Homophobia / L’Homophobie

Anti gay-marriage and gay adoption protesters in Paris, Nov 17, 2012. Copyright AFP. Photographer: Thomas Samson.

Ok, so back to more serious posts than those about street art and food. (Not that I plan to stop talking about those.) Let’s talk about homophobia — homophobia in France, and to some extent homophobia in the States. This will be quite long, and I’m afraid a bit scattered, since the topic is so huge and complex.

So, first things first. I am, for the record, a friend of Dorothy; queer a three-dollar bill; gay as a window, to quote Skins (yes, gay enough to watch Skins – or at least the gay parts – in all its ridiculousness, despite being twice the age of the characters). I came out age 17 in the mid-90s in a small city in the American South, which was not by any means the greatest place to be queer, but I was extremely lucky; unlike the vast majority of people, I had parents and a stepmother who were incredibly understanding and supportive from day one. I did not tell either my American or French extended families for years (perhaps 6-7 for the French, and 18 for the Americans), because I knew it would not be comprehensible to them for various (and different) reasons, mostly having to do with general culture (on the French side) and religion (the American side).

I bring this up because a massive debate – what the French call une polémique – is raging in France right now over the issues of gay marriage and gay adoption (“l’homoparentalité”). Of course a similar debate has been raging in the States for over a decade now, but in this case, the current president, Socialist François Hollande – who won the presidency last May – made a very important campaign promise to institute equal marriage rights and finally, finally grant the right to adopt to gay couples, a right which has been denied for as long as I can remember.

I’ve been shocked to find the French at large – or some of the French, rather – much more recalcitrant about this than I’d believed they would be. In my naiveté I thought (especially since they’d voted Hollande in in the first place) that they would go along with this pretty quietly. I should have known better, particularly on the question of adoption, since there’s still a very strong current in the culture that says that children need a parent of each gender (the official reasoning behind the ban up to this point).

This last Saturday, the 17th, 100,000-200,000 people marched throughout the country against gay marriage, including over 70,000 people in Paris alone. As you can read in this article from Le Monde (in French), pretty much everyone interviewed claimed not to be homophobic, simply “mariagophilic” (quoth Catholic comedian and anti-gay-marriage activist Frigide Bardot, whose presumably self-chosen name I will now calmly try not to mock). The protesters in Paris (and probably elsewhere) came up with a clever, horrible variant of a very popular hiking song (“la meilleure façon de marcher, c’est encore la notre; c’est de mettre un pied devant l’autre, et de recommencer” – “the best way of marching is ours; it’s to put one foot in front of the other, and then start again”). Their version (visible in the video, from the 17 second mark, on, again, this page) goes: “La meilleure façon d’se marier, c’est toujours la nôtre; depuis des millieurs d’années, c’est pas près d’changer” [“the best way of marrying is still ours; it has been for thousands of years and it’s not about to change”].

The effect that song had on me was striking. The next day, Sunday 18th, an extreme right Catholic group called Civitas led a more extreme-right anti-gay demonstration across France (apparently the relatively more moderate groups on Saturday changed days to avoid being associated with them). Another 100,000 or so people turned up, and in Paris at least, a journalist was beaten by a member of the crowd and French counter-protesters from the Ukrainian feminist group FEMEN, dressed as nuns and/or bare-breasted (as is their wont), were also kicked and beaten. (See here for video, which is Not Safe For Work.) I should have cared more about the violent extremists beating people up, but it’s the song sung by those underhanded, hypocritical little … somethings … on Saturday that’s been haunting me. It’s funny the things that get you.

I grew up hiking a lot in the Auvergne, and that hiking song was one my mother and I would sing as loudly and joyfully as possible while hiking. (The French sing a lot of hiking/marching songs while on walks; I don’t think Americans do as much.) When those homophobes co-opted it and turned it into that extended “nyah nyah, our marriages are better than yours and we deserve rights you don’t,” they were co-opting a piece of shared culture that, besides being shared between all manner of French people, resonates with me on a very personal level because it’s involved in such happy memories of being in France, hiking my beloved volcanoes with my mother, having what were to me quintessentially French experiences (because they were experiences that didn’t happen in my American life). It hurts to hear those smug jerks singing that song. It enrages and scares me to watch fascists beating up women for standing up for gay rights, but that’s more at a remove, somehow. I can sort of dismiss Civitas, despite the frightening number of protestors it drummed up, as, well, fascists; not “normal” people, not the sorts of people I would know, not the French everyman (as if there were such a thing). But the people who demonstrated on Saturday… that mentality, so much less physically violent and yet so disempowering, so violent in a different, conceptual, rhetorical way – that mentality is familiar to me. I’d like to think I don’t know any French people who would march in such protests – I don’t think I do – but I don’t want to think too hard about what my aunt and uncle, for instance, might think of the concept of gay marriage, or, even worse, gay adoption.

I can’t express to people who aren’t familiar with it the very real pain caused by knowing that your own nation-state officially thinks you are automatically an unfit parent because of something you can’t help and which hurts noone. I’m not going to bother linking to the various studies that prove gay parenting is just fine for children – if you disagree with me, I imagine you’ve stopped reading by now, and I have little hope of convincing you. French homophobia is complex and works differently than American homophobia, but both cultures like to bring up the children, and in France, the (official) arguments rest almost entirely on said children. Even in the States, where people are killed for being LGBT (something that doesn’t happen here, or only very rarely), where I actually feel in potential physical danger much of the time I’m outside my little enclave on the Californian coast, I would be able to adopt a child in many states. (Frankly, I don’t care all that much about marriage, not being a fan of the institution itself; I do, however, care a great deal about the adoption question.) The declarations about protecting children, while rarely stated as related to the fear of pedophilia, always have that ugly, dated, evil stereotype under them; the vile French epithet for a gay man is, after all, “pédé” – short for “pederast.” (I’m not sure which is worse – the etymology of “pédé” or of “fag,” which comes from “faggot,” a bundle of wood of the sort that used to be used to burn gay men at the stake.)

But I was shocked. My experience of French homophobia has been that, apart from some arguments in recent years over adoption, LGBT issues are simply invisible. You don’t talk about them. My French family knows I’m queer, and none of us have ever discussed it in any sense. I’ve mentioned it perhaps 2-3 times in the dozen or so years since they found out, but one immediately goes past the attendant uncomfortable silence to the next subject, because it’s simply something you don’t talk about. If you’re gay, you don’t show it. You don’t dress differently, you don’t act differently, you don’t, whatever you do, talk about your private life; that would be, after, exhibitionistic and vulgar. (Making out with your heterosexual partner on the banks of the Seine, however? Oh, go ahead, that’s perfectly fine! You’re a powerful male politician with multiple mistresses? Go right ahead, and good for you!)

Things are, however, changing. LGBT issues, obviously, are being talked about a lot. I was delighted, a couple of days after I arrived in August, to come across a gay-friendly bistrot in which I twice saw lesbian couples out on dates, and I’ve been equally delighted to see queer people of all stripes in the métro and on the street, sometimes even holding hands. I even saw a visibly LGBT person in Clermont-Ferrand, of all places, a few years ago. In 2005, to my wonder and delight (that word again), Paris Match ran an interview with tennis player Amélie Mauresmo – one of France’s rare out-of-the-closet celebrities – in which they asked her perfectly naturally about her love life and she responded without self-consciousness. The film industry doesn’t seem to be changing much other than a couple of attempts to make made-for-tv movies promoting tolerance, but I have some hope that things might start looking up soon. (I mean, it can’t continue almost completely ignoring any positive aspect of LGBT life in favor of insane-lesbian stereotypes, right? Right?)

Still, French homophobia being the way it was for most of my life, and my being entre deux chaises, as I’ve discussed, I realized a few years ago that I had never, in a real sense, figured out how to be a gay French person. I know how to be a gay American person. I went to a gay youth group when I was coming out, I moved to the Bay Area for college and was surrounded by the most active, avant-guard LGBT community in the world, and I still live near it. I get to live somewhere where gayness is taken for granted as normal and ordinary. I know how the LGBT community works and how to navigate in it; I know the inside jokes, how to talk to people, the cultural codes, etc. With France? …no. How could I have learned them? You didn’t talk about it, and soon after I came out – by the time I was 20 – we stopped coming on a yearly basis, and I lost touch with the only gay French person I’ve ever known (or rather, been aware of knowing; I have some suspicions about a couple of possible closet cases from my youth, but that’s beside the point).

How ironic, that while living in the U.S., the country of Fred Phelps (the most repulsive human being I can imagine, a man who wants gay people to die and fry in hell and who is hardly alone in that sentiment), the country of homophobic murders and an epidemic of LGBT teen suicides and raving-mad religious extremists who quite literally wish I would die, the country that is home to the half of my family which believes quite sincerely (though they try to be “kind” about it) that I am sinning by being myself – how ironic that even in the U.S. I feel more at home being gay, understand better what being gay is, than I do here: a country where I am in very little physical danger, no danger of death, and surrounded by a culture that has a counter-intuitive history of tolerating (if only tolerating) queerness among artists and intellectuals (…as long as they stayed quiet about it). (Read up on Le Chevalier D’Éon and George Sand and the American lesbian expat literary salons of the early twentieth century like Natalie Barney’s, y’all.)

How sad, that I should be in my mid-thirties, barreling towards middle age, and still have this feeling of not really knowing how to be gay in my own country, my other country. How unfortunate that I’m too shy to simply walk into the bars with friendly reputations in the Marais and try to make friends.

And how unfortunate, mainly, that this country, which purports – still! – to be the country of the rights of man, which I was raised to believe (oh so wrongly) was the country of the rights of man – which IS the country that actually produced the Declaration of Human Rights – how unfortunate that this country, instead of quietly following Scandinavia and Spain and Britain and several US states now and other places into the future, is fighting with itself over something as basic as allowing people to use the word “marriage” instead of “PACS” (domestic partnership) – it’s a word difference, for god’s sake! – and, more importantly, letting people who want children and who can be fit parents actually raise them.

I think the projet de loi – the proposed laws – will probably go through, but oh, how the fighting is making me sad.