- Le moment politique de l’homosexualité: Mouvements, identités et communautés en France by Massimo Prearo
Massimo Prearo has written an excellent book on the development of the gay and lesbian movement in France. He held a central position in this world from 2002 to 2006 when he worked at the LGBT Center of Paris and therefore writes with an insider’s perspective. His book offers a valuable long-term overview of the homosexual movement in France from the late nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. His work at the LGBT Center certainly makes his insight on more recent events the highlight of the book. However, as my own expertise pertains to the earlier developments in the movement, I will address some of the book’s shortcomings in this area.
Prearo begins his overview around 1860 with discussions of the forensic doctor Ambroise Tardieu, the German lawyer and the world’s first openly declared homosexual Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and the Hungarian author Karl Maria Kertbeny, who coined the word “homosexual.” They created a new discourse that was both medical and activist. Prearo places their story within a trajectory of ideas that begins with more ancient perspectives on pederasty (its abbreviation pédé remains a commonly used word in France) and sodomy; continues through nineteenth-century discussions about inverts, uranians, and homosexuals and the twentieth-century organization of homophiles, faggot revolutionaries, and contemporary gay and lesbian identities; and eventually ends with current discussions of queerness. In his short history of the era before 1800 to the late nineteenth century, however, the author fails to mention French influences such as the marquis de Sade (for good reasons recently deemed a queer theorist by William Edmiston) and Claude Michéa, both of whom were condemned for same-sex sexual behavior, and he ignores the decriminalization of sodomy after the French revolution. The centrality of (homo)sexuality and gender in Sade’s work and the pivotal place he accorded lesbians were not forgotten after his death in 1814 but remained an undercurrent in European literature.1 Changes to French law in 1791 and 1809 (which decriminalized sodomy and thereby most homosexual activities) were revolutionary and influenced policy in other countries and legal theories on the criminalization of sex [End Page 538] acts. Furthermore, Michéa was the first to propose a biological theory of homosexual identities in 1849, before either the German forensic doctor Johann Ludwig Casper or Ulrichs. Prearo should have addressed these crucial sociopolitical and quintessentially French developments, which made the homosexual movement possible. His early history relies too heavily on the work of Germans at the expense of vital French theorists. His focus on the political also causes him to neglect the important literary contributions of French figures like André Gide, Jean Cocteau, and Jean Genet.
Prearo wonders where the classification of the “homosexual” started: Was it within emerging subcultures or among doctors who saw homosexual patients? I would argue that this categorization arose out of the interplay between men with same-sex desires (such as Ulrichs and Michéa) and doctors who were strongly influenced by Ulrichs’s theories. When Richard von Krafft-Ebing began publishing his sexological theories in the late nineteenth century, he provided many gay men with the first means of identifying their condition, and many of them subsequently sent him their case histories. Prearo’s argument that new discourses on homosexuality originated with the lower classes seems unlikely; homosexuality has, from the beginning, been a bourgeois phenomenon. Of course, much depends on how homosexuality is defined, but the central role of Ulrichs indicates that middle-class gay men themselves played an important role in this history; the creation of homosexual identities was not, Harry Oosterhuis has argued, simply an effect of medicalization.2
The main topic of the book, however, is the more recent developments in the French gay movement. Prearo only briefly discusses Arcadie, the most prominent activist group of the 1950s and 1960s. Building on the arguments of...