Homosexuality in the Time of James Baldwin

by Evan Williams

Every country in Europe that participated in War World II found its male to female ratio out of proportion.  Hysteria ripped through the population as news of the drop in the population of men spread.  The idea of homosexuality filled newspapers and magazines, as observers feared an increase in lesbian activity due to the decrease in the number of men and an increase in gay activity, which Dagmar Herzog attributed to the “lack of a heterosexual outlet during the war” (164).  Europe was also facing a high divorce rate due to the pool of newly single women looking for companions and the economic and emotional difficulties many people were pitted against after the war.  These lifestyle changes, coupled with the Nazi’s conservative view on homosexuality, created a division of thought about what was appropriate or not for members of society. Herzog called this time a “sexually conservative era” and France and the recently arrived James Baldwin would have felt the confusion surrounding it (165).

The Nazis condemned homosexuality politically, using tactics such as castration, torture, and murder to scare its citizens into being heterosexual (Herzog 168).  The homophobia that arose from such condemnation caused many citizens in occupied territories, such as France, to shy away from accepting homosexuality and some even came to resent homosexuals.  The Nazis themselves were publicly sexually conservative, but as it was later avowed, were not shy about sexual fulfillment.  Highly ranked officials in the Nazi regime admitted to holding sexual pleasure in high regard after the war.  The conservative messages that were sent during wartime and the truth that came out after the war were extremely different, and this confused many citizens as to what the right path of acceptance was.  The natural response to this confusion socially was carefulness and conservativeness.

In comparison to Europe, the America that James Baldwin left had sodomy laws that existed in all 50 states until the early part of the 1960s.  The number of arrests related to sodomy (consensual or not) rose sharply in the 1950s (Eskridge 77).  Sodomy laws were not declared unconstitutional in the United States until 2003, and there are still citizens incarcerated for sodomy across the country.  The laws in America were more stringent than those in Europe, but the entire Western world felt the effects of the laws in action, and France was no different.

In Paris, homosexuality was openly discussed and openly written about, but people were still being condemned to prison for acts related to homosexuality.  As Florence Temagne points out, a law in 1960 called homosexuality “a social plague” (263-264).  In French society homosexuality was rebounding after its repression, but its presence was still struggling for acceptance from some heterosexuals.  Therefore, it is possible that manycitizens of France accepted James Baldwin during his time there, but it is clear that he must have proceeded with caution because there was still much reservation about homosexuality.

Works Cited

Eskridge, William N. Dishonorable Passions: Sodomy Laws in America, 1861-2003. New York: Viking, 2008. Print.

Herzog, Dagmar. “Desperately Seeking Normality: Sex and Marriage in the Wake of the War.” Life after Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History during the 1940s and 1950s. Ed. Richard Bessel and Dirk Schumann. Washington, D.C.: German Historical Institute, 2003. NetLibrary. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

Tamagne, Florence. A History of Homosexuality in Europe: Berlin, London, Paris, 1919-1939, Volume I & II. New York, NY: Algora, 2006. NetLibrary. Web. 8 Nov. 2010.

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