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Revolting Women: Geneviève Pastre

2011 September 21

This post is part of a series on the theme of women and protest. The full series is collected under the tag “Revolting Women”. Thank you to Sophie of Clamorous Voice for this guestpost!

Geneviève Pastre is France’s leading lesbian activist, poet, writer and philosopher. Born in 1924, she is responsible in a large measure for the creation of the Gay Liberation Movement in France.

black and white photo showing crowd of young protesters carrying a large white banner which proclaims  gay rights in French. Image via Wikipedia France, shared under fair use/creative commons licensing guidelinesDespite the list of titles above, Pastre herself refuses any simple political identity, declaring “Je ne suis pas une activiste. Je suis poéte et danseuse” (I am not an activist. I am a poet and a dancer). Nevertheless, she has also been a journalist, radio broadcaster, publisher, mime artist and theatre director.

Pastre’s coming-out, at the age of 56, followed successful careers as an academic, theatre practitioner and poet. Born in French-occupied Mainz after the First World War, Pastre was educated at the Sorbonne, then became a high school teacher. While in Paris, Pastre studied mime with Marcel Marceau and Jacques Lecoq; between 1960 and 1976, Pastre also directed a theatre troupe, which would eventually take her name: Compagnie Geneviève Pastre.

It was during her time as a director that Pastre began gaining recognition as a poet, subsequently publishing ten poetry collections between 1972 and 2005. In 1976, having privately begun to live with a woman, she began agitating for lesbian rights in France. Her official coming-out was a declaration in print: the 1980 essay on female sexuality, De L’Amour lesbien (About Lesbian Love).

By 2000, Pastre had published a further five books, including historical works. As the titles of Homosexuality in the Ancient World and Athens and the Sapphic Peril suggest, Pastre was one of the first feminist theorists to deconstruct classical myths. Challenging the dominance of Foucault’s History of Sexuality, she argued that Foucault – and with him the male academy – had misinterpreted both ancient languages and lesbian sexuality.

Terracotta-coloured cover for De l'amour lesbien, with translucent background photo of part of a woman's face leaning on her hand. The title of the book is in large white font, mainly lower case. Image via Amazon, used under fair use guidelines.Pastre’s greatest contribution, however, has undoubtedly been to the transformation of queer rights, and thus queer life, in France. A year before coming out in the pages of De L’Amour lesbien, Pastre co-founded Comité d’Urgence Anti-Répression Homosexuelle (CUARH). Mobilising the smaller, disparate French gay rights groups that already existed – including David et Jonathan (gay Christians), and Beit Haverim (gay Jews) – CUARH organised a massive protest on 4th April 1981. 10,000 French LGBT people and allies joined what has since been recognised as France’s first ever gay rights march, campaigning for homosexual sex (decriminalised since the French revolution) to have the same age of consent as for heterosexuals.

Such was the strength of the CUARH protest that a few days later, the French president, Mitterrand, pledged to fulfil their demands. In 1982, Geneviève Pastre organised, with CUARH, France’s first ever Gay Pride celebrations; the organisation went on to fight against homophobia in the workplace and in the adoption process.

The 1980s were Pastre’s most prolific decade, touching almost every area of queer life in France and beyond. In 1982, within months of helping to found France’s Gay Pride movement, Pastre became the president of Frequence Gaie, FM Paris’s gay-interest radio station. Despite leaving FG in 1984, she continued to host a weekly show on Radio Libertaire, showcasing other French queer and feminist activists. In the world of publishing, Pastre not only founded Editions G. Pastre, a press dedicated to progressive and feminist authors, but also Les Octaviennes, a collective for lesbian authors active in France.

Colour portrait photo of Genevieve's face - an older woman with short, brown hair, most of which is concealed under a blue wide-brimmed hat. She looks as if she is speaking animatedly. Publicity image used under fair use guidelines.However, it was in 1995 that Pastre stepped even further into the political arena, founding Les Mauves, known in English as the “Lavender Party”. Although their most high-profile campaign – to run a candidate in the 2002 presidential election – failed, Les Mauves have campaigned successfully on national and international issues. Pastre’s party helped successfully persuade the World Health Organisation to declassify homosexuality as a mental illness; similarly, France was, in 1999, the first country to remove transsexualism from a national list of mental disorders. Pressure from Les Mauves also contributed to Amnesty International’s decision to support banned homosexuality as one of the grounds for seeking asylum.

At the age of 87, Pastre continues to write extensively on arts, politics and queer history: she has also organised festivals of queer culture, including the 1990 Festival européen de l’écriture gaie et lesbienne, in Paris. Active worldwide in the feminist and queer rights movements, Pastre’s influence can be felt not only in French activism, theatre, academia and publishing, but internationally. Beyond her enviable contributions to French culture, her work with Les Mauves has helped transform the status, rights and prospects of LGBT people around the world. No revolting woman could have done more.

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