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1In this book derived from the doctoral thesis he defended in 2011, Massimo Prearo studies the history of the politicization of homosexuality in France from the mid-nineteenth to the early twenty-first century. The author is opposed to the notion of a great narrative of gay activism that would trace “a linear trajectory of gradual liberation, emancipation, resistance or normalization”, showing instead that the history of the “homosexual movement” in France is made up of breaks in continuity, ruptures, each marking a historical sequence or moment in a series of different activist configurations. His theory and method are Foucauldian, and he has taken a “detour through history” in order to situate current types of interassociation LGBT activism in a long-term perspective. He sets out to conduct an “archaeological political analysis” of activist knowledge, drawing on a corpus of journals, newspapers, political tracts, manifestoes, etc. As he sees it, discursive production of this sort offers an excellent observation point for apprehending the different historical sequences that constitute the process by which homosexuality became politicized.

2In the second chapter he takes up the “emergence of the homosexual question” (p. 47) in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Citing Foucault’s hypothesis that homosexuality originated as a category of discourse, [1] he sets out to show that the first activist knowledge, which he terms scientia militantis in opposition to physicians’ scientia sexualis, was in fact based on scientific knowledge. At the end of a quite technical line of argument, he considers the writings of the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), which made possible “a shift from a scientific to a social semantics of homosexuality”, opening the way for the first types of collective mobilization.

3He then pursues this analysis of the historical and political prerequisites for the birth of a homosexual movement in France, studying the production of the journal Arcadie (1954-1982) and the Front homosexual d’action révolutionnaire or FHAR (1970-1974). Citing studies by Julian Jackson [2] and Michael Sibalis [3], he expresses reservations about the long-accepted idea that there was a radical break between these two organizations, showing instead that they both further, and critically, developed existentialist philosophy. As he sees it, they belonged to the same “existential moment”, though Arcadie was more homophile and FHAR more revolutionary. Despite radically different action strategies, they both helped to free homosexual knowledge from the science referential. When the FHAR dissolved in 1974, a new historical sequence opened, marked by the development of new groups, among them the Groupes de libération homosexuels (GLH; homosexual liberation groups). When revolution ceased to be the political objective in a context marked by postmodern thinking, the GLH chose to adopt a new concept of political action as action resolutely engaged in the present. This produced what the author calls the “’75 moment”, particularly significant in this connection. Rejection of the GLH application to participate in the May Day procession and the ceremonies commemorating the deportations of WWII led those activist organizations to assert their political autonomy, manifested by the use of a new word in their rhetoric: “homophobia”. According to the author, 1975 was a key moment in the “political instituting of homosexuality as a movement”. That “institution”, then, should be understood as a strategy of the activist groups to unify their actions and free themselves from traditional political and unionist frameworks.

4This means that the activist referential changed significantly during the 1970s. The decade was characterized by the adoption of a new identity rhetoric that superseded the homophile and revolutionary discourse of the 1950s and 1960s. Gay and lesbian “militance” took over from traditional homosexual activism, introducing a new action strategy: “the territorialization of homosexuality in spaces of autonomous action and identity assertion”. For the author, the 1978 creation of Comités homosexuels d’arrondissement (CHA; district homosexual committees) is exemplary of this new way of deploying collective action – a process that continued through the early 1980s with a remarkable proliferation of new associations, which then gained institutional recognition and financial assistance from the left, in power at the time.

5Contrary to the longstanding assumption that the 1981 election of the socialist François Mitterrand as president and the decriminalization of homosexuality in 1982 led gays to demobilize, the author claims that in fact a new phase of politicization got under way at precisely that time. However, the movement was in political crisis throughout that decade due to increasing tension between two antagonistic dynamics within it: recognition of the movement by the authorities led to political union at the national level while local community involvement led to a multiplication of initiatives and gathering places, and here the driving force was differentiation. The term movement came to seem less appropriate, or at least was now in competition with a more flexible, less unitary structure. As the author sees it, that crisis, accentuated by the context of HIV/ AIDS, was temporarily solved by the creation of Act Up-Paris in 1989, which helped existing community groups form networks to combat the epidemic more efficiently.

6The 1990s, Prearo explains, were marked by the emergence of a new activist configuration. The implementation of public policy to stop the spread of AIDS and the assertion of bisexual and transsexual identities over the decade led to strong community dynamics of differentiation and specialization. Rejecting recurrent criticism of communitarianism and identity-based withdrawal, the author shows how the arrival of inter-association LGBT activism at the turn of the twenty-first century represented an unprecedented mode of collective organization. He uses the notion of “community type” to account for the way the different activist organizations assert their own autonomy, all the while drawing on the principle of inter-association as a symbolic resource. The mobilization in the late 1990s in favour of the government bill on civil unions and the annual Prides Parade are exemplary manifestations of the “balance, albeit unstable and subject to permanent tension, between strong symbolic unity and strong community division” within the “space of LGBT activism”.

7With its analysis of the key moments in the politicizing of homosexuality in France, Prearo’s book succeeds in its stated aim of endowing current LGBT activism there with some historical depth. The identity-based differentiation within the contemporary inter-association movement – which has been enriched since the 2000s with new acronyms: Q for queer, I for intersexual, A for asexual – attests to the relevance of his conclusions. Though the question does not pertain directly to the author’s subject, one would like to know to what degree the production and circulation of the discourses he examines are based on specific trajectories and modalities of engagement or commitment to the cause – a question that has not been sufficiently studied in connection with gay activism. [4]


  • [1]
    Michel Foucault, 1976, Histoire de la sexualité I. La volonté du savoir, Paris, Gallimard, 224 p. Pub lished in English as The History of Sexuality, vol. I, The Will to Knowledge, London, Allen Lane, 1979.
  • [2]
    Julian Jackson, 2009, Arcadie. La vie homosexuelle en France de l’après-guerre à la dépenalisation, trans. Arlette Sancery, Paris, Autrement. Originally published as Living in Arcadia: Homosexuality, Politics and Morality in France from the Liberation to AIDS, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2009.
  • [3]
    Michael Sibalis, 2010, “L’arrivée de la libération gay en France. Le Front homosexual d’action révolutionnaire (FHAR)”, Genre, sexualité & société 3, online at (visited in May 2016).Originally published as “Gay Liberation comes to France: The Front homosexuel d’action révolutionnaire (FHAR)”, papers from the George Rudé seminar, vol. I, 2005; online at
  • [4]
    Cf. the following studies: Christophe Broqua, 2006, Agir pour ne pas mourir! Act Up, les homosexuels et le sida [Taking action so as not to die! Act Up, homosexuals and AIDS], Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 406 p.; Olivier Fillieule and Christophe Broqua, 2002, “Les mouvements homosexuels” [Homosexual movements], in Isabelle Sommier and Xavier Crettriez, eds., La France rebelle, Paris, Michalon, 569 p.
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