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social sciences

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France, the second largest nation in Western Europe, has a rich, if markedly ambivalent, relationship to glbtq people and cultures. One of the first nations to decriminalize same-sex activity, France has often been held up as a progressive model of sexual enlightenment. It has given the world many openly, high-profile glbtq artists, including Marcel Proust, André Gide, Colette, Jean Genet, Jean Cocteau, and Marguerite Yourcenar, among others, and has offered a haven for expatriates such as Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, and Edmund White.

Yet, for all its liberalism, France has also exhibited a perceptible resistance--or, more to the point, an indifference--to the social specification and political empowerment of glbtq people. There are, for example, no national glbtq organizations in France and little political or legal recognition of glbtq people as a group.

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In fact, the idea that glbtq people might form a minoritarian community with a distinct social identity has, until recently, been largely alien to French culture and has been seen--even by many --to run counter to traditional French social and political values.

Reading glbtq French History

To understand the distinctive status of glbtq people in France requires a brief reading of modern French history. As with any project of queer historiography, it is difficult to map glbtq French history because concepts of sexuality and sexual identity are culturally and historically specific. What the contemporary Anglo-American world may understand through our notions of glbtq sexuality does not have ready or easy equivalents in French history.

Nevertheless, there are some historians who forge a continuous and relatively unproblematic link between same-sex activity in French history and modern notions of homosexuality. Claude Pasteur, for instance, asserts that, as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Royal Court of France fostered an entrenched and well-developed male homosexual culture that included such significant figures as Louis XIII, Mazarin, and Philippe d'Orléans.

Other historians, however, argue that these early formations of same-sex activity have a distinct social and erotic organization that renders them vastly different from modern categories of homosexuality. In her reading of the history of French female , Marie-Jo Bonnet contends that, while female same-sex activity may have occurred in varying degrees across French history, the notion of lesbianism as a specific category of sexuality did not come into full existence in France until the late nineteenth century and it would thus be anachronistic to read earlier instances of female homoeroticism as lesbian.

Vive la révolution

Most commentators agree, however, that, as with much modern French history, the Revolution of 1789 serves as a convenient, if artificial, starting point for considering the development of queer sexualities in France. The Revolution and its aftermath ushered in many of the central foundations of modern French society and thus many of its defining ideas and beliefs.

The Revolution's political overthrow of the ancien régime--the monarchical and ecclesiastical system of government that ruled France to that time--was accompanied by a correlative assault on received social and sexual orthodoxies. Influenced by the emergent philosophy of the Enlightenment, the dictates of Court and Church were abandoned for a new secular order of social and moral conduct grounded in rationalist individualism.

One of the precepts overthrown was the canonical proscription of and other "crimes against morality" that had been used routinely to suppress same-sex activity. The new French penal code of 1791 removed ""--the term used in France at the time to nominate homosexual acts, usually between men but sometimes also women--from its list of punishable offenses, effectively making France the first country in the world to decriminalize homosexuality.

This legal revision was further ratified with the formal adoption in 1810 of the famous Code Napoléon which legalized all sexual acts between consenting parties, regardless of their form, as long as they were conducted in private.

Private Sexuality / Public Citizenship

The accent on privacy is key to understanding how and why France adopted such a seemingly liberal response to homosexuality, as well as providing insight into developing French social attitudes.

Pederasty was decriminalized less out of a spirit of progressive tolerance for same-sex activity--indeed, the French were as as any other European culture of the time--than out of a commitment to Revolutionary ideals of egalitarian individualism. The prevailing view promoted by the Revolution was that all people were equal members of the new French Republic who should be entitled to maximum individual freedoms in their private lives as long as these did not impinge on others or the proper conduct of public citizenship.

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1) France and neighboring countries.
2) King Louis XIII.
3) Jules Mazarin.
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