Custodians of memory

Preserving the untold history of the French LGBT community

It was a cool evening, along the banks of the Seine. In the Paris of the late 1980s, some neighborhoods and sidewalks had become preferred meeting places for the men and women strolling around, casting expectant looks at other passers-by.

I had come to flirt”, Hoàng Phan Bigotte remembers. A lean young man with thick, pitch black hair and Vietnamese features, he was quite a successful seducer at the time, and liked to wander around Paris in the hopes of meeting new friends, lovers or potential partners.

Walking past a rubbish dump, something unusual attracted his attention.

On top of the rubbish, there were photos of a man, completely naked, lying on top of the rubbish. Next to them were his clothes, his belongings, and his diary”, he recounts in his strong Vietnamese accent. Curious, he flipped through the pages of the journal.

”Monday : doctor’s appointment”.

“Tuesday : pharmacy”.

And ten days later : “Hospital”.

The stranger’s diary ended there.

Hoàng remembers very clearly his grim encounters with the spectre of the HIV-AIDS epidemic at the time it hit Paris in full force, disproportionately affecting the LGBT community. He kept the diary and the photos, taking them back home with him and storing them in a cupboard. “This man was young, handsome, and lying there amid the trash”, he recalls of that first discovery. After that, many others followed.

***

Thirty years later, Hoàng sits in the cluttered living room of a small apartment in the twentieth arrondissement of the French capital. His hair is now mostly grey, and his skin lined with wrinkles, but his eyes light up with a boyish twinkle when he speaks about his past. Around him, two younger men, Thomas Leduc and Yves Grenu, are opening and unpacking boxes, punctuating their efforts with exclamations of delight when they uncover objects that resurrect memories.

Magazines filled with photographs of shirtless, muscular men. An old photo album, pictures of Parisian Gay Pride parades and, here and there, a familiar face. Dozens of carefully packaged posters are brandished, read out loud amid the laughter, then cautiously rolled up again. A giant rainbow-colored banner with the words “ALL ARE WELCOME”, which used to hang on the facade of a church in Canada, is unrolled by impatient hands.

With emotion, the men uncover decades of history that has hitherto lain hidden in these unmarked boxes. The archives of Act Up, one of the biggest activist groups in the fight against AIDS in France, lie in their hands, deposited by Yves Grenu, the former archivist of the association.

Hoàng Phan Bigotte and Thomas Leduc, founders and heads of the Gay and Lesbian Academy of Paris, are custodians of memory. In their house in the Parisian suburb of Vitry-sur-Seine, they store over 30,000 documents, objects, photos and memorabilia representing the history of the French LGBT community — the biggest personal collection in the country, to which they have devoted their lives.

The documents they are busy unpacking today are literally survivors, salvaged by Yves Grenu when Act Up barely escaped bankruptcy and had to let go of its historic premises, the old office of iconic LGBT magazine Gai Pied. Some of the documents were accepted into the National Archives, certain relics were taken in by the Museum of European and Mediterranean Civilisations (Mucem), in Marseilles. The duplicates and objects that weren’t considered academic enough for institutional classification are now spilling out of these boxes, ready to be labelled and stowed in one of the closets of Hoàng’s house, that has now become virtually impassable as the cabinets and corridors fill up with archives. One day, he hopes, these documents could be displayed in a museum or an official archives centre — but these hopes are dim.

As paper turns moldy, protagonists pass away and personal memories become blurry, Paris still doesn’t have a centre dedicated to LGBT history. For activists, this absence is inexcusable, especially in view of what has been done in this domain in other world-class cities of Europe and America. In Berlin, the Schwules Gay Museum has been open to visitors since 1985. In Amsterdam, the International Homo/Lesbian Information center and Archive (IHLIA) has been carefully collecting and exhibiting relics of LGBT history since 1999. San Francisco, Montréal, New York City and Melbourne all have prolific archive centers. The United Kingdom has also boarded the bandwagon, announcing in March it would open its first museum for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer history by 2021. In France, however, despite multiple promises and aborted projects since the early 2000s, LGBT history is still largely absent from the memorial landscape.

***

In 2017, the release of 120 Battements par Minute — BPM (Beats Per Minute) in English — felt like a slap in the face of French authorities and the LGBT community. The movie, produced by director and ex-Act Up member Robin Campillo, retraced the early years of Act Up in the fight against the HIV-Aids crisis as it hit Paris in full force in the 1990s.

Suddenly, France was uncovering a chapter of history that had been forgotten along with the banners and posters stowed in attics and locked drawers. “How could I ignore all of this ?”, wondered journalist Vincent Daniel on Medium, explaining how he realized the debt the French gay community owed these early activists who paved the way for the de-stigmatization of homosexuality. “After the initial shock, I felt an immense thirst for knowledge”, he wrote, “to better understand what fags went through only a few years ago, and how we got to where we are today”.

But many of those who emulated this eagerness to rediscover history were faced with the obvious : the archives were few, scattered, fragmented.

Renaud Chantraine, an anthropology Phd who wrote a thesis on the “patrimonialization of history of sexual minorities”, sees the release of this movie as a turning point : “we realized the fragility of this legacy — and suddenly we started wondering what was left of that era”. Thankfully, he explains, remnants of LGBT history had been preserved by a few nostalgics and collectors. “All we had were these flyers, these movies, these recordings, these posters, these banners”, he explains.

The feeling of urgency in the face of the rapidly-deteriorating archives resurrected a project that had long been buried in the paperwork of the Parisian Mayor’s office : the creation of an official LGBT archives centre. In 2001, after the election of Paris’ first openly gay mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, a project for a Centre for Homosexual Archives and Documentation of Paris had been put in motion.

Despite a grant of 100,000 euros, the deadlines for expected milestones passed : the centre was to open its doors first in 2003, then in 2008 … In 2016, called out on the emergency to preserve some of the archives at risk of disappearing with their ageing owners, the town hall rented out a storage container to keep a few documents — without much success, due to the lack of communication and the absence of any strategy of preservation for these documents.

Associations had to take over the work of lobbying for the creation of the centre. In September 2017, a group of people and associations gathered to found the LGBTQI Archives Collective (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer and Intersex), which has now become the city’s main discussion partner on the subject, meeting up every two weeks and designing the administrative and conceptual outlines of the centre they wanted — still without designated premises.

In March of 2018, the new mayor Anne Hidalgo proposed the installation of an archival centre in the ex-town hall of the fifth arrondissement of the French capital. But militants remain skeptical after years of broken promises.

The main problem — you would have to be blind not to see it — is that the city is blocking the project”, estimates Renaud Chantraine, frustrated. “The municipality is dragging its feet in dealing with a promise it made 20 years ago and is still not able to meet, despite the arrival of the Collective that does all this work for free”, he explains. He himself joined the Collective in its early days, and insists on the members’ stance to have the LGBT community strongly involved in the project of the centre : “Nothing about us without us” has become one of their mottos.

Beyond a lack of political will, Renaud Chantraine and other activists of LGBT memory believe that France’s culture of “republican universalism” may play a role in the never-ending delay of the project. According to researcher Norah Benarrosh-Orsoni, also a member of the LGBTQI Archives Collective, the term “community” is often considered in France as a rebuttal of all universal values, and the fear of communitarianism and identity politics is present in all spheres of government.

As a consequence, Renaud Chantraine explains, community projects are discouraged, even though they could serve as a tool for empowerment. The LGBTQI Archives Collective wants to redefine the concept of archives, by valorizing a flexible definition which can include objects, memorabilia, oral testimonies and other non-traditional forms : “the centre and its archives have to be accessible to everyone, not only historians and researchers”, Chantraine insists.

With the LGBT archives centre still far from being built, activists explain, the history preserved in the pages of magazines, in the folds of banners and in the ageing tint of photos risks being lost forever.

***

At 62 years old, Hoàng has been through countless rounds of negotiations with the municipality, each one leaving him more discouraged about finding a permanent home to store his archives. He was one of the first to realize the urgency of preserving traces of LGBT life, at a moment when, paradoxically, these lives were more fragile than ever.

In the 1980s, there started to be talk of a “gay cancer”, a sickness affecting disproportionately the gay community in the United States and soon enough in Europe. The uncertainty around the origin of this mysterious deadly epidemic sparked fear throughout the world. One of the first French TV reports concerning the epidemic, recovered by newspaper France Info, dates from March 1982 : “For now, all hypotheses are possible : a virus […], drug use, especially ‘poppers’ that are much appreciated by gays, a very intense sex life … or God knows what”, the reporter explained to the news host.

Hoàng had arrived in France a few years earlier, as a young Vietnamese refugee. He had fled Saigon on April 30th, 1975 with little more than the clothes on his back, leaving behind his family home, his friends and all traces of his youth. In Paris, he lived his homosexuality openly, like he did in his previous life in Vietnam, strolling through the garden of the Tuileries, an iconic meeting and cruising place for gay men, fascinated by the abundance of gay porn.

***

Less than a decade after witnessing the end of the life he had known in Vietnam, Hoàng had to watch as his adoptive country descended into the grip of another hecatomb.

In 1996, Aids had already claimed over 30,000 lives in France. Those who lived through these “dark years” remember the chilling and suffocating silence surrounding the epidemic : “We went to so many funerals, we spent so much time in cemeteries, but the words ‘HIV-AIDS’ were never uttered”, Hoàng remembers. The taboo and shame surrounding a positive HIV status — associated with homosexuality, substance abuse, promiscuity — pushed afflicted families and relatives to organize rushed funerals before questions could be raised, lie about the causes of their loved ones’ deaths or refute their sexual orientation.

In the early years of the epidemic, as he saw friends, neighbours and lovers wither and disappear, Hàng became obsessed with collecting the remnants of the lives lost to the virus. “My friends called me ‘the beggar faggot’”, he laughs, his voice suddenly more animated, laughing at the memories of his younger self rummaging through garbage and dumpsters, accumulating old porn magazines, flyers, guidebooks or personal photos thrown out in the streets. His own way of holding onto memory, of preserving traces of history after losing all the tokens of his youth in Vietnam. His own way, also, of asserting, without shame or taboo, the existence of the LGBT community.

While hushed funerals were multiplying and HIV-positive people lived with the paralyzing fear of contracting AIDS, associations arose to defend the voices of the sick and raise awareness about the pandemic taking place before their eyes.

Act Up-Paris, led among others by the flamboyant Cleews Vellay, was at the forefront of the fight, its activists engaging in defiant protests and provocative actions.They sprayed laboratories with fake blood, staged die-ins to alert passers-by about the hecatomb, clothed the obelisk of the touristy Place de la Concorde in a giant condom. They organized weekly meetings and support groups for HIV-positive people, addicts, hemophiliacs, for those who only had a few days left to live and for those who had just discovered their status.

In 1987, Hoàng was one of them. Contaminated by one of his lovers and convinced of his fast-approaching death, and found it cathartic to shout at the top of his lungs, amid other protesters, “AIDS, we have it and we fight it !”. An ex-member of Arcadie, he threw his energy into activism, joining Act Up and Aides, and selling the bookstore he owned in the 18th district of Paris.

Despite his health deteriorating quickly, he accompanied victims in their last days of life. And in his free time, he continued, with a certain frenzy, collecting, rummaging, accumulating traces, residues of these lives that he found on the pavement, in the trash, in nightclubs or in the aftermath of demonstrations.

Not all activists were this engaged in preserving the memories of those who had passed away. Hoàng saw families donating their loved ones’ books to the library of Aides, only to have some activists pick them up and sell them for a cheap meal. He tried to raise the issue with different associations, but his concerns about preserving history were not welcomed. “I even talked about it with Cleews Vellay, at the end of a meeting”, he remembers. “He told me ‘Here, we care about the living, we don’t worship the dead’”.

And so, as his health declined, as the count of white blood cells in his body plummeted, the young man kept accumulating relics of the past, keeping them in his cupboards.

The first range of antiretroviral treatments to arrive on the market had heavy side effects. Users were covered in blisters, exhausted by endless diarrhea and nausea. Although Hoàng kept living, he was just a shadow of his former self — until one day, a doctor decided to administer him an extra-high dose of medicine.

It was a miracle!”, Hoàng remembers of that day, years ago, when he received a second chance at life. After that, like so many other people in the LGBT community, he had to rebuild his life, after believing for so long he was going to die, after having lost so many friends and companions.

As Didier Lestrade, founder and ex-president of Act Up-Paris explains, a “historical haemorrhage” took place in the LGBT community in the years following the Aids crisis. “The survivor’s syndrome provoked a deliberate amnesia” amid the survivors of the AIDS crisis, he writes : “wanting to forget, to continue with life, travel, get married, have kids”.

Hoàng, however, did not seek to forget the horror, the grief and the lives lost. In 2001, he founded his association, the Gay and Lesbian Academy, with the official objective of gathering, preserving and publicizing LGBT archives. Escaping death this closely, once more, had left a mark on him : an internal drive to preserve the traces of the past that can be saved.

“Bravo Cleews, you were amazing and I love you very much. I hope you’re not too tired. Get some rest. I’m thinking of you and sending lots of love. Send my regards to Philippe.”

A note given to Act Up president Cleews Vellay the day after the first Sidaction, a television fundraising campaign against HIV-AIDS. Cleews Vellay publicly acknowledged his illness in front of millions of viewers. He died seven months later, at the age of 30.

***

As the sun slowly sets on the Parisian apartment filled with boxes, forcing its occupants to turn on the lights in order to continue their sorting mission, Hoàng nostalgically stares at the old photo of himself he just retrieved from a brown envelope, showing his youthful self, with a full head of pitch-black hair, chanting in the front line of a protest.

I spend my life surrounded by other people’s memories, but I have almost nothing of myself”, he jokes, his voice softer.

More than thirty years after assuming the role of voluntary curator of the LGBT archives, the precious documents fill his life to the point of overflowing. “We’re pushing the walls, moving out our personal belongings to make space for more archives”, jokes Thomas Leduc, who hasn’t left Hoàng’s side since responding to a call for contributions to the Gay and Lesbian Academy published in Nova Magazine in 2001. Thomas, trained as an archivist and twenty years younger than Hoàng, is now the vice-president of the association, and the two men share a passion for their common collection.

Hoàng and Thomas have become the receptacles of people’s lives, secrets, and intimacy. Since finding the photo of the naked stranger on top of a rubbish pile decades ago, they have seen the French LGBT community evolve, the HIV epidemic recede, gay marriage legalized … But some of the reasons that pushed Hoàng to start his collection have not faded away.

In a somber reflection of the isolation that plagued HIV-positive people in the 1990s, “we see an enormous amount of solitude”, explain Hoàng and Thomas, completing each other’s sentences. Gone are the years when Hoàng used to rummage through the trash to recover documents: the Gay and Lesbian Academy doesn’t actively look for archives anymore, but they still accept requests from individuals or families to store documents and objects after a death or a move. Often, they are asked to keep the donations anonymous, so as not to expose the person’s belonging to the LGBT community.

Hoàng cannot stand this never-ending guilt and shame : “Even in death, we continue to hide!” he exclaims, his voice high-pitched and full of frustration as he describes elderly people desperate to hide their homosexuality even in the afterlife.

Their archives are “reflections of an era”, and their self-proclaimed mission is now to combat the erasure of homosexuality and the infectious tendency to rewrite history. Hoàng doesn’t shy away from accusing and denouncing attempts to manipulate the past. In his eyes, the gay community is just as guilty of this as the array of politicians that have tried to use LGBT history for a political agenda.

It reminds me of the years of the AIDS crisis : there is a window, and growing opportunities”, Hoàng explains. The way he describes it, “fewer and fewer people die from AIDS, and more and more live from it”. Personal interests have crawled into the niche that was created in 2001 with the municipal project of an LGBT archive centre. “For years, we were called stupid for accumulating all these things, but now other role players are devaluing volunteer work”, he explains. “Nonetheless, we have the merit of having done something, and we saved countless documents over 17 years”.

The relics gathered by Hoàng and Thomas are today the main basis of archives of the LGBTQI Archives Collective — they would compose the majority of the documents stored at the municipal archive centre. “We have an immense debt towards them”, says Renaud Chantraine with a voice filled with admiration: “if Hoàng hadn’t collected these documents with infinite patience, even going through the trash to salvage them, tens of thousands of archives would probably have disappeared”.

More accusatory, the researcher adds : “Very few people realized how much we owe him — politicians show him a lot of disdain, and he has been treated scandalously by the municipality”. Indeed, over the years, Hoàng and his companion have been mocked, criticized, humiliated and belittled with very little concrete acknowledgement of their work.

Why don’t you just open a Chinese restaurant instead of meddling with these archives?”, he was once asked during a meeting at the town hall. “The role of an LGBT archives centre isn’t collecting nightclub flyers”, mocked Charles Myara, treasurer of the association first charged with building a centre — one of the projects that ended up in a dead-end — in an article in the Parisien in 2006.

For Hoàng, Thomas and the members of the LGBTQI Archives Collective, flyers, magazines, advertisements and other “ephemeral” documents are reflections of an era that deserve safekeeping. “They are powerful sources of inspiration, of introspection”, explains Renaud Chantraine. The decision whether or not to keep porn magazines has for instance been at the centre of many discussions with the municipality — but activists believe they are important in understanding the identities of members of the LGBT community.

We have many mainstream porn magazines from the 1990s that are very stereotypical and problematic”, Chantraine explains, “but as a 31-year old gay man these images had an important role in constructing my sexual identity”. Recovering these former perceptions of homosexuality opens up new spaces for dialogue and self-examination, he believes : “archives are a way of bringing people together, initiating conversations, and potentially creating our own archives for future generations”.

Pierre-Henri Beaubatier was a tailor born in 1922. In the 1940s, he designed and created hundreds of costumes and took a series of self-portraits, which the Gay and Lesbian Academy retrieved. They have over 150 photos of Beaubatier, as well as his autobiography.

Some key pieces of Hoàng and Thomas’ collection have already been refused by the national archives, including a series of self-portraits by the tailor Pierre-Henri Beaubatier and the duplicates of Act Up that are now filling the living room of the apartment in the 20th arrondissement. Hoàng cannot imagine throwing away these tokens of lives, that he considers “witnesses of an era”. “We keep porn, sado-masochist, prostitution documents”, he explains, insisting that archives shouldn’t hide certain parts of the truth.

The Gay and Lesbian Academy’s collection also includes countless homophobic, transphobic and generally LGBT-phobic documents, ranging from old psychology books “treating trans people in horrible ways” to much more recent banners and objects of the Manif Pour Tous, a group of protesters who demonstrated for months against the legalization of same-sex marriage in France in 2013.

As he waits for a centre where he could finally display his work, Hoàng still keeps daily newspaper clippings and headlines, everything that has a link with homosexuality. “This way we can see who was for, who was against, where everyone stood”, he explains. In his hands, he holds a copy of the magazine L’Obs, titled in rainbow letters : “Mariage Pour Tous : Pourquoi ils disent oui” (“Same-sex marriage : why they say yes”). “I am against the rewriting of history”, Hoàng concludes.

***

On October 26, 1994, in the 20th district of Paris, the howling of tens of fog horns disturbed the silence of the morning. Over 500 people were gathered at the Père Lachaise cemetery, carrying a coffin through the streets all the way to the crematorium. In it lay Cleews Vellay, the iconic president of Act Up. Friends, family and activists were giving him the “political funeral” he had wanted ever since he had discovered his HIV status. A few weeks later, some of his ashes would be spread by activists over an assembly of insurance providers and a meeting of the French Medical Drugs Agency, accused of discriminating against HIV-positive people and of restricting access to antiretroviral medication.

Ten years later, on October 18, 2004, Hoàng Phan Bigotte and Thomas Leduc were contacted by Philippe Labbey, a former prominent activist for LGBT rights and ex-partner of Vellay : to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Cleews Vellay’s death, he wanted to gift his late companion’s personal belongings and archives to the project of an LGBT centre.

But when the self-made archivists arrived at Labbey’s apartment, they met a man who was “at the end of his rope”, Hoàng remembers. Labbey seemed exhausted, and threatened to throw away Vellay’s belongings if the Gay and Lesbian Academy didn’t take them in. “He said ‘I have kept them for ten years, I can’t do it anymore, I can’t take it, I’m living surrounded by it all’”, recount Hoàng and Thomas.

Photo of Cleews Vellay published on the front page of the magazine Exit, November 11, 1994 — about a month after his death on October 18. Given by his partner Philippe Labbey to the Gay and Lesbian Academy.

We had his identity card, the medallion he was wearing when he died, his photos, his books, his personal stuff …”. Recovering these archives did not feel like a victory. It brought back dark memories of the years of the epidemic, and recollections of a man Hoàng once knew. The archives were scanned and published on the Academy’s website. Cleews, even more than before, was now “a part of the history of the fight against AIDS and of the battle against homophobia”.

Living surrounded by relics of the past, especially when this history is so charged with emotions, can be a burden. Hoàng’s highest hope is to see the promised LGBT archives centre built before he himself passes away : “Everything we have done in our lives is going to be scattered. The most important is that these documents don’t get lost”, he insists.

And as his memory takes him back to the early days of his work, to his activist years and the loss of so many friends, he remarks : “Cleews was the one who told me, at a meeting of Act Up, that I shouldn’t ‘worship the dead’. Now, I am the custodian of his memory”.