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Stanford Humanities Center Fellow Q&A: French Studies Scholar Bruno Perreau

Bruno Perreau, a 2014-2015 Stanford Humanities Center Fellow, is a French Studies scholar who studies political institutions, parenting, childhood and LGBT issues in contemporary France. In his latest book, The Politics of Adoption (2014), Perreau explains how the belief in a French nature driven by a heteronormative family model has become a dominant part of citizenship in France.

An external fellow who is visiting from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Perreau’s research hones in on fears of homosexuality and gay parenthood as a threat to national identity in France. He does so by following the return of French Theory to its native country after passing through the lens of American queer theory. French Theory refers to a corpus of French intellectuals who became figures in critical thinking in the United States from the early 1960s to the end of the 1980s.

In “Crossing the Atlantic: The Response to Queer Theory in France,” Perreau shows how protests against the so-called “American Gender Theory” following the 2013 law on same-sex marriage in France question the notion of community on both sides of the Atlantic.

Here, Perreau tells us more about his current work and findings:

What is the focus of your current research?
My current research discusses various facets of the French response to queer theory, from the mobilization of activists and the seminars of scholars to the emergence of queer media and translations. I investigate the return of French Theory to France, thereby exploring the way France conceptualizes America. By examining mutual influences across the Atlantic, I seek to reflect on changes in the idea of national identity in France and the United States, offering insight on recent attempts to theorize the notion of “community” in the wake of Maurice Blanchot’s work.

What drew you to this topic?
This research is the direct continuation of my previous book The Politics of Adoption: Gender and the Making of French Citizenship. According to the discourse that was very prominent among social workers, politicians, and high civil servants I interviewed, adoption that gave the gay community its own children would mean that those children would no longer be the children of the nation. During the debates on gay marriage in 2012 and 2013, I noticed the same fear of passing on homosexuality from parents to children. Opponents to the law argued that “La théorie du genre” (which mostly referred to queer theory) has undone gender roles to the point that it created the conditions of possibility for passing on homosexuality and spreading transsexuality.

According to this discourse, which hinges on anti-Americanism, only an individualist society could have produced such a devilish corpus that threatens the state-controlled sense of belonging prevalent in France. I decided to take a serious look at this discourse and study the actual response to queer theory in France. By doing so, I hope to deconstruct the fear of passing on homosexuality, which entails several discursive layers such as contamination, conversion, invasion, impregnation, etc.

Why is it valuable to study this topic?
My research matters because it shows that the national sense of belonging in France is still strongly governed by norms that treat homosexuality as a danger, despite important legal changes as well as dramatic changes in terms of daily attitudes towards homosexuality in the past decades.

I think it is interesting to underline how paradoxical the French fear of queer theory is, since most references used by queer theory are French. My book is thus an attempt to think about transcultural exchanges in terms of presence rather than in terms of circulation, or trajectory. By doing so, I question the idea of “globalization,” which is now commonplace in queer theory itself.

How do you conduct your research?
I contributed personally to the development of gender, LGBT, and queer studies in France when I was teaching and doing research there from 1999 to 2010. I launched new courses, published books and edited volumes, and, of course, attended many seminars and conferences. I have thus collected many first-hand documents over the years. My current project also includes semi-structured interviews.

What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on?
Several authors have shown the conservative drift of France since the mid-1980’s, with the rise of the National Front, the sanctification of "French symbols" by the Socialists, the ban of the veil, etc.  But I also argue that a new phenomenon has arisen: conservative groups (from the right to the left) now argue that they are the majority victims of a political system supposedly controlled by minorities. They reverse the argument of moral relativism. My work takes the other direction and tries to explore how a strong minoritarian democracy would be possible.