This website is an interactive academic
tool for CEA-UNH course:
Gay Paris:
Culture, Society, & Urban Sexual Identity

CEA GlobalCampus | Spring 2009
UNH Course Code: GEN230
Credits: 3 | Location: Paris, France

Friday, March 13, 2009

Folles, Swells, Effeminates, and Homophiles

Folles, Swells, Effeminates, and Homophiles in Saint-Germain-des-Prés of the 1950s: A New ‘Precious’ Society?
_George Sidéris

In Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin described the atmosphere in a homosexual bar in the Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter of Paris during the 1950s. Among the bar’s clients, Baldwin focused on “les folles [the effeminate queens], always dressed in the most improbable combinations, screaming like parrots the details of their latest love affairs…they always called each other ‘she’.” (p. 219)

Saint-Germain-des-Prés at that time was the principal setting for male homosexual life in Paris. But homosexual life was not confined to this one quarter. The rue du Colisée and the avenue Gabriel, the Champs-Elysées and the streets around the place de l’Etoile, the Montparnasse quarter and Montmartre quarter, the rue des Martyrs, the Saint-Lazare railway station, the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in the Latin Quarter (famous for its balls where ‘the men wear evening gowns, the women trousers’), place Pigalle, the rue de Lappe near the Bastille, and the grands boulevards in general were also heavily frequented by homosexuals. This list should also include such traditional sites of homosexual cruising as the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes, the quays along the Seine, the Tuileries Gardens, the Champs de Mars, and the city’s many bathhouses. Finally, there appeared in these years a number of homosexual venues, or rather venues regularly frequented by homosexuals, in the area around rue Saint-Anne (p. 220).

Saint-Germain-des-Prés, however, had a special place in the homosexual geography and sociability of the period. The air of freedom, merry-making and non-conformity given it by existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the presence of numerous artists and writers, the theatres that put on politically committed plays, in short the more open and tolerant attitude that prevailed there, probably explain in part this homosexual presence in Saint-Germain, where one might encounter, for example, open homosexuals like the writers Jean Genet and Jean Cocteau or the actor Jean Marais (p. 220).

Homosexuals showed themselves openly in the cafés, particularly the Flore, the Reine Blanche, the Royal Saint-Germain, and the Pergola (as well as the Fiacre at 4, rue du Cherche-Midi) (p. 220).

Thus, the post-war homosexual geography of Paris was very different from that of pre-war Paris, which had been dominated by the Montmartre, Pigalle and Montparnasse quarters of the city (p. 220).

Effeminates in general and those of Saint-Germain in particular encountered disapproval, not only from the established authorities, but also from homophiles who did not accept their culture of effeminacy and preciousness, which they considered caricatural and likely to provoke an increased repression of homosexuality. The homophilic discourse on effeminacy and the homosexual life at Saint-Germain shifted in the course of the 1950s from disapproval and disparagement to frank outright hostility. In the end, increased policing and a new political situation had encouraged the development among homosexuals themselves of a ‘homophobia’ directed against effeminates (p. 228).

In writing of Saint-Germain's folles, Baldwin remarked significantly: 'I always found it difficult to believe that they ever went to bed with anybody, for a man who wanted a woman would certainly have rather had a real one and a man who wanted a man would certainly not want one of them. Perhaps, indeed, that was why they screamed so loud.' (p. 221)

'Homphiles do not want to be confused with these caricatures, these peddlers of love or embraces, these exhibitionists, these 'boys who bear no resemblance to a boy.' (p. 223)

'Effeminacy was the opposite of the behavior expected of the homophile, whose discretion would permit him to integrate into the wider society so that 'nothing distinguishes him.' (p. 223)

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