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Wednesday 10 November 2010


France: False Universals?

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 24th October 2009

In France, homosexuality was decriminalised in the early nineteenth century. Why has LGBT progress been so slow? Civil republicanism.

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To translate that into English... France is justifiably proud of its achievements in art, culture, philosophy, fashion and politics, past and present. It expects ethnic minorities to assimilate, and its centralised institutions zealously guard the central tenets of French universalist identity, which has tended to frown on other expressions of collective identity- like organised gay communities. In some jurisdictions, it's even illegal to fly a rainbow flag!

This weakened sense of alternative gay cultural and social identity and community has had some devastating results insofar as the progress of the HIV/AIDS epidemic goes. One of the most tragic costs was the premature death of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), renowned French gay philosopher. He identified weakly with collective gay identity, except in 'transgressive instances', disregarded warnings about HIV/AIDS and safe sex and then died as a result. However, Foucault never attempted a specific critical analysis of the role that French civic republican identity played in marginalising its alternatives. France decriminalised male homosexuality during the Napoleonic era, but apart from Proust, Gide and Jean Genet, gay men had to put up with police surveillance and repression, age of consent inequality, workplace and accommodation discrimination and the absence of spousal rights until the last thirty years of French LGBT activism.

France is not alone in its strong centralised civic identity. In Japan, adherence to its traditional institutions and social hierarchy also impede LGBT progress, while China underwent Mao's cult of personality until the seventies, at which point it began to challenge authoritarian rural Puritanism as it rapidly industrialised, urbanised and developed metropolitan gay social networks. Moreover, China's modernisation has encouraged LGBT, religious and nationalist dissent. However, LGBT dissent can be better accommodated, as it doesn't fundamentally challenge the regime but instead wants to secure incremental goals and objectives. At some point, the Communist Party of China may even decide to open its own LGBT party units, praise LGBT entrepreneurs and adapt the Confucian emphasis on work, scholarship and family to become more inclusive.

Strong centralised national and civic identities don't exactly repress LGBT rights outright. However, they do divert LGBT aspirations to private desires and not collective political and social reform.


Craig Young - 24th October 2009

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