Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September-October 2000

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Frédéric Martel, translated by Jane Marie Todd.
The Pink and the Black: Homosexuals in France since 1968.

Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999. 442 pages, including 83 pages of Reference Matter. NPL cloth (0-8047-3273-6); $29.75 paper (0-8047-3274-4)

Frédéric Martel has undertaken a mammoth task: to examine homosexual visibility, identity, and activism in France over more than thirty years. The Pink and the Black succeeds because Martel manages to avoid losing sight of the big picture even as he examines its complex elements: the development of a radical gay liberation movement, the response to AIDS, the intersection of gay liberation and feminism (particularly lesbian feminism), and the emergence of the modern homosexual “community.” North American readers familiar with the stories and legends of American gay liberation will find this book wonderfully rich in historical detail, refreshingly critical and rigorous in its approach, yet decidedly readable.

Two central themes are explored in the four substantive sections of the book: an attitude of denial on the part of gay activists that accompanied the early years of the AIDS epidemic, and the whole value of a “community” based on homosexuality. As these questions are hardly unique to the French experience, the preface whets the appetite of any reader whose approach is intuitively comparative.

In Part I, “The Revolution of Desire,” readers are led through a detailed history of the early movement (1968 to 1979), its many organisations and their varied foci, the many faces of early gay journalism, and the intersection of feminism and gay liberation. Here, Martel has meticulously traced some remarkably resilient debates and the ideas that have informed them:

• whether equality can best be achieved by quiet efforts aimed at minimising difference or by loud demands that difference be not only tolerated, but celebrated;
• whether all groups oppressed on the basis of identity should unite against a common enemy or whether individual identities are better served by a series of shifting allegiances;
• whether, as the early Marxist activists would have it, oppression is a by-product of perceived threats to the established order and distribution of wealth or whether the scorned can be assimilated sufficiently to allow them to also play the capital-accumulation game.

Deservedly prominent here is an explanation of the common origins, beliefs and strategies that, until the early 1970s allowed a relatively peaceful and mostly productive collaboration between gay and feminist movements. As was the case elsewhere, however, that collaboration collapsed when some feminists determined that possession of a penis was a threat to unity. The “libidinous drift” of the gay male movement from activism to hedonism exacerbated that tension, as did the defence of pederasty and paedophilia by some leading male figures. This disintegrating consensus was but a prelude to the fragmentation that would later occur among those who share the same sexual orientation, something which seems to foreshadow the answer to one of the author’s central questions.

Part II, “The Era of Socialization,” takes readers through the period of 1979-1984, a period of relative success and happiness in France. The election of François Mitterrand and his Parti Socialiste held out the promise of “Seven Years of Happiness.” Although the Socialists “purged French law of most of its archaisms in matters of sexual mores,” (p. 135), and although homosexuals enjoyed previously undreamed of visibility and influence, the era brought with it other difficulties including the demobilisation of the women’s movement and the departure from it of several radical lesbian feminists; the disintegration of the long-standing alliance between homosexual militants and paedophiles; and a general neutering of a movement that was just beginning to mature. The result was a “community” unable to deal with the “conflagration” of AIDS and HIV.

“The End of the Carefree Life: 1981-1989” chronologically overlaps with Part II to allow Martel to examine the age of AIDS in France. One cannot help but be struck by the depressing similarities between developments in France and those in North America. In this section, though, Martel decisively rejects the romantic notion of an heroic gay community under siege and instead reveals – in chilling detail – how prevention efforts were thwarted by the combined effects of intransigence and greed. Leading gay activists interpreted the “hecatomb” as some kind of sinister plot designed to put homosexuality back in the closet, and therefore rebelled against any measures that would limit hard-won freedoms. Meanwhile the capitalistic impulses of gay business owners conspired to ensure that the threat of AIDS was downplayed lest it dampen enthusiasm for their newly-created businesses. The government’s inadequate response receives its share of criticism as well but, unlike Randy Shilts in his North American classic And the Band Played On, Martel reserves his harshest criticism for those gay men who ought to have known better than to act as they did. This also forms the basis of his later critique of the whole idea of a “community,” as he observes that the most effective responses to AIDS appeared in England and Sweden, countries that “… harmoniously combined the special interests of minorities and the interests of the nation as a whole …” (p. 200).

Students of social and political movements will find his chapters dealing with the organisations AIDES (in Part III) and ACT-UP (in Part IV) particularly compelling, as he demonstrates both the similarity of their ultimate goals and the bitterness of the conflict between their approaches. The gay-identified anger of ACT-UP was, of course, not just directed against governments that didn’t do enough soon enough, it was also directed against those who settled in to make a comfortable living from AIDS-related endeavours. Martel defends what, in North America, was called the “public health approach” of AIDES as being the most successful precisely because it was established by “… homosexuals who were not involved in identity politics” (p. 231). In common with most critics of radical activism however, Martel doesn’t appear to acknowledge that having the outer limits of a debate defined by radical activists makes the goals of incremental moderates much more palatable to the general public.

Part IV, “The Era of Contradictions (1989-1996)” continues with a description of “The Second Homosexual Revolution” which, as education campaigns successfully promoted “safer sex,” and as homosexuality was “desexualised,” allowed homosexuality to ride the coat-tails of AIDS toward increased public acceptance, even as the hegemony of the traditional family was under challenge. The shortcomings of the safer sex message were just beginning to be visible as the book was written, so detailed analysis of “barebacking” as a decidedly unsafe phenomenon is understandably absent.

The final contradiction examined by Part IV is “The Identity Movement.” Noting that AIDES, in addition to its original mandate, was spurred by ACT-UP into increased homosexual activism, Martel suggests that “The sense of belonging to a community may have begun … between suffering and responsibility, between a spirit of resistance and the pride of a universalist struggle that has become a model for the rest of society” (p. 328). Homosexual identity, in other words, emerged from the shadows of a public health issue to claim its own place in an ongoing struggle.

It is in the Epilogue, titled “A Dubious Communitarianism,” that M. Martel departs from the objective and reserved presentation of the previous pages and delivers a forceful, if somewhat confusing, attack on what he sees as the decidedly American idea of a “community” based upon sexual orientation. On the one hand, Martel concedes that “gay identity” played some role in the liberation – which he prefers to call “emancipation” and “modernisation” – that has already taken place. On the other hand, his support of “universalism” seeks to emphasise the limitations and ambiguities of the fight for an identity movement. His prescription is “… to be neither pariahs nor parvenus. Homosexuals must be reconciled with society, and society with them” (p. 359). In making this case, however, Martel may have seriously overstated the progress that has been made toward a truly egalitarian state. His own reality is a bit suspect when he can blandly assert “Those who suggest that homosexuals of necessity face a hostile world are not quite in touch with reality” (p. 355). Gays and lesbians have been called “a biological error” by Dr. Laura Schlessinger on prime-time radio and television, and “objectively disordered” by Pope John Paul II, the head of the world’s largest Christian denomination. This is not a hostile world? Martel could well be right that universalism, properly practiced, would make society “less inhospitable to difference” and might produce the “right to indifference” and the “banalization of homosexuality” that he so clearly desires. But we are certainly not there yet. If we were, the book would surely not include this disclaimer on the copyright page:

The mention of a name in this book does not imply that the individual in question possesses some dubious “homosexual identity.” Similarly, books, films, and songs are cited not because they are “homosexual works” – an expression with little meaning – but rather because they play a role in the collective memory of “homosexuals,” regardless of their creators’ intentions.

Minor shortcomings of analysis notwithstanding, The Pink and the Black delivers on its promise. As a political history of homosexuals in France since 1968, it is thoughtful and insightful, and it certainly challenges a number of prevalent views. Readers might find themselves longing for footnotes instead of endnotes for sheer convenience, but the copious notes are, nonetheless, a treasure trove of information supplementing the actual text. The absence of an index limits its usefulness as a reference book, a role for which it is otherwise well suited. Nonetheless, Frédéric Martel has produced a valuable addition to any University or College library and it should also find a place in the libraries of anyone interested in identity politics, social movements, or queer history.

Neil Thomlinson
Ryerson Polytechnic University
Department of Politics and School of Public Administration
September 2000
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