Napoleon Was a 'Gay-Friendly' Emperor, Historian Claims

Thursday May 6, 2021
Originally published on May 6, 2021

Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor, statesman, and military leader of France, is seen in this undated photo.
Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor, statesman, and military leader of France, is seen in this undated photo.  (Source:Associated Press)

To commemorate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's death, French president Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at Napoleon's tomb at Les Invalides in Paris after giving an address at the Institute of France, reported the Guardian, telling the nation the controversial former emperor "is part of us".

Controversial is right. "Napoleon is hugely divisive in France. There are those who see him as a military genius and supreme political strategist who established the foundations of French administration — introducing the Napoleonic code, the legion d'honneur and the civil code, among other measures — and those who view him as a despot whose warmongering killed thousands and who reintroduced slavery that had been banned after the revolution," the Guardian wrote.

But one area that's surprising in re-assessing Napoleon's legacy was his more liberal views about homosexuality. "Napoleon Bonaparte was a 'gay friendly' emperor," historian Arthur Chevallier, the curator of an exhibition dedicated to him at La Villette in Paris, told the French website TETU. "According to the writer, the emperor did not want to go back on the criminalization of homosexuality (which [would] be restored under the Vichy regime, until 1982). A position that contrasts with the times."

French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron stand by the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte during a ceremony to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon Bonaparte's death, at the Invalides monument in Paris, Wednesday, May 5, 2021.  (Source: Associated Press)

The times, the late 1790s, were "particularly conservative. It is the birth of the bourgeois hypocrisy of family organization," Chevallier continued. "It is in opposition to the idea that it had of the aristocratic society of the end of the Ancien Régime, perceived as libertine, inconsistent, frivolous ... the caricature of Marie-Antoinette, where everyone sleeps with everyone in castles."

By contrast, Chevallier maintained, Napoleon was unusually liberal. "He's a gay friendly emperor! He was obviously not like the president of an LGBT association is today. But he stood up for gay rights as long as he didn't care about people's sexuality. In the great batch of very conservative and very bourgeois measures which presided over the organization of the family, one would have thought that homosexuality would pass for an aristocratic deviance. Finally, Napoleon, when he codified a conservative vision of the city, did not go back on the decriminalization of homosexuality acquired in 1791."

This meant that local law officials could no longer prosecute homosexuality because there were no such laws in the Penal Code. In an editor's note Napoleon wrote: "We are not in a country where the courts must deal with these crimes."

"That he does not go back on the decriminalization of homosexuality is already quite remarkable, in a conservative society... If there is no law penalizing homosexuality, it is because he wanted to," Chevallier said. "Because if there is one thing on which Napoleon did not budge, it is his vision of public order. He therefore voluntarily induced an atmosphere of tolerance, even if there were some condemnations."

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