Grisélidis Réal was known for decades as a prostitute, author and defender of sex work’s uses and skills. She died and was buried a few years ago but now either will or will not be honoured by having her remains moved to a Geneva cemetery where cultural icons like Calvin are buried. The story below illustrates how such honours are interpreted in opposing ways by different people. For some, the fact of having sold sexual services should overwhelm everything else about a person who was, obviously, much more than a prostitute or sex worker. For others, she was an ordinary human being who ought not to be singled out so much. For the sex workers’ rights movement, she is a hero.
swissinfo.ch – 21 January 2009
A decision to transfer the tomb of a former prostitute to Geneva’s most prestigious cemetery, where Jean Calvin is buried, has sparked controversy.
Supporters of the move claim Grisélidis Réal, who died in 2005 at the age of 75, played an important role in Geneva society as a writer, personality and activist. But opponents say relocating Réal alongside Geneva’s heroes is an outrage.
Following a decision by the city council last year, Réal’s remains are to be transferred to the Cimetière des Rois graveyard in the centre of Geneva on March 9.
The former prostitute will be buried near the Protestant reformer – whose 500th anniversary is being celebrated this year – as well as Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Sergio Viera de Mello and 350 other famous politicians, artists, lawyers and local celebrities.
“She spent part of her life defending the dignity of prostitutes,” said Geneva city councillor Patrice Mugny, in charge of cultural affairs, who was one of the driving forces behind the move to honour Réal as a writer and personality.
Mugny told swissinfo that he was not defending prostitution, but “from the moment we accept the phenomenon exists, it’s legitimate that it is practised in the most decent conditions possible”.
“Réal was also an important novelist who wrote several books about subjects that had rarely been dealt with before; she deserves her place at Cimetière des Rois,” he added.
The fact that few women were buried at the prestigious graveyard was also said to be a motivating factor.
But in a letter to the Tribune de Genève newspaper lawyer Odile Roulet said the council’s decision was scandalous and insulting to women, and “rides roughshod over Geneva’s honour and reputation”.
Martine Brunschwig Graf, a Liberal parliamentarian, also jumped on the plan. It is “not very clever” to make Grisélidis Réal an example for others, she said.
“It’s one of those nice leftwing ideas: burying an old tart at the Cimetière des Rois,” Geneva lawyer Marc Bonnat told Le Matin newspaper. “In her younger days Grisélidis brought some people a lot of joy, if they paid. She’ll be able to offer Jean Calvin some long-overdue pleasures of the flesh.”
A number of Geneva sex workers have also put the thigh-length boot in.
“May her soul rest in peace; but Grisélidis doesn’t merit the status of an honourable woman,” Marilyn told the newspaper.
“I knew Grisélidis in 1977 and I admit she did a lot for our profession. But she should never have published her book Carnet de bal d’une courtisane, which listed all her clients and their habits.”
Yet a number of voices have risen up to defend Réal.
For Marie-Jo Glardon, coordinator at the Geneva-based association for prostitutes, Aspasie, which Réal helped set up, the former prostitute deserves to be properly remembered for “her commitment, talent and impact”.
“Grisélidis Réal became an important person, a personality and a symbol,” Glardon told swissinfo. “Her story belongs to the social developments in the 1970s and 80s – a time when talk about sexuality opened things up, broke down moral barriers and allowed sexual minority issues to be expressed.”
Theatre director Françoise Courvoisier praised Réal’s talent as a writer of books, which not only discuss prostitution, but other issues like imprisonment and cancer.
Meanwhile, Teresa Skibinska, director of the cantonal sex equality service, was more nuanced.
“She set up an association which even today does essential work. She has the right to be recognised, but in the same way as many other deserving people. I have a problem with honouring people by burying them in a specific place – aren’t we all equal when we die,” she said.
Artist to activist
Born in Lausanne in 1929 to a Swiss family of teachers, Réal studied art in Zurich and after graduating worked as an artist’s model.
In 1960 she moved to Germany where she started out as a prostitute. Her post-war adventures with occupation soldiers became the subject of her first book Le Noir est une couleur (Black is a colour) in 1974, which gave a realistic, humorous account of her life on the streets.
She published a number of other books, including Carnet de bal d’une courtisane (A courtesan’s dance card), based on her experiences with clients, and La Passe imaginaire (The imaginary visit), a collection of letters to author Jean-Luc Hennig.
In the 1970s Réal became a volunteer social worker concerned with the rights of prostitutes, both male and female. She also became known as the “catin révolutionnaire” (revolutionary whore) for her activism in France and Switzerland.
In 1982 she helped found Aspasie, a Geneva-based association for prostitutes and later set up an International Centre of Documentation about Prostitution in Geneva, a reference source for researchers and sociologists,
Réal stopped working as a prostitute in 1995, at the age of 66.
For a personal account of this news, read Une putain au cimetière des rois.
Obituary in the Independent from 2005.
Shoe from Grisélidis Fribourg