The French Conundrum.
Translated by Jane Marie Todd
Stanford University Press, 1999 442 pages, $60.
FREDERIC Martel's The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France since 1968 occasioned a barrage of media commentary in France when it appeared in 1996, some of it on the order of personal vitriol dispensed against the author. ACT-UP Paris basically called the still-young former journalist and government advisor a self-hating fag who "was enrolled in a movement that aimed to relegitimize homophobia." Martel's volume was the first account of gay France's awakening after the legendary radicalism of May 1968. It included a history of the French women's and lesbian-feminist movements, so it was bound to raise the hackles of those most invested in a past they helped shape. But what mainly provoked the reaction in both mainstream and "specialized" French media outlets was his characterization of the French gay response to AIDS as one of "denial" and his attack on "communitarian" politics based on sexual identity. Of course, there's no scandal like a French literary one, and for a time Martel was at the center of a s torm whose intensity can only be reported, though not repeated, on our shores. For the francophile American, however, and for those simply intrigued by gay social history, Martel's book is an invaluable look at the high drama and low farce of sexual identity politics la francaise.
What cannot be denied, however, even by Martel's critics, is the depth and scope of his project. It took considerable chutzpah for him to have tackled the birth and growth of both the gay male and lesbian-feminist movements in Paris and the provinces, while also offering pithy resumes of the cultural and social aspects of newly emerging institutions--everything from the advent of women's film festivals to the transformation of the old "Jewish" Marais into a chic, gay-dominated quarter. Finally, he draws incisive if sometimes sketchy portraits of key queer intellectual and cultural figures, such as Guy Hocquenghem, Monique Wittig, Michel Foucault, and Roland Barthes.
Martel is very good on the frenzied early days of these social movements. In 1968. anonymous protestors at the Sorbonne, part of the short-lived CAPR group (Revolutionary Pederast Action Committee), put up handwritten notices to denounce the repression and isolation of homosexuals, as well as the pervasiveness of police harassment. One such notice concluded, "For every glorious Jean Genet, there are 100,000 apologetic pederasts condemned to unhappiness." Alas, the "official" leftist revolutionaries occupying the Sorbonne tore down the signs. Or he recounts the time in 1971 that a group of militant women, attending a popular talk-show radio broadcast whose theme of the day was "That Painful Problem, Homosexuality," shouted to a priest who was going on about his gay parishioners' silent suffering: "It's not true, we're not suffering!...Down with the heterocops!"
Soon enough, there would be a veritable alphabet soup of groups, such as the CUARH (Emergency Committee Combating Homosexual Repression), the FHAR (Homosexual Revolutionary Action Front), and the MLF (Movement for Women's Liberation). As is so often the case, groups gave birth to offshoots, and in-fighting either encouraged factionalism or exhausted a group completely. As happened in the American movement, tensions erupted between the dykes and the fags, with the women justifiably complaining that men were using political meetings at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts as a pit-stop for cruising and orgies. And there was conflict between the women who were moderate feminists and those who were militantly lesbian. At least one Sapphic group was riven by romantic dalliances among its leaders.
By the late 1970's and early 80's, gay life in Paris had become increasingly commercialized, as Fabrice Emaer's Le Palace disco became Paris's answer to New York's Studio 54. Meanwhile, new media-such as the iconoclastic newspaper Libdration and the community publications Gai Pied and Masques, along with the radio station Frequence Gaie--had a decided impact on what it meant to be young, hip, and homosexual in a Latin country that was often hidebound, however smugly sophisticated, in its understanding of male-female relations. (The women's movement in France had only recently, in the early 1970's, succeeded in legalizing the "voluntary interruption of pregnancy.")
But no one was prepared for the calamity of AIDS in the 1980's. Edmund White tells the story of a dinner party at which the mighty Michel Foucault "burst out laughing" at White's report of an incipient "gay cancer." According to White, Foucault, along with writer-editor Gilles Barbedette, "felt it was a typical expression of my American puritanism, and, in the end, they did not believe me." By 1981 the Socialists had voted Francois Mitterrand into power. The last remnants of the criminal code penalizing homosexual activity-vestiges largely dating to the Petain regime of the Nazi occupation-were being swept away. Gay life was flourishing, even if militancy was surrendering to a heady libertinism fueled by gay entrepreneurship. Sex was commercialized in the saunas and backrooms. Those halcyon days of free love must have made life seem as giddy as the first flush after the Liberation. And then the damned Americans had to spoil the party.
We should be careful here. Martel does not characterize the French response to AIDS as one of simple disbelief because of its connection to America. By December 1981, there were but eleven cases reported in France, and by December 1982, just 48. The retrovirus was not discovered until 1983. In these early years in France, the epidemic was minimized by gay leaders for fear of a homophobic backlash, but also because its incidence in France was still relatively small. Medical knowledge was sketchy and conflicting, and was, in any case, greeted with skepticism. As one editorial sneered, "So fucking is dangerous? What about crossing the street?"
Yet everything in Martel's powerful chapters on the AIDS "hecatomb" can also serve to remind American readers of our own missteps, our willful ignorance, our self-sustaining denials, our comforting conspiracy theories. And so, we read the litany of deaths that punctuate Martel's section on AIDS - Foucault himself in 1984, Rock Hudson in '85, Jean-Paul Mon and Guy Hocquenghem in '88, and many others. And we read of episodes from 1982 to '85, in which gay activists, including even the gay doctors in the Association des Medecins Gais (AMG), refused to lend their support to sensible prevention efforts because of "the inopportuneness of information that can be exploited by the forces of moral repression." And we read that it took Socialist President Francois Mitterrand as long as it did Ronald Reagan to utter the word "AIDS."
Only the founding of Aides (the rough equivalent to our GMHC) encourages Martel to extend full credit to a new activist model, namely the self-help "buddy" initiative that was developed at the instigation of Daniel Defert after his lover Foucault's death. Aides, in Martel's view, is seen as benevolently standing apart from the ideological battles of gay militancy, which he characterizes as exaggerating a pervasive homophobia to justify itself.
In his epilogue, Martel argues against what he terms "a dubious communitarianism." In these remarks, he dispenses with journalistic objectivity while still attempting a delicate balance between the merits of queer "particularity" and the "universalist" model of French republicanism. He comes down in favor of a utopian "citizenship" unmarked by ethnic, religious, or sexual difference. Indeed, he associates "communitarianism" of any sort with an unfortunate "Americanization" of French society. (He also concedes that "universalist leanings often coexist with culturalist, 'identitarian' leanings.") He decides that a vibrant gay and lesbian community will finally tip the balance in favor of an American-style "ghettoization," in which parochial allegiance to the subculture becomes stronger than allegiance to French republicanism. This conclusion seems to stem from his view that gay militancy in France proved ineffective in meeting the challenge of AIDS.
It may be true, especially from the vantage point of a young man free to chastise his elders for their failures in a crisis, that the "official" gay community in the France of the 1980's, blinded by ideology and presumed self-interest, failed to live up to its responsibilities. Still, Martel fails to see that a minority's awareness of its difference rests as much on the surrounding society's insistence on identifying and maintaining this "otherness." Consciously or not, Martel may be responding to the larger uncertainties of contemporary France, whose homogeneity, whose "Frenchness," is indeed being called into question by an increasingly visible gay culture, but also by the presence of people of color from France's former colonies. The nation's colonial past is pressing upon its borders, and the very idea of what it means to be "French" is up for grabs.
Allen Ellenzweig, author of The Homoerotic Photograph (1992), is a writer and college administrator living in New York.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Title Annotation:||Review; The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France since 1968|
|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2000|
|Previous Article:||Virginia Woolf -- that's who's afraid.|
|Next Article:||Roles of a Lifetime.|