Choquette, Leslie. 2001. “’Homosexuals in the City: Representations of Lesbian and Gay Space in Nineteenth-Century Paris” in Merrick, Jeffrey & Michael Sibalis, eds. Homosexuality in French History and Culture. Harrington Park Press, New York. ISBN 1-56023-263-3
Choquette, Leslie. 2001. “’Homosexuals in the City: Representations of Lesbian and Gay Space in Nineteenth-Century Paris”
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The 19th c, far from being an era of sexual repression (as the “Victorian” age is often depicted) saw an increasingly diverse and intense focus on sexuality, including homosexuality. This paper looks at depictions of homosexuality in Paris from the 1830s through the end of the 19th century, in printed and visual media. From this, we see the obsessions, anxieties, and taboos about public behavior.
There are key differences in how male and female homosexuality is depicted. Medical and legal experts focused on both, but depictions of lesbianism were far more common in literature, and dominated the visual arts portraying homosexuality. This was largely due to male voyeuristic interest in such depictions. However taboos around class dynamics meant that in the mid-century, lesbian imagery focused on sex workers and the demi-monde, not acknowledging upper class women’s participation until the 1880s, correlating with the fall of the French Second Empire and a shift in public attitudes toward social elites.
However skewed the literary and artistic representations are, they add a valuable dimension to the details of police reports, or the analysis of medical professionals. The initial medical interest in lesbianism viewed it as a criminal byproduct of prostitution and prevalent primarily in gender-restricted spaces such as brothels and prisons. In the mid-century, this image began to be challenged by first person accounts that depicted the emotional and social dynamics of lesbian relationships, the rise of social venues catering to lesbians, and sartorial signifiers used to communicate and advertise within the community.
(The article also discusses male homosexuality, but I’m skipping over those parts.)
The male and female homosexual communities intersected both in the context of sex work and the theater, especially around drag performance. As lesbian characters began to appear in works of fiction and art in the 1870s, they combined actual locations (such as the Rat-Mort café) and persons drawn from the community with the development of a symbolic vocabulary. This vocabulary included such things as cross-dressing, smoking, café life, intersections with sex work, and an aura of decadence and doom.
In the 1880s and 1890s, the initial ventures into representing lesbian culture turned into a flood, riding a tide of gender anxiety and a turn toward artistic naturalism. This included works such as Émile Zola’s Nana and Guy de Maupassant’s “La Femme de Paul”. These male authors were writing from observation of the lesbian culture in places such as the Bréda quarter of Paris or the resort of Grenouillère. [Note: One must keep in mind that they were writing as outside observers, and often overtly hostile ones, who viewed their subjects as sexual rivals or despised them for having rejected their own sexual advances.]
Another view on Parisian lesbian culture came through the memoirs of police officials, who included anecdotes about both male and female homosexuals drawn from their professional encounters. These were naturally skewed toward criminal contexts such as prostitution and tended to create or reinforce a connection between homosexuality and criminality in the popular imagination.
The culture of the traditional masked Mardi Gras ball had become adopted by the lesbian and gay male communities of Paris by the last quarter of the 19th century, and this was another context that began appearing in fiction.
In the 1880s, writers depicting Parisian lesbian culture began to recognize and represent the cross-class nature of the community (rather than depicting it as involving only prostitutes and theatrical performers). Earlier depictions of upper class lesbians had shown them only in private contexts, but works such as the memoirs of Marguerite Bellanger, the cross-dressing former mistress of Napoleon III, included stories of elite women visiting brothels for lesbian liaisons, and mingling with the demi-monde. By 1885, the figure of the mannish (but not necessarily cross-dressing) upper class woman mingling with working class lesbians everywhere from brothels to cafés to the theater to fancy restaurants. The Bréda quarter (now renamed Montmartre) remained the geographic center, but it now attracted a more fashionable clientele. An accepted “costume” had evolved for depicting lesbians: short curly hair, a stiff collar and a man’s jacket or frock coat, and an androgynous style of dress.
The 1890s saw homosexual culture becoming even more visible. A new type of gathering place, the brasserie (a type of cheap café-cum-bar) included many catering specifically to a lesbian clientele. Art depicting lesbians and gay men in such contexts became a staple of certain types of magazine publications. In both art and literature, the iconic locations for lesbians became music and dance halls such as the Folies-Bergère and the Moulin-Rouge in Montmartre, as in the art of Toulouse-Lautrec. While gay male culture was equally present in these contexts, it was less commonly emphasized in art and literature. Writers were now more likely to mention the names of specific establishments and persons, rather than simply using them as inspiration for more fictionalized depictions.
By the end of the century, lesbian gathering places had become tourist attractions for upper class voyeurs who wanted a taste of decadent Paris. This presentation of lesbian culture as entertainment for outsiders may help explain the disparity of focus away from gay male culture.