LGBTQ Heroes: Jean Genet
Continuing our series celebrating LGBTQ icons from our history, let’s take a look at the life and legacy of Jean Genet.
19 December 1910
15 April 1986, aged 75.
Suffering from throat cancer, it appears that Genet died as the result of hitting his head while falling to the floor in his hotel room.
Genet was a novelist, playwright, poet, and essayist.
His major works include the novels The Thief’s Journal, and Our Lady of the Flowers, and the plays The Balcony, The Maids, and The Screens.
Un chant d’amour is a film directed by Genet, exploring the fantasies of a prisoner and his prison warden.
Raised in foster families, Genet was placed in juvenile detention at the age of 15. He remained in detention until the age of 18 when he joined the Foreign Legion.
He was discharged from the Foreign Legion for having sex with another soldier, and then spent the next few years travelling across Europe working as prostitute. This period of his life was recounted in his 1949 novel The Thief’s Journal.
Genet returned to Paris in 1937, where he was in and out of prison a number of times in subsequent years for petty crimes and ‘lewd’ offences.
Much of Genet’s work was controversial for its depictions of homosexuality and criminality. But it is the novel Our Lady of the Flowers, first published in 1943, that probably best defines Genet’s contribution to our cultural landscape.
A largely autobiographical account of Genet’s life in Paris. Our Lady of the Flowers is erotic and explicit – the style of writing is free-flowing and poetic.
The novel was mostly written in 1942, while Genet was in prison.
A study in existentialism, Jean-Paul Satre described the novel as ‘the epic of masturbation.’ Genet’s style of writing influenced the Beat literary movement of the 1950s.
Genet’s political activism emerged during the period of civil unrest in France during May 1968.
In 1970, the Black Panthers invited Genet to United States. He spent three months with the Black Panthers – giving lectures, publishing articles in their journals, and attending the trial of Huey Newton. It’s believed that it was partly Genet’s influence that led to Huey Newton’s acknowledgement of gay men as an oppressed group, and to Newton’s 1970 essay expressing support for gay rights and women’s rights.
Genet’s activism continued throughout the remainder of his life. He became involved in a number of different campaigns around the world.
Genet was a radical outsider. Unapologetic about who he was and what he felt, he had experienced rejection and abandonment from a young age. Genet instinctively identified with the others he found on the margins of life – the dispossessed, the outcast, and those discriminated against.
Through his life and his work, Genet showed us how to not only survive but how to draw power from being an outsider, how to draw power from being different.