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Los antisociales, by Geoffroy Huard. A Review.

Huard’s detailed essay on the clash between homosexuals in Paris and Barcelona and legal and intellectual instances between 1945 and 1975, opens with a  quote by Jorge Luis Borges:  “The past is the clay that the present moulds at will”. It is refreshing that a rigurous historical essay takes such a strong stance on how history works and it is perentory that this idea is applied to homosexual history.

With this quote, Huard is also setting the stage for one key insight that justifies and sustains his main argument: namely that many accounts of the rise of homosexual awareness in France and Spain that gravitate around the ideas outlined by the FHAR (Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire) might me missing the point. Some work in this direction has been carried out by Florence Tamagne in her work on homosexual cultures in Berlin, London and Paris between 1919 and 1939 as well as George Chauncey’s 1994 Gay New York, the groundbreaking essay Huard acknowledges as his main influence. Chauncey’s notion of homosexual subcultures, complex and diverse even during times of oppresion, pre-dating the work of 1970s activism, is developed here at length. Like Chauncey, Huard looks at the pressures for heterosexuality in law and science, but also the ways in which homosexual subcultures produced codes and ways of life.

Yes, there was homosexual life beyond the Stonewall riots and no, homosexuals did not need the movement to exist. The movement was necessary, we have to be thankful, particularly for those struggling in the front lines, it made a difference and it improved our lives. But it would be naive to argue that this was all. It also created a narrative of what homosexuals should be, it also asked for identification for certain other principles. And I can’t completely dismiss David Halperin’s point that much of the movement’s early impulse had to do with making sex more easily available, rather than idealism.

The FHAR was founded in France in 1971 and set the pace and the agenda for homosexual activism, introducing key objectives such as “visibility” and linking homosexual activism to the political left and radical sexuality. Huard insists it would be unfair to discuss the FHAR in a monlotithic way: there were different strands, although its true that it is nowadays associated with the more radical ideas. The FHAR, in its earnest, sometimes fun, very 1968 approach to activism and street struggle, actually appropriated homosexual experience and became the group that claimed to speak for homosexuals and homosexual liberation, severely criticizing other groups, like Arcadie in France, that had been doing far quieter, more modest work of consciousness raising. Even Michel Foucault, May ’68’s favourite philosoher, had to accept Arcadie might represent a certain ideal most homosexuals would identify with. Huard quotes him saying after all human nature is not necessarily radical or combative.

But the fact is not only that homosexuals had always been around as a cultural identity perfectly constituted for as many decades, centuries,  as historical research can reach back (it’s often just a matter of wanting to find them) but that they had been exchanging views and creating counterdiscourse. Arcadie represented only a strand within such consciousness raising, but work by Proust, Gide (which Huard may be overestimating) and later Genet point towards homosexual awareness and subculture which was perfectly articulated in France. There was a matter of the degree these ideas were openly discussed, and I think it is easy to accept Genet as literature, particularly in France, and making life hell to any non writer who expresses similar fantasies. Similarly, reading gay Catalan writer Terenci Moix’ memoirs, about the late 1950s and 1960s, one may be similarly struck by the richness and, to some extent, “normalcy” of homosexual experience and if we talk to people of that generation (Moix was born in 1942), their stories are more about pleasure than fear. Life went on, some people took advantage or their difference after some period of confusion, and if you were lucky you could share your experience with others.

If caught having “homosexual acts” you could be put to prison or had to pay a fine. And the damage to reputations and personal lives in a society where positive discourse on homosexuality were few and far between had terrible impact on freedom. In the years studied this had little to do with democracy: Huard suggests that, apparently, the law acted more sternly in Paris than it did in Barcelona. As for ideas, Huard gives a full range of medical and journalistic depictions of homosexuality as an illness or a social problem which had an impact on individuals: young men and women were taken to doctors who might get them into treatment and in the field of science, given the power conditions, your reputation would be safer if you agreed to consider homosexuality a treatable illness that if you adopted the more freudian laissez faire approach. One could emotionally survive this, but not everybody did. Again it is true people relatively unaffected by homophobia tended to live in big cities like Paris or Barcelona and tended to belong to the bourgeoisie.

This needed to change and one suspects “revolutionary” movements may have the edge in achieving this change.There’s no denial there were many issues with this situation and the impact of street activists, radical groups and intellectual was in this sense beneficial.

But it is historians who should get to tell the story and eventually it is the Historian’s methodologies and patient work that should be taken as a more truthful version of reality. Huard shows that FHAR and other contemporary groups also produced a narrative of liberation that denied actual experience in its defence of legislative change. Politics tends to be about lies or half truths, history tries to identify distortions and provide a fuller version of reality. Given current activism tends to sink its roots no further back than the 1970s, it might take Huard’s argument personally as a questioning of their struggle (I like re-telling the story about starting to do homosexual history in Spain and when asking one of the key activists of the 70s what was there before him, he answered a bit stiffly: “nothing”). That would be nonsense. Radical activism was what was needed in the 70s and did its work. But sometimes ideological work relies on distortions that need to be countered with facts. So after outlining the actual tennets of oppression, Huard also points toward their pleasures and the way they constructed subcultures. And of course in the third section of his essay he discusses the appearance of the organized gay movement in France (in the period studied by the essay, the gay movement was still underground in Spain).

Huard is excellent at putting those facts on the table: he looks into archives to explain (for the first time in the case of Barcelona), how many people were arrested, how and where, and through the documents, he draws a map of pleasure and resistance. Where did homosexuals gather, what were the conventions of such gatherings, what they led to. It also finds evidence of a culture of resistance. Control of the media through censorship and acquiescence, and explicit laws made difficult that such information became too readily available, but, as George Chauncey proved in the case of New York (in one of the key references for Huard’s work) what should surprise us is how much of it was there in spite of all the obstacles.

The many insights into the ways homosexual lifestyles were deployed in the cities are still relevant today, when it seems something of a middle ground between radical politics and commercialism has been lost. We still have a left wing gay movement, which can identify issues and fight against oppresive structures, companies or individuals. And given some of the stigma is gone, “homosexuality” is kind of comfortable in the structures of neoliberal capitalism. This is slightly odd and contradicts the original libertarian impulse of the movement. Still, there is very little that can be done about it. But while those two factions clash, the voice that seems to have been disappeared is the culturalist discourse that saw homosexuality as a rich lifestyle that was not necessarily about anger or consummerism.

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