Can One Be ‘Gay’ and French?

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IN THE EPILOGUE to his 1995 book, The Pink and the Black, which was arguably the first real history of the gay-rights movement in France, Frédéric Martel questions the notion of “gay pride.” He writes that he “feel[s]obliged to express reservations about this self-pride, an exacerbation of otherness and an ostentatious form of the right to difference. In the same way, it is a short step from self-affirmation to exhibitionism.” These words are surprising to find at the end of text about gay history, at least for an American, since they equate being proud of one’s difference with ostentation and exhibitionism, and therefore appear homophobic. Upon closer reading, however, it becomes clear that, rather than simply condemning queer people because of their sexual difference, Martel is asserting that capitalizing on any personal difference—whether religious, racial, sexual or what-have-you—is a divisive threat to “the very bonds of society in contemporary France.” In other words, Martel is arguing that privileging gay or indeed any minority identity over a universal concept of “Frenchness” is dangerous to the nation.

To scholars of queer theory, particularly those schooled at British and American universities, Martel’s arguments might seem homophobic and anachronistic. It is almost a given in contemporary Anglo-American conceptions of queerness, or indeed of the post-modern theories of identity in general, that, as literary critic Naomi Schor put it when considering similar assertions about women’s identity in France, “Postmodernism [is](among other things) an anti-universalism.” To become an organized force and to effect change in the United States, queer people have had to identify themselves as a “community” analogous to women, African-Americans, or other minorities. This kind of identity-based politics is known as either communitarianism or particularism in France, and is generally seen to be at odds with the universalist ideals upon which the Republic was founded, ideals considered to be a direct legacy of the Enlightenment.

France’s rejection of communitarianism has a venerable history.

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