“So, I guess you weren’t at the protest this weekend,” my mother says over the phone. “I couldn’t believe it,” she goes on. “One of the people I work with told me there was a big protest march against gay marriage in Paris, and I thought, Paris, France? The French are some of the most liberal people in the world!”
This is an issue that I’ve meant to write about for a long time. But it just gets me too frustrated. Hearing my mother’s questions, though, gave me new resolve. So here goes…
Throughout the fall and winter, large numbers of French protesters (the march last Sunday was claimed by some to have been 800,000 people strong, though official records place it closer to 340,000)*, have come out (oops – pun definitely not intended) to show their refusal to accept two of President François Hollande’s campaign promises coming to fruition: the legalization of same-sex marriage in France, and the passing of legislation that would allow same-sex couples to have children. Hollande has stayed firm in passing these laws, and is refusing to hold a referendum.
On the surface, it does seem surprising that so many French people would get upset about these changes. France is known as a country where gay, lesbian, and bisexual people have been accepted for centuries. To give a few fairly recent examples, more than a hundred years ago, Oscar Wilde came to Paris to finish out his life after serving time in an English prison for having had (consensual) sex with another man. Here, no one condemned him for his sexual preferences. A few years after that, Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas happily lived in an apartment near the Jardin du Luxembourg, where they regularly entertained major literary and artistic figures of their day. Today, Paris’ longtime mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, is openly gay, and no one bats an eye.
There is a difference between the French attitude towards homosexuals and homosexuality, and the Anglo-Saxon one. Whereas gay or lesbian Americans, Australians, and British folk are regularly encouraged to be “loud and proud”, if you’re gay in France, you just are. Of course, it’s not always easy for people to come out to their families, but once they have, the general idea is that now you just go about living your life as usual, and are treated no differently than anyone else. You can even have a PACS (civil union that gives most of the rights of marriage) with your partner. As with religion, the French tend to deal with non-heterosexuality with a discrete, “don’t-ask-don’t-tell” sort of attitude, that has changed little over the years – although with the influence of international gay rights movements and popular culture, there are annual gay pride parades in numerous French cities today.
This kind of acceptance is a wonderful thing. It made me proud to be in a country where people can live their lives and not be judged or condemned by the government or general population for their sexual orientation.
But when I started talking to French people, I discovered there was a caveat: Although most have no problem with people being homosexual, many French citizens don’t think same-sex couples should have children. It doesn’t even seem to be an evolving thought process: despite being exposed to positive media depictions of gay and lesbian couples, on top of their country’s attitude towards them, people in their twenties and thirties often feel this way, too.
French culture is a strange mix. It’s extremely open and progressive in many ways, and extremely close-minded and staunchly traditional in others. For a majority of the French, a family should be a man and a woman raising children. The mother and father may live together and not be married, or may be divorced and living apart, and that’s totally fine. But the idea of two parents of the same gender raising kids, doesn’t compute. In an August 2012 survey given by the Institution française de l’opinion publique, while 65% of French people were fine with gay marriage, only 53% were okay with the idea of same-sex couples having kids. These numbers have fallen a few points since then, likely, as this article suggests**, due to the presence of the protestors on the streets and in media coverage (it is notable, however, that the latest survey's findings reveal that while the percentage dropped between August and November, it has held subsequently held steady, even after Sunday's huge protest). Although President Hollande has said he won’t go back on his promises, the influence of the protests has been felt within his government as well, forcing lawmakers to put aside a bill that would have allowed lesbian couples access to artificial insemination.
The protests against same-sex marriage in France are as complex as French society itself. Though the Catholics are the most openly involved, participants come from a variety of different religions and walks of life: members of the extreme right Front National political party march alongside certain gay and lesbian groups. As this suggests, the protests aren’t against homosexuality itself (though some people involved obviously aren’t fans of that to begin with): they’re against the infiltration of same-sex couples into traditional institutions like marriage and child-raising. The protestors’ banners and chants don’t condemn homosexuality -- they make statements about what a family should be in their eyes: a man, a woman, and children.
It might seem that these people are being overly dramatic, especially as far as marriage goes. After all, with the creation of the PACS, that aforementioned civil union that’s open to both heterosexual and homosexual couples, in 1999, gay couples can already be formally recognized by the government and have certain rights. And French law allowing gay marriage doesn’t mean that churches would have to perform these ceremonies. Then again, in French marriages, the church is only one important place where the union is blessed and approved – all couples also have a civil ceremony at their local mayor’s office. If same-sex marriage becomes legal, a mayor will have to perform the ceremony for same-sex couples, too, even if he/she is against this. Many mayors have threatened to refuse, which would mean breaking the law. President Hollande has reminded them of their duty – even as many of the people in their towns encourage them to rebel, if it comes to that.
I try to understand and respect everyone’s beliefs, and one thing I do agree with and approve of wholeheartedly is that these marches – and the counter-protest marches – haven’t erupted into mass violence. But I can feel the divide between those anti-gay marriage/parenting protestors and me. I fully and passionately believe in equal rights for everyone, especially as far as love and family are concerned. I fully believe that children with same-sex parents are not damaged or deprived of a loving and nurturing environment. I know concrete sociological and psychological research backs me up. Though I can understand the strength of other people’s traditions or religious beliefs, I don’t believe those things should govern a country that is very adamantly not a theocracy (secularism is one of the principles of the French republic, and is usually rigorously enforced).
I feel like we’re seeing changes happening that have been building for a long time, and that, in Western society, seem inevitable. I look at people trying to hold back the progress of equality for others, and shake my head, feeling like our era will one day be a passage in a textbook that students will read half-unbelievingly, the way we do when we learn about Jim Crow laws in the US, or how long it took for women to be allowed to vote.
Hollande’s government has said that same-sex marriage and parenting laws could go into effect as early as this spring. They don’t seem like they’ll back down. If I could send out one message to the protestors, I’d transmit this (with French subtitles) everywhere I could – an echo from the 1960’s, another time of change and advances in civil rights:
Video source: Daily Motion
*Disparities between the official number of protesters and the number claimed by different organizations, is typical in France, regardless of the reason for the protest.
**While this article is extremely biased, I do think this idea seems like common sense.