Famous people and their failures: the Hocquenghem case in Paris.
By Giulia Barjona / 02.11.2022
In march 2020 the mayor of Paris had to remove a commemorative plaque just inaugurated in memory of the activist Guy Hocquenghem. In the 70´s and 80´s he fought for the recognition of the rights of homosexuals, but not only. The decision to remove the plaque was made because of the aggressive reaction of the citizens.
Why should a statue be destroyed? First of all, you must keep in mind that a statue is a symbol that may run the risk of being associated with a past considered “shameful” by the public opinion. The wave of revengeful violence against the celebration of such a past took place in America after the death of an African-American man murdered by the police. It was an act of rebellion that represents the fight against the hate towards this minority. We are talking about the case of George Floyd, the Texan killed by a policeman, a symbol of racism which is still present in the USA.
Moreover, the destruction of statues has always been a strong message of change, a well marked break from a form of government considered “old” or oppressive.
Can we justify the destruction of statues? Obviously not. Art contains traces of history, something that can talk to us. By deleting a part of our past we become guilty of preventing future generations from having a global vision of our history. Why not move plaques and other forms of art in a museum of “the past that is past”? We could create a collection of “historical failures” that would enable us not to make the same mistakes of our past and at the same time to admire the beauty created by artists who deserve to be remembered and who worked hard to earn a living. Obviously this action is not only a bow to the celebration of politics in the form of art. It is important to take into consideration also the portraits of famous people connected with other fields of society, such as science and culture.
Every person lives in a different period. Political and ethical ideas are always changing. For us, who live in the 2000s, it is very difficult to understand the mindset and the spirit of a people who lived in the same region in 1600. It is even more difficult to imagine a people distant in time and space! Moreover, to judge the thoughts, choices and ideas of a famous person by using our current mindset as a reference point can lead to big errors of evaluation. Contemporary revolutionaries, that fight for an ethical and more egalitarian society, must understand that the majority of men and women who lived in the past did not have another choice or possibility of comparison with what is better, right, ethical or normal for us.
It is also important to remember that statues were built to thank a woman or a man for the work they did and through which the entire human society could develop. People should learn to correctly analyse the historical time and the circumstances in which any author, scientists, etc. lived. We cannot condemn Baudelaire because he dedicated a book to wine, where he described the joy of being drunk. But a person born during the time of American prohibitionism would be sure to condemn it… unjustly, since we are talking about an author who lived in a different time and nation! Therefore, it is fundamental to set limits, especially if we have the possibility to understand the life conditions of a person born in a distant time from ours.
The “Guy Hocquenghem problem” is difficult to handle because of some of his declarations. Guy Hocquenghem was a controversial figure. Does he really deserve a plaque? Is his name worthy of being hung on the wall? First of all, Hocquenghem was accused of being in favour of pedophilia after some charges of paedocriminality brought against his friend, the author Gabriel Matzneff. In addition to his friendship with Matzneff, another factor weighing against Hocquenghem is the presence of his signature in petitions criticising the methods of repression against sexual relationships between adults and minors. Some academics do not agree on this interpretation about the personality of Hocquenghem, but the plaque already raised too many criticisms and could not be left where it was. In the end, Hocquenghem was also accused of having fought against the reality and the spread of knowledge about AIDS. Did he want to protect homosexuals from the stereotypes of disease carriers or did he really believe that AIDS did not exist? Whatever the answer is, Hocquenghem fell prey to a cruelly ironic twist of history: he died of this very disease.
In conclusion, we can say that not everyone deserves an acknowledgment – but sometimes it is necessary to see the benefits brought by a particular person, not only the individuals in their private life, but rather the symbol they represent.