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Claude François Michéa, Born Two Hundred Years Ago

by Gert Hekma in History & Politics , 24 juni 2015


Claude François Michéa was the first doctor in modern age to propose a biological theory on homosexual preference as a congenital identity and come with an unusual term for this: “philopédie.” The word was a reversal of the term pederasty, or as we say nowadays: paedophilia (the love of boys).

Fifteen years later, the “first homosexual in the world” Karl-Heinrich Ulrichs published the first of his twelve brochures (1864-1879) in which he developed a similar theory, also came up with new words – uranian and uranianism in contrast to dionian for heterosexuals – and defended his uranians. It was an age of new words, such as homosexual (Kertbeny 1869), sexual inversion (“konträre Sexualempfindung,” Westphal 1869) and “andrérastie” (Pouillet 1882). Michéa was the first of this illustrious group and was a precursor to Ulrichs. He was born two hundred years ago this year, on the 14th of March (1815-1882).


From Behavior to Identity

It was an age in which the emphasis changed from what one did to what one was, from behavior to identity. Words as sodomy and “bougrerie” stood for anal sex, and pederasty for the love of boys, and sometimes for the anal sex that was considered typical behavior between men and boys. But the words and terms underwent a change, and a pederast was increasingly seen as a man being involved with another man. In 1856, the German judicial medical officer Johann Ludwig Casper pointed out that there were men who were not involved with boys, therefore they were not pederasts in the literal sense, and they did not engage in anal sex and so were not sodomites, but they were attracted to other men. Both words did not fit the bill.

This was a world-shattering discovery with no term for it: men who did not engage in the natural way of coitus and procreation, but deviated from this and preferred their own sex without the classical references to Greek love and biblical sin. Words were given to this, accompanied by a theory, that by nature, these philopèdes had a uterus rudiment and were similar to hermaphrodites. This is what Michéa argued. Casper also noticed the feminine characteristics of pederasts – a word he did not agree with, but continued to use. According to Ulrichs, uranians were female souls in a male body – it was psychological hermaphroditism, just like there was physical hermaphroditism, that originated in the womb. By nature, these men were not only sexually inverted - homosexuals - but also gender inverted - queens.

For more than a hundred years, they remained the “tantes,” “Tunten,” and “sissies” of the wrong side of the gender and sexuality coin. According to Ulrichs, the largest part of these uranians were not sodomites, as they did not engage in anal sex. The last argument was that the object of their desire was a real man, a heterosexual, and these relations were often consumed in the world of gay prostitution (think of Wilde, Proust, De Haan, etc). Queens did not do queens, just like dyke-on-dyke action was unthinkable. Perhaps it was nice for friendship or love, even for marriage, but then without sex.

It was very different from the present. Nowadays, young gay men call themselves “straight acting gays”: just like other, normal men they are ordinary and certainly not queens. They are having sex with each other and the sex has to be interchangeable. Straight men are not involved, nor are male prostitutes. The gay man is a different and more ordinary human being and is increasingly accepted. He even marries his equals.


Sexual Desires

“Philopédie” was a rare word that earlier on had been used in French for pederasty and the art of giving birth to beautiful boys, or the art of making children without passion. With Michéa, philopedia become a word for what later would be termed homosexual. He used a case of necrophilia (a word that also did not yet exist) to write about “Des déviations maladives de l’appétit vénérien” in the “L’Union médicale” of July 17, 1849: the start date of the medical sexual variation theory. This case of sex with corpses, which was accompanied by physical violence, caused a stir in Paris, and various psychiatrists wrote about it on the occasion of the trial. The general opinion was that sergeant Bertrand, the perpetrator, was suffering from a “monomanie déstructive,” accompanied by a secondary “monomanie érotique.”

Michéa thought it was the other way round and put the erotic aspect in first place – the perpetrator was primarily interested in gratification with deceased women. But the most important part of his article was about philopedia, on Voltaire and the Greeks, and the importance of the scientific study of sexual diversity. His article contained a long list of famous men who made love the Greek way. It was read and seen as defending what was considered pederasty in France, and was heavily criticized. Eleven days later, he defended himself very elegantly in the very same “L’Union médicale” against attacks on his article.
 
Jean-Claude Féray has published a biography of this Parisian doctor with his publishing firm Quintes-feuilles, “L’impossible conciliation ou la vie héroique du Dr. Claude-François Michéa” (283 pages, 23 illustrations, € 27.00). Parts are about his life and studies, psychiatric practice and pharmaceutical insights, and his work in private mental institutions that were found all over France and only later would become public institutions. The book gives us some insight into gay history in France. We meet on police lists the uncle of emperor Napoleon II as a pederast, Prince Jérôme, who was the chairman of the French senate.

Michéa was not only active as a doctor, but also as a writer for and editor of French medical journals. In 1852 he was one of the founders of “Société médico-psychologique,” contributed to the established “Annales médico-psychologiques,” and was editor and owner of “Observation” (1849-1851), a magazine on practical medical science. Politically, he was conservative, and scientifically, he belonged to the philosophical movement of eclecticism (hence the words “impossible” and “conciliation” in the title, because with his ideas about philopédie others couln’t reach a compromise).


Legal Problems

The author has found a lot more information about him, besides this somewhat known article. His name appears in Parisian police registers of pederasts in 1847, as does the name of his colleague and mentor Pierre Edouard Vallerand de la Fosse (his practice partner since 1841). It seems probable that they visited the house of a recruiter of young men (just like the famous piano builder Pierre Érard). In the 1850s, Michéa’s name appeared three times (!) on a list of pederasts a concerned citizen gave to the police. The police therefore had a record on him as a pederast, but during his time in Paris he was never arrested.

He had difficulties once when a soldier apprehended him for indecent proposals at Château de Vincennes. It remains unclear what happened then: was it the soldier’s excuse for returning late to the barracks without permission, or had Michéa really made an indecent proposal? It all blows over: the soldier left Paris, and the incident was swept under the carpet. It seems an instance of class justice, as the police did not even consult its own archives, in which our doctor was mentioned.

When it comes to homosexual activities, Féray assumes that Vallerand and Michéa threw parties for other philopédes (Vallerand’s parties had a certain reputation). They also were active on the gay scene at the time and paid young men for sex. They were careful, but things would not always work out for Michéa.

An interesting new fact discovered by Féray is a conviction for indecent exposure at the end of Michéa’s life in January 1878. This took place in Dijon, where he had moved to in 1876, shortly after the conviction of a friend and room-mate in Paris for the very same fact. Was it an escape? This archivist was fined and sentenced to six months in prison for having sex in public with a married man, also losing his honorary title “Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur.” The facts our psychiatrist was guilty of were more serious: he paid women to have sex with men in his presence, usually in the local park and in public, while he touched the genitals of the men.

It concerned three men of twenty-eight, thirty, forty-three years old, and three women, aged twenty-one, forty-three, and forty-nine. Both the men and the women would receive one franc for the sex, keeping in mind that the men would benefit from this arrangement in two ways - money for gay sex and free heterosexual intercourse. This comes to light when he’s caught with the first man and starts confessing to much more, trying to clear himself. Our doctor was sent to prison for twelve months, the men from eight to fifteen days, two women for three months, and the female matchmaker who had played a crucial part in the arrangement two years: a clear cut case of class, gender and sexual justice. Michéa served eight months and lost his Légion d’honneur, just like his friend.

Both brave leading lights of gay emancipation got into trouble, although for altogether different reasons. Michéa was sentenced to prison for his sexual acts, and the other forerunner of gay politics, Ulrichs, met the same fate because of his political convictions on the unification of Germany.

Michéa’s indecency case is interesting, as it shows that he was interested in straight men who would demonstrate their sexual preference live, that he was not interested in sodomy, and that his lovers were not boys: no sodomy, no pederasty, but a homosexual with a preference for straight men. Completely his own, and Ulrichs’s version of the gay man of that time, but not yet (or not at all?) the modern gay man.


  Jean-Claude Féray, L’impossible conciliation ou la vie héroique du Dr. Claude-François Michéa, Parijs: Quintes-feuilles, 2015, 283 blz., 23 ill., € 27,00
 



 







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