his readers.

I lived in France for much of the '80s and knew a number of the people in this book--Hocquenghem was a valued friend--and find serious factual errors in Martel's work. He writes that Hocquenghem "refused to be tested" for AIDS and "reportedly learned he was HIV-positive only after he was already ill. He supposedly even refused...to be monitored medically." These unsourced statements are entirely false, as Guy's lover and literary executor, the journalist Roland Surzur (who took the test with him), confirmed to me. Martel attacks Hocquenghem for blindly writing as late as September 1985, "How can we believe in a medical establishment that discourages us, that announces nothing but contagion, that marches only to the tune of fear and despair?" These words appear shocking--unless one knows they were written two months after Hocquenghem tested positive, which gives them an entirely different meaning. The first group to emerge from the gay community to fight the epidemic was not Aides, as Martel writes, but Vaincre le Sida, founded by an ex-FHAR activist, Dr. Patrice Meyer. I've discovered other errors and inexactitudes too numerous to list here. Many of those Martel attacks are no longer here to defend themselves; Hocquenghem died of AIDS in 1988.

I think Setbon's view is the right one: Fear of homophobia was the principal cause of AIDS denial in France. But Martel believes the fault lies elsewhere: with "identity politics." He doubts "the advisability of building a political community of homosexuals" and calls for an abandonment of "communitarianism." Yet he was hired as a counselor on gay issues by two Socialist governments precisely because the community, and the gay vote, had become important. And in a democracy, all electoral politics is, to one degree or another, based on the politics of identity.

In the late 1970s, the legendary Socialist Gaston Defferre--mayor of Marseilles for decades and his party's onetime presidential candidate--took a number of real and symbolic steps in favor of same-sexers. Asked to explain this, the leader of the city's organized gays later said, "Defferre's success came from the fact that he always had his Armenians, his Greeks.... When there got to be queers, he had his queers." To get so big they try to co-opt you is half the battle; the other half, harder, is to resist.

I have long embraced the proposition that homosexuals are different from everyone else except in bed--it is oppression and fear that makes them so. Martel insists that "we must do our best to make 'homosexuality' a meaningless term, a word with no relation to reality. Only ever-changing individuals must remain." A noble sentiment--but I'm afraid I think that day is further away, much further away, than he does.

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