Posts Tagged With: lgbt

The Elastic Closet


Gunther, Scott.  The Elastic Closet:  A History of Homosexuality in France, 1942-Present.  Basingstoke: Palgrave McMillan, 2009. 

Subject:  A brief (124 page) survey of laws regarding and public attitudes towards homosexuality in France since 1942.

Main Points:  Gunther argues that homosexuality has enjoyed a unique place in society (and in law) in comparison to other Western nations.  This unique standing can be traced back to the French Revolution when the Republican ideals of “secularism, separation of public and private spheres, liberalism, and universalism” were espoused by the revolutionaries and written into law (1).  In 1791, the law against sodomy was stricken from the books since punishing acts between consenting adults would be seen as a gross breach of privacy.  The ideal of liberalism also held that a crime must have a victim, and in the case of consensual sex, there was no victim.  Gunther argues that the legal systems of other Western nations are also built on this principle, yet they – especially America – are more inclined to allow exceptions to this rule when the “victimless” crime has a long standing tradition of being persecuted.

The main point of Gunther’s argument is the ideal of French universalism, the idea that everyone should be equal under the law.  He argues that in one sense, this is an advantage for homosexuals (and any other minority) because it grants protection.  However, he shows that it could also serve as a restriction by emphasizing assimilation into mainstream, “respectable” French culture.  This is why the radical gay rights activists of the 1970s were unsuccessful in gaining any legal ground, Gunther explains.

But I’m not totally sold on this main argument.  He argues again and again that “though French lawmakers may have wanted to reinstate the crime of sodomy at various moments since 1791, they have not had the license to do so” because of the stringent dedication towards universalism (2).  Yet, though sodomy itself was never criminalized again, two of the main “characters” in his book are the 1942 law that raised the age of consent for homosexuals to 21 (while it remained 13 for heterosexuals), and the 1960 law that doubled the punishment for acts of public indecency when they were committed by homosexuals (as compared to heterosexuals).  The 1942 law was meant to protect “youth” from homosexuality (26), while the victim to be protected by the 1960 law was “the public” (35).  I think these two examples act as cases against Gunther’s own argument.  Sure, while sodomy itself was never re-criminalized, lawmakers found other ways to use the law to persecute homosexuals.  The concept of universalism did little to protect homosexuals in those cases.

In the 1950s and 1960s, homosexual “interest groups” appeared, but they had to be careful of not appearing “too different” (and thus “less French”).  Arcadie, for instance urged gays to be “respectable” and to not emulate the emerging gay culture from the United States.  However, in the general, radical unrest that emerged in 1968, radical gay groups (like the Front homosexuel d’action revolutionnaire) also stepped onto the scene.  They pushed for political reform and the repeal of the 1942 and 1960 laws.  However, they participated in American-esque identity politics and urged gays to take pride in being different (while they also campaigned for the acceptance of pederasty and public nudity).  Gunther argues that these radical groups were unsuccessful because they were, essentially, too radical and thus pushed the confines of the French “elastic closet” by violating the virtue of universalism.  Only more moderate and assimilationist movements like Comite d’urgence anti-repression homosexuelle were successful in promoting bourgeoisie values as the way to acceptance and legal reform.  According to Gunther, these movements were successful in winning the repeal of the two laws, as well as causing all gays to police themselves (since the state no longer had the means, or the ideological backing, to police them) through notions of respectability and assimilation.

The last chapter is interesting and has potential to be a research project in itself, I think.  He studies media outlets (two magazines and one TV network) to see how even these self-proclaimed gay media are restricting themselves by trying to appeal to republican universalism and present themselves as “general audience” outlets.  While one magazine claims to be for gays and lesbians, Gunther shows that it’s actually solely geared towards men.  The other claims to be for meterosexuals, yet only includes gay material; and the TV network PinkTV has consistently claimed to be for a general audience while all of its programming is gay and lesbian themed.  Gunther argues that they cannot “come out” and say that they are a “gay TV network” because that would be exclusionary and against universalism (the title of that chapter is “Outing the French Gay Media”).

My Comments: The book has/had potential, but leaves you feeling cheated.  It tries to cover 70 years in 124 pages, but the Introduction (which is 24 pages) traces Western legal handlings of sodomy back to the Roman Empire, so really, the space granted his actual topic is even less than what it first seems.

As for the arguments: I think they’re too general to be very useful as they are.  I think there may be something to the idea that the handling of homosexuality in France has been unique because of the ideal enshrined by the French Revolution.  But since he tries to cover so much in so little space, everything remains very generalized.  He does a service to remind us that laws don’t necessarily reflect public sentiment, and he raises a lot of interesting questions (which any good work should do).  But honestly, I think that’s his greatest contribution here: showing where more research can be done.  Moreover, the sources he uses and quotes will be helpful for someone who can approach this topic with a little more nuance.

For more books on the history of sexuality, see my list of book reviews HERE.

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Transgender History

Stryker - Transgender History


Stryker, Susan.  Transgender History.  Berkley: Seal Press, 2008. 

Subject:  Stryker’s book is an introductory survey to transgender history, presenting some of the basic understandings of transgender identities, as well as providing a narrative of history involving transgender individuals.

Summary & Author’s Main Argument(s):  Stryker begins by briefly defining twenty key terms that she feels are necessary to understand before she begins her narrative of transgender history.  The most important of these are sex, gender, secondary sex characteristics, transgender, gender identity disorder,&  gender identity. Sex is something that is perceived to be biologically determined (and represented by genitalia), so: male & female.  Gender is historically specific and socially constructed, and this is “man” and “woman,” and thus is not necessarily determined by a relationship to the physical body.   Secondary sex characteristics are “bodily “signs” that others read to guess at our sex, attribute gender to us, and assign us to the social category they understand to be most appropriate for us…[they] are the aspect of our bodies that we all manipulate in an attempt to communicate to others our own sense of who we feel we are.”  A gender identity is the subjective sense of fit within a particular gender category – and for most people, the gender identity that one is assigned at birth (boy/girl) matches with what they feel.  But transgendered people reveal that some people form a “sense of oneself as not like other members of the gender one has been assigned to, or to think of oneself as properly belonging to another gender category.”  Gender identity disorder is important, because feeling transgendered was considered a disorder or psychological pathology for most of its history.

Stryker’s definition of transgender is broad, referring to people “who move away from the gender they were assigned at birth, people who cross over (trans-) the boundaries constructed by their culture to define and contain the gender” (1).  This includes individuals who have undergone sexual reassignment surgery to make their sex better match their gender identity, but Stryker argues that transgender also includes people who just don’t somehow fit into the normal, prescribed gender roles, such as effeminate gay men, butch lesbians, drag queens and kings, and even heterosexual cross dressers.

Stryker argues that the transgender movement for social change began in the US after WWII, but actually has roots that trace back until the 1850s.  Similar to how urbanization and capitalization allowed for the emergence of gay and lesbian communities, transgendered people were able to form communities during this time, too.   Stryker also acknowledges the central role that science and medicine have played in regulating and attempting to define transgendered-ness.

The book also does a good job at depicting how the nature of the state’s power made life particularly difficult for transgender people:  the “bureaucratization of sex” defined only two options for people: male or female.  Of course, transgendered people may not feel that they fit in either category, or more likely, their outer appearance may not match their inner understanding of themselves.  Being transgender, therefore, made it difficult, or impossible, to gain access to particular governmental, or otherwise bureaucratic, resources, such as driver’s licenses.  The work of Virginia Prince in the 1960s did much to promote transgender causes (such as the ability to change the gender designation on state-issued identification documents).

In the 1970s, upper-class white transgender individuals began creating community with each other in isolation, in fear of losing their jobs and security.  At the same time, multiracial groups of militant revolutionaries (which must been seen in the context of the gay liberation, radical feminist, and general countercultural movements) were claiming space for themselves in the streets of America’s major cities (89).

By the end of the 1970s, though, the transgender cause had lost its gay and lesbian allies, namely because by then, the gay movement had taken on a more gender-normative expression of male homosexuality (95), and the radical feminist and lesbian movements turned on transgender individuals, because they saw them as further male intrusion and domination (female to males were seen as abandoning women, and male to females were seen as the ultimate expression of men “raping” women by intruding inside the world and body of women, beginning on 102).

Even as homosexuality was removed as a psychiatric disorder by the APA in 1973, Gender Identity Disorder was created as a new category of psychopathology in 1980.  Stryker argues that its possible to see how the social power of science shifted from a concern with sexual orientation to a preoccupation with gender identity by the 1980s (113).  Gay and lesbian activists were so successful in their civil rights activism, Stryker argues, that it became politically impossible for psychiatrists to treat homosexuality as a mental disease.  Instead, the focus went to people, not whose sexuality was in question, but whose gender was deviant.  As stated above, Stryker argues that gay, lesbian, and feminists activists “left” transgendered peoples and pursued their own goals, leaving them at the mercy of psychiatrists.

The situation improves in the 1990 when theorists like Judith Butler begin arguing that gender is not just a means of oppression for women, but is like a language in which people express themselves.  This allowed for more acceptance of people who did not fit into “normal” gender roles.  The rise of the “queer” or “genderqueer” identity in the 90s also showed the coming together of “gender minorities,” though Stryker suggests that the nomenclature of “LGBT” represents a re-splintering of the groups.

My Comments: This is a very helpful overview of US transgender history in the past 150 years, and can definitely be used as an introductory book even for undergraduates.  She discusses some theories in the introduction, and then moves on to the narrative in the last chapters, while interlacing just enough theory to display how the events are relevant.

One of the greatest strengths of her book is how she shows that all of the major events in transgender history must be understood in their historical context.  For example, transgender causes could not have seen success in the 1960s and 70s without the overall “gender bending” of that era: longer hair for men, different clothing for women, the sexual revolution, etc.

Categories: Book Review, Sexuality & Gender | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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