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social sciences

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One of the world's most iconic cities and an influential hub of Western culture, Paris is also a major international glbtq center. Its popular Anglophone nickname, "gay Paree," was coined originally in response to the city's fabled notoriety for hedonism and frivolity, but it could as easily refer to its equal reputation for other kinds of "gayness."

Early History

As France's capital and most populous city, Paris has long been a natural draw for those seeking to escape the traditional conservatism of provincial France. Michael D. Sibalis notes that Paris's reputation as a focus for life in France dates back as far as the Middle Ages, citing as evidence among other things a twelfth-century poet's description of the city as reveling in "the vice of Sodom."

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Medieval Paris was not exactly a queer paradise, however. Throughout the Middle Ages numerous poor Parisians were regularly convicted and, in some instances, executed for engaging in and other same-sex activities.

Things improved somewhat by the early modern period. While their exact correspondence to contemporary categories of glbtq sexuality is open to debate, well-developed sodomitical subcultures had emerged in Paris by the eighteenth century. Some historians, such as Maurice Lever, claim these subcultures formed a "homosexual world . . . with its own language, rules, codes, rivalries and clans."

Because of the comparative under-representation of women in records of the time, documentary evidence of female same-sex activity in early modern Paris is scant. There is suggestion, however, that liaisons were common among aristocratic women of the time, and proto-lesbian or "" subcultures developed in the eighteenth century among the city's female prostitutes.

The French Revolution and subsequent decriminalization of sodomy set the conditions for increasingly robust queer cultures in Paris. In accordance with the prevailing ideology of liberal individualism and the social and legal separation in post-Revolutionary France between private and public life, these cultures were tolerated largely on the condition they remain private and discreet.

La belle époque

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries marked a high point in both the general and queer cultural life of Paris. An era of booming economic expansion, the so-called belle époque saw Paris emerge as a global center of the new modernity, celebrated for its technological and cultural innovations and characterized by a hedonistic spirit of social and erotic bohemianism.

In its newfound status as the pleasure-capital of the Western world, Paris became a thriving center for same-sex sexual cultures. Though still relatively underground, a network of venues--salons, bars, cafés, and bathhouses--catering variously to homosexual men and women emerged throughout Paris, particularly around the areas of Montmartre and Les Halles.

Lesbianism experienced a particular surge of visibility and popularity through this period. Fueled by first-wave feminism and the increasing social freedoms permitted women, as well as by the popularization--some might say, sensationalist exploitation--of female homosexuality in French decadent and bohemian cultures, Paris of the belle époque become what Catherine van Casselear terms "the undisputed capital of world lesbianism."

It would be wrong to think these fin-de-siècle manifestations of queer sexuality in Paris were wholly or unproblematically embraced. Conservative politicians and commentators of the time were vocal in their condemnation of Paris as the "new Babylon," and they frequently singled out the city's queer cultures as damning signs of its social degeneracy.

Twentieth-Century Paris

The competing play of liberalism and conservative backlash continued to mark the development of Parisian glbtq cultures throughout the twentieth century.

The inter-war years were another period of consolidated growth for Paris's homosexual subcultures. Though not as spectacularly visible as those of Weimar Berlin, the other major European center of glbtq life of the time, Paris of the 1920s and 1930s offered a range of venues and social pleasures for gay men, lesbians, and their friends.

An emblematic event of this era for Parisian glbtq cultures was the annual Mardi Gras balls held at Magic-City dance hall on the Rue de l'Université. As Michael Sibalis relates, these balls attracted "thousands of [gay] men, most costumed and many in extravagant female drag." They were such prominent events that one newspaper journalist of the time rather grumpily opined, "all of Sodom's grandsons scattered throughout the world . . . seem to have rebuilt their accursed city for an evening."

The Nazi occupation of France and the installation of the puppet Vichy regime brought a sudden and tragic end to such freedoms. Queer venues closed and, for the first time in 150 years, homosexuality was made a criminal offense under French law, punishable with imprisonment or worse.

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Openly gay Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë in front of the Louvre Museum in 2006.
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