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Visiting France

Lifting the veil on Paris's lesbian café society

media At the Moulin Rouge: Two women waltzing Jan Sedlák, Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec, Odeon, Praha 1985

Decades before the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) movement, lesbian women in Paris carved out a space for themselves in the shadow of the Butte Montmartre. Several women owned cafés that catered for an almost exclusively female and lesbian clientele.

With its red curtains and discreet façade, Le Hanneton must have looked at first like any other Brasserie de femmes, a bar for men seeking female company. But Le Hanneton was a place where there was female company but where men were less than welcome.

“You'd enter a small room with low ceilings and red curtains which reminded one of brasserie de femmes. But there, they are not seeking men but seeking each other,” writes the 19th century Guide des Plaisirs à Paris (Pleasure guide to Paris).

“In the evening, members of the stronger sex were rare. Masculine women in charge of the place dine tête-à-tête at small tables. They then offer each other cigarettes, sweets and kisses.”

Such cafés, including Le Hanneton, La Souris and, to a lesser extent Le Rat-Mort, were an important development in lesbian history according to university lecturers working on the late 19th century.

Unlike some private salons for lesbians in the 18th century, these bars were public places, open businesses that were discreet, not secret.

“It’s an important cultural precedent,” says Leslie Choquette, lecturer at the Assumption College in the United States. “I think it is clear that they did create a space for themselves, a subculture.”

Both Le Hanneton and La Souris were managed by women and attracted women authors and artists. Mme Armande managed La Brasserie du Hanneton, rue Pigalle. Mme Palmyre, who appeared in several drawings by Toulouse-Lautrec, headed La Souris, in Pigalle.

Author and researcher Nicole G. Albert describes Mme Armande and Mme Palmyre as prominent lesbians in charge of maintaining order in a café where the clients were said to be quite rowdy. However, many descriptions of these brasseries were written by men for male readers, with a touch of voyeurism and prejudice. Albert says 19th century sources must be handled with caution.

Le Hanneton and La Souris were nonetheless places where women mingled from both ends of French society.

“The upper bourgeoisie and the aristocracy would not necessarily be seen there, but you would find women who had at one point belonged to that type of milieu,” says Albert.
“Social boundaries were blurred. Lesbians from very working-class backgrounds and women of wealthier backgrounds who had chosen a more marginal existence, would mingle.”

However, it was not possible, according to Albert, for lesbians to lead a double-life, to be integrated into bourgeois society and to frequent such places. Women at the time were defined according to their role vis-à-vis men as wives, mothers, prostitutes, and so on. 

Homosexuality was seen as perversion, and in the case of women, an offshoot of prostitution. But while male homosexuality was severely punished, and repressed by the police and courts, lesbians were more likely to be repressed in medical institutions.

“If you were bourgeois woman and you were found in a lesbian relationship, you could land up locked up in a sanatorium if your husband had anything to with it,” says Choquette.

In the light of the prejudices of the time, it appears unlikely that women would be able to open bars catering for lesbians.

None of the reports filed by the French vice squad of the late 19th century mention Le Hanneton or La Souris.

According to Choquette, the police at the time were more interested in seeking out prostitutes working without a licence. There were no laws condemning female homosexuality, unlike male homosexuality.

Were Le Hanneton and La Souris so avant-garde that the authorities did not even register their existence?

According to Albert, the authorities were in denial when it came to female homosexuality. It was a criminal offence to write about lesbian sex, but French authorities preferred to turn a blind eye to lesbian meeting places.

“The courts condemned authors who wrote about lesbians and their physical relations because they feared the visibility it gave lesbians more than the so-called vice itself,” says Albert.

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