"Lesbian Life in France" Screening and Conversation with Julien and Chaplin
Guest Writer: Derek Attig

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

[On August 27, 2012, The Unit for Criticism in collaboration with French, Gender & Women's Studies and History hosted "Lesbian Life in France," a screening and conversation with filmmaker Jacqueline Julien and Tamara Chaplin (History)]

Lesbopolis: On Lesbian Activism in Toulouse

Written by Derek Attig (History)

In 2009, the mayor of Toulouse, France, addressed hundreds of lesbians in la salle des Illustres, in the city's capitol complex. The crowd gathered in this public space to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of Bagdam Cafée and to kick off an annual festival of lesbian art and activism. Describing his city's long tradition of lesbian politics, the mayor—misspeaking—described it first as "lesbo-follie" (lesbian-crazy) before correcting himself to declare Toulouse a "lesbopolis."

This is the story that began Monday evening’s crowded, enthusiastic exploration of lesbian activism in Toulouse. Co-organized by Tamara Chaplin and the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory, the event was devoted to figuring out how such a lesbopolis came to exist.

In an analytical introduction framing what was to come, Chaplin, a historian, argued that in order to understand this "remarkable event" in 2009, we must understand the role of Bagdam and its two demands: non-mixité (opportunities for lesbians to interact amongst themselves) and visibilité (public and private recognition). This was the first fascinating paradox of the night.

Bagdam Cafée—which took its name from Bagdad Café but changed it to play on dame ("lady") and fée, ("fairy")—began in 1988 as a social and political space for Toulouse lesbians. The first commercial space of its kind in the country, this "vibrant cultural institution" ran a variety of events attended by 57,000 women in its first seven years alone. It also sat in the center of Toulouse, geographically embodying its slogan: "Sans visibilité, pas de légitimité" (Without visibility, no legitimacy). The bagdamiennes, Chaplin insisted, sought to "impose lesbian existence on the French republic." And this was only more the case after 1999, when the café closed and was replaced by Bagdam Espace Lesbien, an active and wide-ranging lesbian organization which "left the four walls of the café in order to occupy the city."

Chaplin ended by wondering whether or not—in an age where queer has replaced lesbian in most political parlance, where a politics similarity (e.g., via marriage) has replaced a politics of difference, and where mixité and invisibilité are valued over visibilité and non-mixité—a lesbian movement like the one practiced at Bagdam can prevail.

We then met the guest of honor: Jacqueline Julien, co-founder of Bagdam and irrepressible artist and activist. In a rich, complex, and casual presentation, Julien sought to "share [her] delight at being a lesbian"—not just as a "sexual preference," but as a "way of thinking, of constructing and deconstructing…and hoping from morning to night for a different order for the world."

In particular, Julien insisted that lesbian identity is and must be both angry and amused, pleasurable and pissed off. (This was the second intriguing paradox of the evening.) So, for example, Valerie Solanas’s S.C.U.M. Manifesto was admirable in its uninhibited rejection of patriarchy—S.C.U.M. stands, after all, for the Society for Cutting Up Men. But it was, nonetheless, too much a product of suffering for Julien to identify with. "Lesbian fury is legitimate," Julien explained, "but [we] must never forget the joy that is at the center of the deconstructive politics" of lesbianism.

"In producing laughter in spite of my rage, I choose pleasure over suffering," she continued, introducing two short films that would be screened for the audience that night. The first, the 3-minute "Yes, I'm Single" (2010), imagines Julien as a woman with a string of famous, historical ex-lovers such as Djuna Barnes and K.D. Lang but no current lover. She does not, the film argues, cease to be a lesbian in the absence of a current lover. Sleeping with a woman every night has its benefits, Julien wryly explained in her introduction, but it isn’t a precondition of lesbianism.

The second film, "Time Bomb" (2012), was longer (at 24 minutes) and more complex. It opens with a sex scene, close in, with an emphasis on skin: "My hand rejoices on her smooth dreamy hills," the ethereal voiceover puts it. But it turns out—in a delightfully meta turn, and with a loud "CUT"—that this scene is not a sex scene but the filming of a sex scene, an objection to the "boring," apolitical sex scenes with which lesbian cinema usually climaxes. Not here, though. Interspersed with an ode to a lover Julien wrote twenty years ago, as the first Gulf War began and violence broke out in the former Yugoslavia—"The empire is immense. The empire is expandable. ... We will crush you with our theories..."—explosions take out gatherings of clerics and cardinals, soldiers and soccer hooligans. And, finally, lesbians converge on a central Toulouse street and occupy the space as their own. The lesbopolis made joyously, raucously real.

From that "fantastic comedic utopia," as Julien had earlier described it, the evening turned to an energetic and polyglot question-and-answer period. Julien, Chaplin, and the audience grappled with a series of questions: Why Toulouse? (It has a long history of welcoming those contesting the powerful.) Where are the physical manifestations of lesbian visibility in Toulouse now? (Everywhere.) Why "empire" in "Time Bomb"? (It plays ironically with a second and more amorous meaning of "empire" in French.) Do social movements that become more mainstream end up with less room for radicalism? (Sometimes, so radical movements must be "nourished with joy and pleasure," as well as rage and revolt.) Isn't it wonderful to be in a room where "lesbian" is bandied about openly? (Indeed!)

Julien had a question for the audience, too: Did you laugh? This was the first time the films had been screened for a mixed-identity audience, and she was anxious to know if the admixture of comedy and rage had worked. Judging from the forest of hands raised throughout the room, the answer was an emphatic, if multiple, yes.


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