Homosexuality in Modern France

On November 11, 1994, CLAGS hosted “Homosexuality in Modern France,” a day-long conference funded by the Florence Gould Foundation and organized by Bryant Ragan of Fordham University and Jeffrey Merrick of the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. This exciting conference was the first scholarly effort to examine in depth the history of homosexuality in France, the first European country to decriminalize sodomy (1791). Three panels, with three presenters on each, were organized chronologically, beginning with the Enlightenment and ending with the post -World War II era. The presenters employed a wide variety of approaches, including intellectual, social, cultural, and political history, as well as folklore and the history of science. Martin Duberman, the Executive Director of CLAGS, and the conference organizers opened the day with introductory remarks. The first session, chaired by Margaret C. Jacob of the New School for Social Research, focused on 18th-century France. Bryant Rdgan presented an analysis of the wide-ranging debates over same-sex sexual ity by Enlightenment philosophes, such as Condorcet, Helvetius, and Diderot. Ragan argued that, although very uncomfortable with sodomy as a sexual behavior, several of the citizens of the Republic of Letters began to set up an intellectual framework that led them to call for the toleration of sexual nonconformists. Jeffrey Merrick followed with a fascinating discussion of prerevolutionary France’s most famous sodomite, the Marquis de Villette, and its most famous tribade, Mademoiselle de Raucourt. Examining the various ways that these two people’s sexuality were configured in the public eye, allowed Merrick to analyze more broadly society’s views about sexual deviance, the role of gender stereotypes in representations of same-sex relations, and the emergence of the conception of sexual identity alongside the category of sexual acts. The session ended with Elizabeth Colwill’s (of the San Diego State University) thought-provoking analysis of Marie Antoinette as tribade in the pornography of the French Revolution. Through her study, Colwill demonstrated how sexual identities, as well as political ones, were subverted during the French Revolution. 10 The 19th-century panel was chaired by Louise lil ly of the New School. In the first presentation, Michael Sibal is explored the real consequences of the decriminalization of sodomy in the Napoleonic Penal Code. Having carefully mined national and regional archives o~ in France, Silalis discovered a number of cases in which the police tried to repress homosexual behavior. The new law, however, meant that it was much more difficult, although certainly not impossible, for the police to achieve their aims. 1 Victoria Thompson of Xavier University shifted the focus from the “real” to the “represented” in her study of homosexuality and the changing social order from 1830 to 1870. Through close readings of many of the most popular novels of the mid-nineteenth century, Thompson showed how sexual identities, which enjoyed a great deal of fluidity during the July Monarchy, became increasingly fixed in the Second Empire. These narrowed boundaries saw the elaboration of the “homosexual” as a type outside of heterosexuality, and a symbol ic threat to bourgeois notions of sexual stability. The final paper of the session, a case study of a murder in 1877 Paris, was given by William Peniston of the University of Rochester. This captivating micro-history explored the drowning of a 22-year-old jeweler by his 36-year-old umbrella salesman lover. The large number of testimonies by people involved in the case allowed Peniston to reconstruct a detailed typography of homosexual networks in the French capital during the early years of the Third Republic. Randy Trumbach of Baruch College chaired the last session. Vernon Rosario of Harvard University and MIT gave a riveting presentation on the construction of inversion by doctors in the Third Republic. Basing his work on many different types of sources, Rosario demonstrated how a large number of cultural and scientific materials- beliefs, anxieties, and phobias- went into the making of the concept of inversion at the turn of the century. The second paper, by Martha Hanna of the University of Colorado, explored Gide’s sexual politics, which he expressed in Corydon. Hanna highlighted this work’s significance by situating it historically; she discussed the anxieties over the perceived demographic crisis following the First World War and the strong cultural conservatism among right-wing intellectuals. Francesca Canade-Sautman of Hunter College gave the final paper of the conference. She drew on her background as a folklorist, a literary critic, as well as an historian, to examine lesbian working-class culture in France from the early 20th-century through World War II. She found that lesbian life was much richer and more diverse than most historians have maintained. The nine presenters, having benefited enormously from the stimulating discussions at the CLAGS conference, are currently revising their articles, which will appear in Homosexuality in Modern France, edited by Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant Ragan. The volume will conclude with an essay entitled, “Michel Foucault’s Sexuality and the History of Homosexuality in France” by Robert Nye of Oregon State University. The collection is scheduled for publication in September 1996 by Oxford University Press.