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French Literature: Twentieth Century  
 
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The contributions of gay men and lesbians to twentieth-century French literature have been closely intertwined with the course of mainstream literature.

A general survey of twentieth-century French literature would surely mention Marcel Proust, André Gide, and Colette, and it might very well also include Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet, Violette Leduc, and Marguerite Yourcenar (to name but a few gay men and lesbians whose works are now part of the canon), while any overview of literary theory and continental thought would have to include Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Monique Wittig.

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The contributions of these figures are outstanding: Marguerite Yourcenar, for example, was the first woman ever to be elected to the prestigious Académie Française, and André Gide, the author of Corydon, was awarded the Nobel prize for literature.

But although these figures may stand out, their work did not take place in a vacuum. It is part of a continuous tradition of gay and lesbian literature in twentieth-century France.

Attitudes toward Sexual Behavior during the Century

Twentieth-century France has for the most part displayed a permissive attitude toward sexual behavior in certain contexts, though it should be remembered that the cosmopolitan capital city, Paris, provided a very different environment from the rest of the country, many parts of which remained (and remain today) quite conservative.

In addition, social class played a role in how much sexual freedom an individual was permitted: Those with more wealth and social power generally enjoyed greater latitude.

Although not always fully accepting of homosexuality, which has sometimes been construed as a German or British phenomenon, French society nevertheless allowed a certain degree of personal freedom to gay and lesbian people. Despite the general permissiveness, however, periods of social tolerance have alternated with periods of greater repression in the twentieth century.

During the "belle époque" before World War I, there was a widespread perception of tolerance though there were different attitudes toward male and female homosexuality. In some circles, female homosexuality was considered practically de rigueur though arguably this posture may actually reflect a refusal to take female sexuality altogether seriously.

Pierre Louÿs's famous book Les chansons de Bilitis (1894) may illustrate the point. Purportedly a translation from Greek of the works of a companion of Sappho, the book is primarily soft-core pornography directed toward heterosexual men (as is the 1970s film Bilitis by David Hamilton).

Still, the name of Bilitis was widely adopted as a code word in the gay subcultures of Europe and the United States. It was even incorporated into the name of the American lesbian post-World War II society, The Daughters of Bilitis.

The 1920s was also a particularly liberal decade. In 1924, the first gay newspaper, Inversions, appeared in Paris. A number of literary publications also drew widespread attention to homosexual issues.

The most important of these were, of course, Proust's Sodome et Gomorrhe (1921) and Gide's Corydon (first widely available in the 1924 edition), but there were also other works by heterosexual writers that dealt with gay themes. These include Victor Margueritte's La garçonne ([1922]; trans. as The Bachelor Girl, 1923), Edouard Bourdet's play La prisonnière ([1926]; trans. as The Captive, 1926), and Rachilde's novelistic response Le prisonnier (1928).

Some might argue that these heterosexual writers merely exploited gay and lesbian sexuality, but the popularity of their work and the debate they aroused made homosexuality more visible and contributed to the era's permissive atmosphere. La garçonne, for example, gave its name to a German lesbian magazine of the 1930s.

After this period of liberalism, the 1930s saw a conservative swing, beginning with the repressive Code de la Famille (1930), which gay historian and theorist Daniel Guérin sees as the origin of the Vichy legislation that later made homosexual behavior criminal in France for the first time since 1791.

In 1942, during World War II, the Vichy government made homosexual relations with anyone under twenty-one illegal as part of its conservative (some would say fascist) family agenda.

In the post-World War II period, there was some relaxation in social attitudes, and homophile movements such as André Baudry's Arcadie were founded, but there was no change in the law.

On the contrary, the prohibition against homosexual activity by and with persons under twenty-one was reaffirmed in Article 331 of the Code Pénal that took effect after the Liberation; and in 1961, legal sanctions were toughened by automatically doubling the sentence of a homosexual convicted of "outrage public à la pudeur."

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