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Gay Paris: 20th-Century Lesbian Culture in the City of Love

A group of patrons, many dressed as men in tuxedos, at Le Monocle, a famous nightclub for women | © Paul Thompson/FPG/Getty Images
Picture of Jade Cuttle
Updated: 13 March 2019
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During the early decades of the 20th century, Paris opened its arms to LGBT women. These are some of the people and places at the forefront of Parisian lesbian society.

Le Monocle, open from the 1920s to the 1940s, was a French nightclub like no other. Dressed in tuxedos, women from all walks of life sipped champagne and took to the dance floor with their female partners. Many sported a white carnation in their buttonhole; others wore a monocle over one eye. It was this adornment, popular among lesbians in Paris at the time, that gave this noteworthy club its name. Le Monocle was just one of the key places that shaped the lesbian subculture blossoming in Paris throughout the early 20th century.

Paris has always been a city of love and tolerance

Paris has long attracted liberal freethinkers with its avant-garde charm. With progressive artistic and intellectual communities, this ‘city of love’ has always welcomed those who defied sexual conventions of the time.

Most European laws surrounding homosexuality in the early 20th century applied only to men, so while LGBT men were persecuted in many places around the world, gay women remained largely repressed. However, the accepting nature of Parisian society led to the rise of a lesbian subculture in the city. Notable LGBT women hosted artistic salons, exhibitions, talks and other exciting social events. These stimulating rendezvous were animated by a thrilling bohemian buzz and a sense of defiance as these women carved out a space for themselves in the city.

Fat Claude and her girlfriend at Le Monocle, Paris, circa 1932
© RMN-Grand Palais / Michèle Bellot / Estate Brassaï - RMN-Grand Palais

A group of prominent queer women defied conventions

Many famous lesbian women – from poets to playwrights, artists to advocates for gender equality – soon flocked to Paris for the growing community. They brightened the cultural landscape with their range of creative passions.

One common way of bringing people together in Paris at the time was through salons. These were creative safe spaces found in abundance in Paris from the 1920s to the 1940s, and women delighted in the artistic and intellectual stimulation they inspired.

American author and poet Natalie Clifford Barney with her dog, 1910
© Granger/REX/Shutterstock

Natalie Clifford Barney, an American playwright, poet and novelist, rushed to embrace this growing culture. She held a salon at her home at 20 rue Jacob on Paris’s Left Bank for more than 60 years, one of the longest-running salons in history. Working tirelessly to raise the profile of writing by women, especially other lesbians, she formed the Women’s Academy (L’Académie des Femmes) in response to the men-only French Academy, an important council for matters pertaining to the French language.

Gertrude Stein and her long-time partner, Alice B Toklas, also lived together on the Left Bank and hosted a popular salon. An advocate of the avant garde, Stein became a central figure in the Parisian art world and helped launch the careers of painters like Henri Matisse, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso.

Gertrude Stein (right) and Alice B Toklas, circa the 1940s
© Fotosearch/Getty Images

British poet and author Radclyffe Hall was another prominent lesbian who frequented these salons. Her novel The Well of Loneliness is widely celebrated as a groundbreaking work in LGBT literature and became the best-known lesbian novel written in English of its time.

Other figures often found at these salons included Barney’s lover Romaine Brooks, a painter who created portraits of the women in their circle, poet Renée Vivien, and Colette, an author who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

Lesbian cafés and clubs became gathering spots for society

During the early and mid 20th century, a whole network of lesbian venues flourished. As well as the intimate gatherings of artistic salons, eclectic bars, cafés and bathhouses also sprang up, particularly in the Montmartre and Les Halles districts. Le Hanneton was a local favourite. The 19th-century Guide des Plaisirs à Paris, translated as Pleasure Guide to Paris, describes the club as an intimate venue that transgressed the norms of society:

“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 … 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.”

After sundown, by far the most famous lesbian meeting place in Paris was Le Monocle. This historic venue takes its name from the tradition of gay Parisian women wearing a monocle and other masculine dress to signal their sexuality. With a glass of wine in one hand and a female lover in the other, these tuxedo-clad women lived their lives in joyous defiance of the expectations of society. Their rejection of gender labelling and stereotyping allowed them to embrace a free and easy attitude towards life.

Lulu de Montparnasse dressed in a tuxedo with a woman at Le Monocle, Paris, circa 1933
© RMN-Grand Palais / Michèle Bellot / Estate Brassaï - RMN-Grand Palais

The gardens by the Louvre were also a popular meeting place for lesbians. On hot summer afternoons women would stroll arm in arm along the paths, before stopping for refreshments and socialising in lesbian cafés such as La Souris and La Petite Chaumière.

There were over 200 Parisian brothels by the 1930s, and although most were aimed at heterosexual men there were also brothels that catered exclusively to lesbians. Les Rieuses (which translates as the Merry Women) was an exclusive salon was hosted once a week by three Parisian actresses in a private, candlelit mansion. Tucked away on the glamorous Champs-Élysées, away from the prying eyes of the public, this brothel took its name from the rare sense of liberation and joy that its female clients savored within its walls.

Creating a subculture and a community

It wasn’t just brothels and clubs that helped carve out a space for lesbian society in Paris. There were other shifts in culture instigated by gay women that helped legitimise their place in the world. The artistic salons, especially those led by Barney, established alternative voices that helped women cultivate the confidence of self-expression. It encouraged lesbians to give voice to their experience through literature, which in turn has helped other queer women feel less invisible.

Radclyffe Hall, circa 1930
© Archive PL / Alamy Stock Photo

Hall, for example, said she wrote The Well of Loneliness to “put my pen at the service of some of the most misunderstood people in the world”. The artistic salons she attended in Paris would have offered a vital network of support.

Much of the Western world during the early to mid 20th century was generally either hostile or indifferent to lesbian women. This led lesbians from all echelons of society and all walks of life to flock to Paris for the way the city embraced their queerness and individuality. This reputation continues to draw open-minded free spirits to the French capital to this day.

Montmartre Gay Bar, Paris, 1927
© Archive Farms Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
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