Shhh! Homosexuality still in the closet in French classrooms
A French minister opened an educational bees’ nest this week with her proposal to “out” historic figures in school textbooks. Socialist Minister for Women and Government Spokesperson Najat Vallaud-Belkacem said that the homosexuality of gay authors and icons should no longer go ignored, especially when their sexuality played an important part in their work.
“Today, school textbooks persist in remaining silent about the gay, lesbian or transsexual orientation of certain historical figures or authors, even when it explains a large part of their work,” she said, citing 19th century poet Arthur Rimbaud as an example.
Not surprisingly, Vallaud-Belkacem’s proposal was met with a chorus of disapproval from French conservatives. One political commentator on chat radio RMC suggested that Vallaud-Belkacem was mentally confused, claiming that “Rimbaud would be reduced to only his homosexuality,” while secretary general of the conservative UMP party Bruno Beschizza accused her of "trying to impose a certain vision of family by rewriting the history of literature”. Conservative author Benoît Rayski called the idea “laughable”.
In response, Vallaud-Belkacem – who is incidentally a keen supporter of the Association Rimbaud, a support and awareness group for young victims of homophobia – called on her critics to “take into the consideration the suffering of [LBGT school children] who consider themselves abnormal”.
‘Impossible for teachers’
But even on the website of progressive magazine Nouvel Observateur, a blog posted by teacher and centrist political activist Yves Delahaie ruled out the proposal as nonsense. Arguing that the mere suggestion of “outing gays in textbooks” would make the Socialist government look crazier than ever, Delahaie also maintained that in practical terms, it would be impossible:
“Imagine the teacher, struggling to change the subject, falling suddenly into an improvised, unstructured and undoubtedly counter-productive debate on sexual orientation in the middle of a French or history lesson.”
Delahaie argues that the only proper way to normalise sexuality in society is to grant homosexual citizens exactly the same legal rights as their heterosexual counterparts. Well, the Socialist government is certainly working on that front. But as a secondary school teacher, Delahaie’s apprehension of bringing up sexuality in class only proves how far there is to go.
This “don’t ask don’t tell” attitude seems to stem from France’s obsession with shunning data on ethnicity, sexuality, wealth and background (it is actually illegal to do so).
But strangely, the French are the most avidly curious – and the most indiscreet – when it comes to these issues within an informal environment. Countless times I have heard black friends quizzed on ‘their origins’ at a party, despite having already said they were American or Swedish; others asked whether they are gay because of a zany dress sense; another whether she is Jewish ‘because of her big nose’. It’s staggering to begin with, but you get used to it.
So why so shy in the classroom? It seems archaic, not to mention detrimental, for kids to be discourgaed from discussing sexuality at school. Like other former “curiosities”, homosexuality should no longer be treated as a taboo in an educational environment. The fact that James Baldwin was black, that Virginia Woolf was female, that Anne Frank was Jewish... Can you imagine if school textbooks had to forgo all mention of these “curiosities”?
The very reason Vallaud-Belkacem used Rimbaud as an example was due to the fact that his work was influenced massively by his sexuality. If teenagers are detered from discussing that, what message does that send them about their own sexuality?