Queer Theory: The French Response

Queer Theory: The French Response

by Bruno Perreau

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781503600447
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/16/2016
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Bruno Perreau is Cynthia L. Reed Professor and Associate Professor of French Studies at MIT. He is the author of The Politics of Adoption (2014).

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Queer Theory

The French Response

By Bruno Perreau


Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-5036-0046-1



RESISTANCE TO HOMOSEXUAL MARRIAGE in France is part of a long tradition of massive mobilization by Catholic and conservative movements. The forms taken by this particular movement, however, have turned out to be new — groups opposing gay marriage in fact adopted much of the left-wing tactical repertoire: for example, slogans borrowed from the workers' movement, zaps (direct actions), and partial nudity in public places. In this chapter I argue that this appropriation was made possible by the left-wing government's abandonment of activism and its growing aloofness from critical intellectual reflection. The dithering of the executive branch during debate over "marriage for all" is good evidence of this situation. Indeed, socialist president François Hollande attempted to limit the scope of the reform on several occasions. For instance, he reminded the mayors of France that they enjoyed a "liberty of conscience" that would allow them to avoid officiating personally at weddings of same-sex individuals. "Liberty of conscience" was originally a clause in the French public-health code that permitted doctors hostile to abortion to decline to perform them. Given government prevarication, many anti-gay-marriage movements pursued their strategy of occupying the public stage even after the Taubira Act was passed, subsequently focusing their attention on the teaching of so-called gender theory as well as on MAP and surrogate pregnancy.

On February 3, 2014, after several weeks of mobilizing anti-gay-marriage forces to oppose various aspects of the school curriculum that discussed sexism (in particular, a "primer on equality" [Les ABCD de l'Égalité] promoted by the minister for women's rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem), the socialist government decided to withdraw its reform on family rights as a gesture of appeasement. That reform would have granted stepparents, both heterosexual and homosexual, a legal status they currently lack under French law. On June 25, the new minister of education, Benoît Hamon, announced that the primer on equality would be completely withdrawn from schools. He claimed that its introduction had been largely positive, but the initiative needed to be pursued by training teachers concerning male/female equality — the primers directly aimed at the children, meanwhile, would be dropped. On November 25, Vallaud-Belkacem, who had left the Ministry of Women's Rights to become minister of education, announced details of her "plan of action for equality between girls and boys." The plan consisted of the elaboration of roughly a hundred "educational tips," the most important being discussions on the role of women throughout history and on stereotyping. Teachers were supplied with an online "pedagogical briefcase" that included fact sheets and exercises for stimulating discussion. No other resources were allocated, nor was time programmed into the schedule. The "briefcase" was thus another of the "kits on equality" developed over the previous fifteen years by the Ministry of Education. The term "gender" completely vanished from the material, and Vallaud-Belkacem significantly changed her tone. In arguing that "gender is a conceptual tool used by scholars working on relations between the sexes to refer to all those aspects of inequality that are social constructs," she implied that certain inequalities are not socially constructed. A petition by academics in the field of gender studies drew attention to the minister's retreat and called on her to clarify her position.

Throughout the year 2014, the administration also reasserted its opposition to any extension of MAP to single women or lesbian couples, as well as to surrogate pregnancy. While opposition to surrogate pregnancy is nearly unanimous across the political spectrum (with the exception of a few elected officials from the ecology party, Europe Écologie–Les Verts), lifting restrictions on MAP, currently limited to heterosexual couples, had been a Hollande campaign promise in 2012. Yet very few members of the Socialist Party now defend that idea explicitly, with the exception of the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo. Prime Minister Manuel Valls stressed his opposition to the extension of MAP on numerous occasions, such as during a visit to the Vatican on April 27, 2014. On May 5, the minister for family affairs, Laurence Rossignol — annoyed that the question of extending MAP had become an object of debate even though it was not included in her proposed bill on family matters — claimed that "the issue of family rights has been colonized by MAP." Another demonstration against gay marriage was held in Paris and other major cities on October 5 of that year. The demonstration was underpinned by the rhetoric of the "slippery slope" the administration was seeking to avoid — demonstrators attacked the Taubira Act as a threat to family values because it would necessarily lead to the extension of MAP to single women and lesbian couples and the legalization of surrogate pregnancies.

Opponents to gay marriage managed to influence political debate even after the Taubira Act became law, because they had broad access to the mainstream media. Even though they claimed to be underrepresented on television, on radio, and in the newspapers, these movements managed to generate content (images, slogans, conceptual categories) and to broadcast it widely. To this end they employed the social media and collaborative online tools, even when their religion might have made them wary of the virtual world. The first spokesperson for Manif pour Tous (Demo for All), the leading opposition group to the Taubira Act, was a high-profile figure of Paris nightlife, Frigide Barjot. The first president of Manif pour Tous, Guillaume de Prémare, was himself a public-relations consultant and spokesperson for the Comité Urgence Pape (Pope Relief Committee), a blog that seeks to favor evangelization through the media. Both Barjot and Prémare were very familiar with the way instant information functions, so they used social media to supply the mass media with prepared content. Thus, even when assertions by opponents to homosexual marriage and gender theory were publicly refuted, debate continued to employ the very terms those groups chose to stress (for example, setting "children's rights" against a "right to have children"; accusing reproductive techniques of instrumentalizing women's bodies; referring to the teaching of "gender theory" rather than "gender studies"). In an interview several weeks after the Taubira Act was passed, Vincent Peillon, then minister of education, stated that he was "against gender theory," only to admit several days later that such a theory did not exist. He thereby adopted a key element of the anti-gay-marriage discourse. By playing on the fear of corrupting children, opponents of the Taubira Act were aware they were touching a sensitive political nerve — "the country's future" — which increased their chances of being heard.

Similarly, French academics who had taken up gender studies were not always able to avoid the rhetorical traps laid by opponents of gay marriage. To prove that gender theory is a fantasy, many university forums and petitions pointed out that there is no theory of gender but rather a set of heterogeneous approaches that interrogate the role of gender in both contemporary Western society and other societies and historical periods. While this response reasserts incontrovertible facts, it nevertheless has the drawback of abandoning the very idea of theory. Yet theorizing gender is an integral part of research into the subject and probably constitutes one of its most dynamic branches. Gender studies do not merely describe practices but also propose other concepts, other ways of seeing and thinking. While there exists no uniform theory of gender masterminded by sexual minorities — as gay-marriage opponents apparently believe — there are many theories of gender that may be sacrificed on the altar of the struggle against the fantasy of the theory of gender.

This chapter retraces the fixation on gender theory in contemporary debate on marriage and the family, beginning with the context in which that line of argument first emerged, which occurred in the mid-1990s during the Beijing World Conference on Women, when Vatican representatives systematically began to target university research into male/female equality and sexuality. They feared that such research would relativize the natural difference between the sexes and thereby promote homosexuality and transsexuality through school and, more widely, through public policies designed to eliminate discrimination of all kinds at national and international levels. Beginning with the papacy of Benedict XVI, the Vatican pleaded for a return to what it dubbed "human ecology." Activist French Catholics, steeped in these ideas, decided to oppose educational programs on sexism and homophobia in schools. The chapter then discusses how the movements that opposed marriage for all arose from mobilization against teaching gender theory at school. Finally, I take a look at the anti-gay-marriage demonstrations themselves — the groups involved in them; their activist tactics and slogans, links to political parties, and efforts to credit the idea of a plot to undermine "the traditional French family"; and the role of the media. These groups' public denunciations of gay marriage and gender theory took on nationalist overtones (simultaneously racist and anti-Semitic), whose main vector was anti-Americanism. To shed light on these expressions of nationalism, I conclude with a discussion of certain French fantasies concerning upbringing, education, and the making of future citizens.

"Human Ecology" and Gender Theory

Although opposition to gender theory in France hit the media around 2010, its roots are much older. It can be explained by the Vatican's attachment to the idea of "natural law," along with that institution's establishment of a network of information and monitoring on research into gender ever since the Fourth World Conference on Women, held in Beijing in September 1995.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council to reconsider Church doctrine in a contemporary world marked by major social and technological changes. Vatican II (as the council was known) ended in 1965 under the new pope, Paul VI. The council promoted Christian humanism, a philosophy — inspired by secular humanism — that recognized certain inalienable human rights. These rights, however, were not the consequence of life in society but of human "nature." Susan A. Ross has shown that this nature is simultaneously physical and spiritual in the tradition of pre–Vatican II discussion of marriage and sexuality, which focused on a woman's "docility" and natural "receptivity" for children. Three years later, the encyclical Humanae Vitae condemned birth-control pills in the name of this "natural law." The theology of Pope John Paul II derived straight from this natural law while placing particular stress on the complementarity of the sexes, as he did in his 1979 Theology of the Body and his 1995 "Letter to Women," the latter published to make an impact on the Beijing conference. Above all, however, John Paul II founded several institutions charged with monitoring changes in the family, method of reproduction, and sexuality, such as the Pontifical Council for the Family (1981) and the Pontifical Academy for Life (1994). Opus Dei, an institution founded in 1928 to evangelize people through education and local charities — thereby setting everyone on the path to sainthood — promoted the complementarity of a man's and a woman's contribution to the family. In 1982 Opus Dei became a personal prelature, that is, an institution with no territorial boundaries, placed directly in the service of the pope.

Benedict XVI continued his predecessor's work while setting natural law against what he called "moral relativism" in a speech to members of the International Theological Commission in 2007. Before the UN General Assembly in 2008, Benedict argued that human rights "are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception." According to the pope, the primary relativistic problem is the challenge to the complementarity of the sexes within the family, the family being the fruit of the laws of the "Creator." In other words, as sociologist Éric Fassin has shown, the Vatican's natural law is nothing other than the "law of nature." Human rights are conditioned by a biological determinism willed by God: "In order to avoid the domination of one sex or the other, their differences tend to be denied, viewed as mere effects of historical and cultural conditioning. In this perspective, physical difference, termed sex, is minimized, while the purely cultural element, termed gender, is emphasized to the maximum and held to be primary." Benedict XVI denounced "ideologies, which, for example, call into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."

A year later, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for the Family published a manual, Lexicon: Ambiguous and Debatable Terms regarding Family Life and Ethical Questions, to help the faithful understand misuse of gender, sexuality, and the body. All these efforts sought to defend human ecology and mobilize an entire semantic arsenal that echoed a notion of "risk" already current in European democracies when discussing issues of climate, security, and health. This new packaging also served theological tradition as established by Saint Thomas Aquinas to oppose "unnatural" acts. When Pope Francis asked in 2013, "If a person is gay and seeks God and has good will, who am I to judge?," a swarm of commentators spoke of the Church's new openness to the question of homosexuality. From the standpoint of forgiveness, however, tolerance toward homosexuals is hardly new — but that tolerance is possible only if their behavior has already been condemned. Thus, in January 2015 Francis declared that homosexual marriage was a threat to the family that "disfigure[d] God's plan for creation." And in February he argued that gender theory was ideological colonization: "It colonizes the people with an idea that changes, or wants to change, a mentality or a structure." The pope thereby conveyed the idea of twin dangers, territorial invasion (of the human body as sacred ground) and conversion of minds and institutions. This latter process he could all the more easily ascribe to gender studies, since he was a product of the order founded by Ignatius of Loyola, the Company of Jesus, one of whose main missions is evangelization. Finally, Francis compared gender theory to nuclear weapons, their potential for the destruction of nature allegedly being the same. He thus remained totally in line with his predecessors and their theology of natural law.

How was this theology disseminated in Europe, and how did it evolve into opposition to the teaching of gender theory in France? The process entailed three components: Vatican monitoring of international authorities and their programs of "gender equality"; disinformation on research into gender, notably queer theory; and the use of intermediaries close to the Vatican who could influence schools and spread their message through the media. The fear of gender took shape during the World Conference on Women in Beijing. Although the term "gender" was used at the 1985 Nairobi conference, which referred to "gender mainstreaming," and was also mentioned in the context of reproductive rights and educational policies at the 1994 Cairo Conference on Population, it was employed only as a specific type of public action. The Beijing conference, in contrast, used gender as a basis of broader analysis. Law professor Doris Buss was one of the first commentators to recognize the Vatican's war on gender. She clearly showed that the Vatican perceived women's rights as a Trojan horse leading to the international recognition of homosexuality, insofar as those civic, political, and social rights implied a denaturalization of citizenship and a consideration of the individual An early warrior against gender was Dale O'Leary, an American member of Opus Dei who is very active in Catholic online networks and objected as early as 1994 to the use of gender as a category of public policy at the Cairo Conference. As a member of the National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality, she attacked Judith Butler's book Gender Trouble for seeking to turn men into women, and vice versa, while making homosexuality equivalent to heterosexuality. O'Leary claims to have given her own book The Gender Agenda to Benedict XVI prior to his accession to the papacy.


Excerpted from Queer Theory by Bruno Perreau. Copyright © 2016 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

1 Who's Afraid of "Gender Theory"? 17

2 The Many Meanings of Queer 75

3 Transatlantic Homecomings 113

4 The Specter of Queer Politics 145

Conclusion 183

Notes 191

Index 243

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