Massimo Prearo, Le moment politique de l’homosexualité. Mouvements, identités et communautés en France (The political moment of homosexuality. Movements, identities and communities).

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 19th to the early 21st 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 shortcomings of this discussion.

Prearo begins his overview around 1860 with forensic doctor Ambroise Tardieu , the German lawyer and first open homosexual of the world Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and the Hungarian author Karl Maria Kertbeny who invented the word homosexual. They created a new discourse that was both medical and activist. This part retraces a trajectory of more ancient perspectives related to pederasty (its abbreviation pédé remains a commonly used word in France) and sodomy; from 19thcentury inverts, uranians, and homosexuals to 20th century homophiles, faggot revolutionaries, and contemporary gay and lesbian identities, eventually ending with the concept of queer. In his short history of the era before 1800 to the late 19th century, the author forgets to mention the French contributions by 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-sexual behavior, or the decriminalization of sodomy after the French revolution. The “queer” theory of Sade in terms of (homo)sexuality and gender and the pivotal place given to lesbians in his work was not forgotten after his death in 1814, but rather remained an undercurrent in European literature (see Mario Praz). Changes to the law in 1791 and 1809 (which decriminalized sodomy and thereby most homosexual activities) were a revolution that influenced other countries and legal theories on criminalization of sex acts. Furthermore, Michéa was the first to propose a biological theory of homosexual identities in 1849, before either Casper or Ulrichs. Prearo should have addressed these crucial socio-political and quintessentially French developments that 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 other important, often literary, contributions including those of André Gide, Jean Cocteau or Jean Genet.

Prearo wonders where the classification of the “homosexual” started: within emerging subcultures or doctors who saw homosexual patients? To me, it seems to be more of an interplay of men with same-sex desires (Ulrichs and Michéa) and doctors who were strongly influenced by Ulrichs’ theories. When Krafft-Ebing started to write his work, many gay men only identified their condition after reading his books (as they stated themselves) and subsequently sent him their case histories. The idea that new discourses may have come from the lower classes, as Prearo considers, seems unlikely: homosexuality has, from the beginning, been a bourgeois phenomenon. Of course, a lot 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 – it was not simply medicalization, as Harry Oosterhuis has explained in his book on Krafft-Ebing.

The main topic of the book is the more recent developments in the French gay movement. Prearo only briefly discusses Arcadie, the main group of the 1950s and 1960s that was the subject of a book by Julian Jackson. Prearo supports the rehabilitation of the organization from stuck in the past – as its successors said – to courageous but accommodationist, being bound to its time. The seventies had their queer moment with the FHAR – the homosexual front for revolutionary action – and the development of ‘out of the closet’ gay liberation groups all over France. Moreover, most demands of the gay movement were realized soon after socialist president Mitterand came to power in 1981. According to Prearo, this did not leave the movement in shambles, as has often been argued, but rather encouraged a diversification that lead to the founding of centers in major towns across France where gays and lesbians worked together. Gai Pied would become the predominant gay journal of Europe in that decade. With AIDS, a new kind of activism came in the form of AIDES while US examples spurred a second queer radicalization with a French version of Act Up. Since the 1990s, ideas about communitarianism not belonging in French universalist society prompted debates about equality for all and questions about special rights. Prearo posits that both positions are two sides of the same coin: LGBTs (and the various other acronyms) identify with communities that build equal rights in a heteronormative world. The last phase is coalition building between different groups, which he evaluates positively – but how far can these coalitions reach beyond LGBT themes? - and the moment of spatial issues (rather symbolic than concrete, to my regrets).

Prearo has written a highly accessible, relevant and interesting book on the different pathways of homosexual politics and identifications, clearly showing how time-bound they were. His choice to focus more on movements than on cultural politics leaves out, in my view, important parts of French homo-political history. He has made a good and concise book on the “political moment of homosexuality,” but it might be said that in France the cultural elements are equally important when discussing the LGBT movement.

Gert Hekma, University of Amsterdam