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A schematic but informative overview of French laws relating to homosexuality

ElasticClosetThe Elastic Closet:
A History of Homosexuality in France, 1942–present

by Scott Gunther

Published by Palgrave Macmillan

Published December 15, 2008
Nonfiction (history)
166 pgs. • find on

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

September 4, 2011.

It’s hard to judge the only book on a subject. It’s both best and worst by default! The Elastic Closet, Wellesley College French professor Scott Gunther’s thin (136 pages of text) history of laws relating to homosexuality in France from the time the revolutionary parliament jettisoned all the Christian(ist) statutes, including the ban on sodomy to practically yesterday provides an incisive review of legal matters, as well as of post-WWII homophile and gay organizations, gay (ostensibly gay/lesbian) of the 1990s and 2000s, and some observations on the importation of “queer” and resistance to it as American cultural imperialism and/or watered-down repatriated Foucault.

I found the content analysis of magazines the least interesting part of the book, the discussion of “queer” the most entertaining. I knew the most about the radically transgressive liberationist 1970s (I even met sexual anarchist Guy Hocquenghem (1946–88) once, read his book Gay Desire closely, and sometimes read articles in Gai Pied) and Gunther seemed to me to write insightfully about it: both its rhetoric and its failure to change anything (least of all the age of consent law).

The homophile 1950s and ’60s, focused on Arcadie, sounds rather like the respectability-pushing American homophile movement (tiny movement) of the same time. The liberationist generation in France seems to have been much less concerned with gender than in North America, instead pushing for children’s rights to sexuality (including sex with their elders in contrast to the egalitarian androphile North American ideal then and now).

Minority rights to difference do not play well in the French tradition of universalism. Though the Marais in Paris eventually became something of a gay neighborhood, it was both later and more sedate than the heyday (say 1980) of New York’s Christopher Street or San Francisco’s Castro Street or West Hollywood.

Sodomy laws were repealed in 1791 (the first U.S. state to repeal its sodomy proscription did not occur until 1961 and the last ones were invalidated in 2003, and though ruled unconstitutional and not enforced remain on the books in some states, including Texas), so the primary focus of reform in North America did not exist in France.

In 1942 the Nazi collaborationist Vichy regime (by executive action of Marshall Petain) raised the age of consent for male-male sex to 21 (the age for females was 15; the initial legislation of an age of consent in 1832 made it 11; it was raised to 13 in 1863 and was not changed by Marshall Petain). This constituted a breach with the French tradition of universal rights/treatment, but was not removed after the Nazi occupation ended. A pillar of French jurisprudence is that there must be a victim for there to be a crime, and such Christianists as exist and have existed in France run into a solid wall of secularism in contrast to the faith-based, avowedly faithful politicians who range from influential to dominating American political life. Not totally unrelated to this exclusion of Christian dominationists from authority and power is a much firmer distinction between public and private in which the sex lives of politicians are not considered relevant to evaluating politicians.

A second breach of universalism was a 1960 law against “public indecency” (with an often quite abstract “public” and an often quite abstract “sex” as in “public sex” in North America) that punished homosexual more than heterosexual acts. Gunther’s view of the shared commitment to equality before the law to the French makes both of these laws abhorrent to the principles of the secular, universalist system. I easily see that the challenge to these laws could be made from a widely accepted perspective on law. If Gunther is right about the irresistibility to the French of these principles, the question is why inequality persisted as long as it does. Indeed, still persists. Although civil unions have been available to anyone French since 1999, France has not followed its northern neighbors in permitting same-sex marriage.

The sexual anarchy advocated by Hocquenghem et al. had no appeal to legislators, and, according to Gunther, it took a generational shift from seeking to transform society to seeking assimilation to manage the legal reforms in the name of sacred egalitarianism. Rights to be different remained unpersuasive. Somewhat awkwardly for Gunther’s advocacy of respectability, respectability of homosexuals (pédés) was absolutely central to the homophile generation earlier on.

It seems to me that Gunther overestimates the pain of cognitive dissonance. I think that most people a lot of the time are untroubled by inconsistencies in their beliefs and between their beliefs and their actions. Norms (1) must be reproduced and (2) do not cause legal changes. Gunther’s analysis of the necessity of the norms sorting out the statutes seems to me inadequate. The French history does provide support for the coalitionist rather than single-issue focus of a gay rights movement (which in NYC gay history of the 1970s was GLF/GAA). Working with organizations fighting racism led to the acceptance by those organizations of heterosexism as analogous to or even a kind of racism. (The case parallels the history of gay rights coalition with anti-apartheid organizations and the inclusion of sexual orientation in the bans against discrimination in the South African constitution.) An official ban on discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation was added to French law in 1985 (while ENDA has yet to pass US Congresses, the French hate speech law enacted in 2004 was only a few years ahead of the US one).

Gunther interviewed many of the survivors of gay groups from earlier eras. There is very little sense of lived experience in “the more stately closets” for French gay men and none of lesbians. The analysis seems simplistic and rationalistic (the two are not the same!) and aimed at prescribing assimilationist tactics to lesbigay Americans (including throwing transsexuals under the bus). Though maintaining some analytical detachment and explicit recognition of the limits of tolerance, Gunther takes for granted the extreme centralism of French governance (since the time of Louis XIV), which contrasts considerably with the multiplicity of law-making in the US and the sometimes violent expression of autonomy against the central state here (Canada is intermediate between the French and US situations).

 So, while I appreciate the outline of organizations and legislation Gunther provides, I with that there was more social history along with the delineation of basic norms and their too-automatic rectification of errors (unequal treatment).

For short book with no pictures (it has some tables and a very useful timeline graph), the  cost ($80) is prohibitive.

 originally published on epinons, Sept. 4, 2011
©2011, 2106 by Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.