Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
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JANUARY 17, 2013 9:07AM

Anti-gay Paris?

Rate: 16 Flag

 

“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. 

 

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Comments

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Thanks for putting this controversy in the context of French culture. You have brought our understanding, if not sympathy, to the protestors motives. R
Very interesting view of France. I would imagine there are differences between city folk and country folk like there are in America. Fear fuels in all. People do cling to their religion and guns everywhere because of fear. Someday it will all be a distant memory like you say, I hope so. Now
Interesting post and interesting times. I'm not sure it's all that different from what we see here, although there seems to be a more religious context here and, historically, France has certainly been more open and accepting.
Thanks for this, Alysa. I've been wondering what all the fuss is about.

Rated.
Enlightening if somewhat depressing. Hopefully the passage of the laws will pretty much end the matter and people will start getting used to the new ways.

Your piece also demonstrates how we can't always blame religion for some of the views people have. Religion sometimes is an excuse for enforcing custom and 'tradition' (for instance, the veiling of women in Muslim countries is cultural, but gets confused with religion - and has in fact spread from some cultural-veiled countries to some that didn't).
Alysa, thank you for this post. There will always be people steeped in "tradition," who believe that family = man, woman + children, and any other combination seems aberrant or ungodly to them. There is also discrimination (quiet, unspoken, but felt) in the U.S., I feel, against married heterosexual couples with no children--whether they chose not to have children or could not have children, etc. I know this is an entirely different topic, but I think it speaks to your point about traditional values.
Coming from a country that gay marriage is been legal for years this baffles me. It looks like the archaic thoughts of a gay person corrupting another individual prevails. People are sheep and have muddled thoughts. I cannot believe this.
HUGGGGGGGGGGGGG
As always, Alyssa, when you come out [pun intended] on an issue, you do so in a thoughtful, knowledgeable, well-reasoned and well-presented way. The big surprise for me here is that so many French people apparently feel so strongly about something that seems so outdated. Unless they simply wanted to come out and parade around a tad. That pun was deliberate, as well.
Are there positions and that some here at Liberal Salon hold so dear that might become antiquated in the future? It seems that anything that is traditional must be wrong according to all here. Just 25 years ago with conversation would be laughed at not realistic. That being said, what cultural positions that you hold dear might be challenged in say 25 years?
I'm not sure I understand your point, Jay. 25 years ago the notion of a black President was utopian, and here we are with Obama today. In 25 years we might have an openly gay President. how would you feel about that? Might your opinions change over a quarter of a century, and would that be a bad thing?

I'm agnostic about gay marriage myself and regard it as a pure human rights issue. Now as I recall, I thought the idea was silly back in 1988 or so, to the extent I thought about it at all, and I'm glad I've evolved since then - not that it's really any of my business in the first place.
Thank you all so much for reading, and I'm glad you found this informative, albeit disappointing or depressing.

Jay - I was put off by the "Liberal Salon" thing, but your comment is very intelligent. Who knows what will happen 25 years from now? It's a scary and thrilling prospect, all at once. I do want to say, I have nothing against tradition per se - there are many traditions I downright love, in fact. If you want some examples, I'll say: Christmas celebrated with my family and with traditional Italian-American fare to eat; playing April Fools Day pranks; keeping older forms of English spelling (i.e. "through" versus "thru", at least as an option - those older spellings contain so much information about how words were originally pronounced); and eating galette (King Cake) in winter. The traditions I love are fun (at least to me) and they don't harm or block the rights of others. Unfortunately, not all traditions are like this.
Do you think in 25 years it will be okay to be a black conservative? Perhaps a gay black conservative? In America the celebration of diversity really translates to different colored people thinking the same way. Every time a black or a woman comes to the front they are torn down and rebuked. Seriously do you think Nancy Pelosi is more intelligent than Sara Palin? I am not a fan of Palin but, she did rise through the ranks of here on perserverance, Pelosi married a multi-millionare and says incredibly stupid things which go unchallenged. Is Salon liberal ? Look at the topics we discuss. There is an assumption that there should be no preference for a male-female model for a child and if you think there is, you are a dinasaur.
"People cling to their religion and guns"--can't get more liberal or maybe better, anti-traditional,conservative than that comment. A comment that went unchallenged thus supporting my "Liberal Salon" observation.
That is more close minded than any French Traditionalist tolerating gay unions yet not being for marriage and adoption. Only here does one of those opinions/positions draw disaproval.
Correction:

Do you think in 25 years it will be okay to be a black conservative? Perhaps a gay black conservative? In America the celebration of diversity really translates to different colored people thinking the same way. Every time a black or a woman conservative comes to the front they are torn down and rebuked. Seriously do you think Nancy Pelosi is more intelligent than Sara Palin? I am not a fan of Palin but, she did rise through the ranks of here on perserverance, Pelosi married a multi-millionare and says incredibly stupid things which go unchallenged. Is Salon liberal ? Look at the topics we discuss. There is an assumption that there should be no preference for a male-female model for a child and if you think there is, you are a dinasaur.
"People cling to their religion and guns"--can't get more liberal or maybe better, anti-traditional,conservative than that comment. A comment that went unchallenged thus supporting my "Liberal Salon" observation.
That is more close minded than any French Traditionalist tolerating gay unions yet not being for marriage and adoption. Only here does one of those opinions/positions draw disaproval.
I am struck by the similarity of what you describe about the French to what we are going through here. In fact, I'm not sure I see a difference at all. What are the predominant French views toward out-of-wedlock children in general; i.e., single women having babies without cohabitation at any time?

Lezlie
As Myriad said: "Enlightening but somewhat depressing." I really wish all governments would get out of people's personal domestic and sexual business but I know that won't happen in my lifetime, so the next best thing is progress of the sort that legalized marriage equality represents. Lady Lucia and I are Registered Domestic Partners, which is sort of like the PACS, except that it comes with fewer rights than marriage. 'Though same-sex couples CAN marry in our state (New York) such marriages are not yet recognized at the federal level. What that means is that, if we were to go back to City Hall and get married, we would have tax obligations that would put us at a disadvantage financially, without gaining any rights we don't already have as Domestic Partners. A lot of same-sex couples in New York are marrying anyway because they think the symbolism of the M-word is important but, for us, it's really not. We will marry if (in our lifetimes) marriage equality passes nationally and comes with the same rights as those given to straight couples. May sanity and mercy prevail in France!
I love that you wrote about this and provided an 'inside' view.
Jay – I hope that in 25 years, and beyond, people of any race can still believe what they want to believe. The only thing I hope changes in that regard, is that people’s personal or religious beliefs, won’t continue to cause others to have basic civil rights denied. Like many people, I scratch my head at a minority who is also tied to a conservative political party, since those parties don’t really seem to care about minorities and equal rights. But to each his or her own. That’s the great thing about this country – we’re free to express ourselves, and may it always be so. But just as conservatives can live their lives and make choices freely, why shouldn’t “non-traditional” people be able to do the same? To address something else in your comment, I fear that you, like many people who visit political-leaning or current events posts, are just looking for a fight, and didn’t read me very closely; I never mentioned religion AND guns, because in France, gun control isn’t really an issue; most people don’t own firearms and there’s not much of a push to do so, and it’s hard for just anyone to have access to guns. Take from that what you will (believe it or not, I believe in the right to bear arms – I just wish that stupid or crazy people wouldn’t go and ruin it for everyone else). So that is absolutely not an issue or debate here. Lastly, to give you some insight into the “liberal” mindset: most of us are just looking for equality for others, and help for those who need it. We don’t intend to destroy civilization as we know it, just to change rules that are blocking people’s rights to do things like marry a consenting adult of their choice. We’re not after you. Think about it: If gay marriage passes (especially in France), does that really affect your day-to-day life? No one is threatening you! I think there’s so much fear in what you’re writing, but not a lot of logic. When you asked me where we’ll be in 25 years, the possible scenarios that me were a zombie apocalypse or environmental disasters or warfare, not whether or not people can marry other people. That shouldn’t matter to us one iota.

Amy – Thanks.

Lezlie – A child out of wedlock isn’t really an issue for French society in general; I’ve read that at least half the couples in France aren’t married when they have children, and a large percentage never get married. Of course, this might be different on a family level, depending on the couple in question – if they’re from very traditional or religious families, that probably won’t fly and they’ll have to get married. A single woman having a child isn’t condemned here, either. I think there is the sense that people feel sorry for her, since it’s not easy being a single parent, but she certainly wouldn’t be shunned or shamed into finding a husband. Again, this may be different on a local level, depending on her family background, the attitude of people in her community, etc. But generally it’s certainly not a reason for a woman to be shunned or her child to be made fun of or anything.

Eva – I never thought about that catch with gay marriage. How sad – all the taxes, but no national recognition! I totally understand your and Lady Lucia’s decision. I hope that someday, hopefully very soon, you will be able to marry if you choose, because same-sex marriage will be recognized throughout the United States. I really hope.

mypsyche – Thanks. I tried to make it clear and hope it was all right.
Alysa
"Like many people, I scratch my head at a minority who is also tied to a conservative political party, since those parties don’t really seem to care about minorities and equal rights. But to each his or her own. "
That is incredibly insulting-and ignorant of the history of equal rights.
Read anything on race by this man-http://townhall.com/columnists/thomassowell/2013/01/15/liberalism-versus-blacks-n1489212
One of the smartest men in this country-who happens to be black.
Jay - If your guy is comfortable being a black conservative, more power to him! All I know is that when you look at things like LGBT rights, the rights of all women, the rights of immigrants, and the rights of the poor, conservatives are not the ones who have our backs. Not every individual who is politically conservative agrees with everything in the conservative mentality, of course - I know this firsthand, as several of my family members are Republican or even more extreme. But as a low-income-earning woman, I don't think I'd ever be able to reconcile myself with joining such a party. No offense meant, just an opinion. As I said, everyone's got the right to believe what he or she wants to believe. Where I draw the line is when those beliefs are put into action and they take away the rights of others.
There's some innate spirit in the French that can only be expressed through a protest march.
Alysa, again read the link and other articles by this brilliant man if you like your convictions challenged. I do, that is why I am here. If you think he might threaten your view then, keep following your dream.
BTW, many men that I know question if they will recomend marriage for their sons in this day and age. The downside is so distrurbing that it's appeal is diminished even to traditionalists. I have friends who have been ruined by divorces while their wives walk away with everything.