Lesbian feminism breaks new ground in post #MeToo France
French feminists are increasingly drawing on the tools of political lesbianism, which argues that heterosexuality and patriarchy are inextricably linked, to contest pervading inequalities between the sexes.
This has caused deep rifts in public opinion — while some laud it as evidence of a new method embraced by a younger generation with a greater intolerance of sexism, others criticise what they perceive as a war on the heterosexual lifestyle.
On Sunday thousands of people took part in a lesbian march in Paris, the first since 1981 and one inspired by the “dyke marches” originally from the US.
The demonstrators called for the passing of legislation to allow fertility treatment for lesbian couples and single women.
“I want to be able to have children with my girlfriend here,” said Gaby McFarlane-Smith, originally from Melbourne, Australia, where she says she feels safer.
“I don’t hold my girlfriend’s hand here because we get stalked, we’ve had people yelling at us in metros. It’s sad,” the 30-year-old told AFP at the march.
Placards referencing prominent French lesbian feminists like actress Adele Haenel, director Celine Sciamma and local politician Alice Coffin abounded amongst the rainbow flags during the demonstration, attended by all three women.
Haenel became a hero of the #MeToo movement in France after accusing in November 2019 the director of her first film, Christophe Ruggia, of sexually harassing and assaulting her between the ages of 12 to 15.
Months later the actress — famous for her role in Celine Sciamma’s lesbian love story “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” — stormed out at the French equivalent of the Oscars, the Cesars, shouting “Shame!” when Roman Polanski won best director.
Polanski is wanted in the US for the statutory rape of a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
Acclaimed feminist author Virginie Despentes hailed Haenel’s gesture in a widely-read opinion column titled, “from now on, we get up and we leave”.
Despentes, 51, fell in love with a woman aged 35 and has voiced her joy at exiting heterosexuality.
Despentes has a huge role in contemporary feminism and enjoys great influence and popularity, historian and teacher at Angers University Christine Bard told AFP.
“That she became a lesbian and gave this identity a very political dimension is very significant,” Bard said.
Sociologist Ilana Eloit of Sciences Po in Paris said the fact that these figureheads are promoting feminism as lesbians is new in France.
Author and activist Monique Wittig tried to set up a lesbian branch of the Women’s Liberation Movement during the 1970s, but was “completely erased” by feminists and “fled” to the United States to escape the hostility, Eloit told AFP.
Historically, the French value of universalism — an ideal that emphasises shared fundamental rights over differences — meant lesbian activism was “complicated”, Bard said.
Now, however, Wittig’s theories have become popular amongst feminists. Haenel read an extract of Wittig’s “The Lesbian Body” on radio France Inter last September.
Ana, 34, had suffered from eating disorders, including bulimia, since her teenage years.
She credits becoming a lesbian last year with healing, as she now sees herself through the eyes of women.
“It becomes absolutely impossible to combine feminist ideas with an intimate life with men,” she told AFP, a “Survivor of heterosexuality” placard in her hand.
“It makes you go crazy,” she added.
– ‘Hatred of men’? –
But there has also been a backlash. Philosopher Elisabeth Badinter, a veteran universal feminist voice, denounced in an article for the Journal du Dimanche last September an emerging “hatred of men” and “warlike neofeminism”.
When journalist and local politician Alice Coffin’s essay “The Lesbian Genius” came out in September, there was an outcry among France’s political class, mostly due to one passage.
“It’s not enough to help one another, we have to erase (men) from our minds, from our pictures, from our representations,” Coffin wrote.
Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo responded: “I’ve spent my life fighting for equal rights for women, not for supremacy, including of women over men.”
Deputy interior minister Marlene Schiappa said Coffin was promoting “a form of apartheid”.
“But it’s not possible to accuse me of division when it’s a response to the division that has been institutionalised (between women and men) for centuries,” Coffin told AFP in an interview before the march.
Explicitly lesbian groups, such as football club The Blasters (Les Degommeuses), activist group Yes Yes Yes and endowment fund Lesbians of General Interest have emerged in recent years.
And pop singers Angele, Hoshi and Pomme are all out as lesbian or bisexual — a change in France, which Coffin said in her book is notorious for having few high-profile openly gay public figures.
But sociology PhD candidate at Paris University, Sarah Jean-Jacques, says there is still a long way to go.
“Some visible figures are emerging, but it remains a very small number of people,” she said.