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France has always been seen as a sexually-liberated country. Here’s what the LGBT community has to say about it.

Photo: Andrea

Brenna Daldorph

Sometimes, increased visibility has a price. Just ask my friend Maxime, who has a 12 cm scar sliced across his head. Three years ago, Maxime was walking in Paris when a man came at him with a box cutter, shouting that he was a “sale pédé”, French slang for a “dirty fag.”

As emergency personnel rushed Maxime to the hospital, he heard one say: “I mean, what did he expect? He’s carrying a handbag.”

When Maxime later tried to file a complaint, none of the male officers at the police station wanted to help him. Finally, a female officer did, but she made it understood that he had put himself at risk by dressing “too gay.”

“Twenty years ago, gays had to stay invisible, but now, we have a lot of visibility. In some ways, it’s a huge leap forward, but it’s also sparked a much more violent and present homophobia,” Maxime told me.

There was a homophobic physical attack every two days in France in 2013.

In May 2013, France legalized same-sex marriage amidst a veritable media storm. That same year, the number of homophobic acts increased by a shocking 78 percent, according to a report by French watchdog group SOS Homophobia published in May 2014. This source reported that there was a homophobic physical attack — like the one Maxime experienced — every two days in France in 2013.

It seems as if this massive victory for the LGBTI community has also exposed a deep current of homophobia — which perhaps should not have been entirely unexpected. According to Vocativ, “marriage equality legislation has been speculatively lined to violence against the LGBT community.”

Manif pour tous

Identical except for their colors, a pink flag and a blue flag hang side-by-side in an apartment window in Paris’s 8th arrondissement. These flags, picturing a small nuclear family, were the trademark banners of the Manif pour tous, the movement formed in opposition to the 2013 same-sex marriage law. The name, which means the “March for everyone” is a play on the law’s nickname — “Mariage pour tous” or “marriage for everyone.”

Back in 2013, the Manif pour tous held massive marches and got extensive media coverage.

The day the marriage law was voted in, there were two marches in Paris. In the eastern, traditionally liberal side of the city, there was a huge pride march. In the western, more conservative part of the city, a Manif pour tous rally descended into violence. Curious, I stopped by in the evening, after things had calmed down a little. I spoke with a police officer, who blamed the violence on “hooligans, who attach themselves to any old cause just to cause trouble.”

As I was leaving, I saw the last people from the march packing up and heading home. They held the hands of their children and walked away, leaving trash, dirty remnants strewn across the lawn in front of Invalides.

Bitter aftertaste

Despite the marriage victory, the Manif pour tous left a bitter taste in the mouths of many.

“The amount of support for the Manif pour tous shocked me. I couldn’t fathom it,” said Sylvie Fondacci, the spokesperson for LGBT-Inter, a Paris-based rights organization.

My friend, Jon, agreed. Jon is British and gay. He came out in Paris, where he has been living for four years now. He’s been dating his French boyfriend for three of those years.

“It was weird to be in the metro and think to myself that half of the people here don’t want to see me get married,” he said.

The Manif pour tous claims to be against homophobia (and declares this on their website.) But whether the movement is or is not homophobic (debatable), it certainly opened the doors to wider expression of anti-gay sentiments.

“The popularity of the movement and the media coverage allowed any homophobe to feel like they had the right to express these sentiments,” Fondacci said.

And, of course, it isn’t just words. As the SOS study showed, Maxime is far from the only victim of homophobic violence. The organization based its numbers on calls to their hotline as well as email complaints. It is almost impossible to verify their claim, as France has had a ban on gathering numbers about race, religion, and sexual orientation since WWII.

“We don’t know if the number of attacks increased or if the extensive media coverage about gay issues around the time of the marriage law helped give people the courage to speak up,” said Fondacci.

For example, last year, a young Dutch man was attacked in Paris while walking with his boyfriend. He posted a photo of his bruised and bloodied face on social media, becoming the “face” of the struggle to end this anti-LGBT violence in France.

And while the media seems awash with cases of homophobia, it may be because the law created a climate where French officials are more open to dealing with these cases — unlike the officers who Maxime encountered.

For example, in January 2015, three people were fined by Paris courts for incitement to hate and violence because of sexual orientation after having used homophobic hashtags.

On January 30, two men, aged 23 and 21, were sentenced respectively to prison sentences and a hefty fine for a homophobic poster they displayed during a pride march in the city of Nancy last May. Their poster said “Allez brûler en enfer” or “Go burn in hell.” They called it free speech. The court called it a death threat.

Why in France?

When the economy turns sour there’s a tendency to take it out on minority groups.

France, a country based on the pillars of liberté, fraternité and égalité, relishes its image as a sexually-liberated, free society. Yet it also has deep currents of conservatism. In fact, according to the World Values Survey, of all the western European countries, France is the least tolerant toward homosexuals.

Fondacci said part of the blame may lay in the fact that conservatives led France for fifteen years before the left regained power in 2012: “it may have affected mindsets more than we might think.”

But Sam Huneke, a historian studying gay culture in Europe for his PhD at Stanford, ventured further back in history to suggest the left might also be to blame.

“The success of communism and socialism historically in France could also be part of the explanation,” he said. “Although socialist parties were ostensibly open to sexual difference, there was in fact a deep current of homophobia.”

The fact that homophobia seems to run across the political spectrum points to a wider problem across French society. But the more I asked, the more varied answers I got.

“I think the Catholic mentality hangs heavily,” said Jon.

But everyone also agreed that homophobia has seen a current spike. Sam once again mentioned that increased visibility could play a role.

“France decriminalized sodomy in 1791. This meant that the kind of gay movements that evolved in other countries, most notably Germany, against anti-sodomy laws probably didn’t in France,” he said. “Moreover, there just isn’t, to my knowledge, the same history of persecution of gay people in the last two centuries that you see in Germany, or even England and the United States. So gay movements likely had less of a public profile. Perversely, France’s historical toleration of homosexuality might have made it a less tolerant society today.”

Secondly, everyone also agreed that the current economic situation probably exacerbated these pre-existing issues.

“When the economy turns sour there’s a tendency to take it out on minority groups, especially if there’s a perception that the government is acting in the interests of a relatively small minority while letting the economy flounder”, said Sam.

Homophobia — and prevalent myths that gays are wealthy — thus goes hand-in-hand with the xenophobia already rampant in the economically-depressed country and pushed by far-right groups like Marine Le Pen’s National Front. But they build on currents of racism and homophobia buried within the French mindset, which no one wants to admit to.

Positive steps forward

After losing the fight to prevent LGBTs in France from being able to marry, the Manif pour tous lost steam, but the organization still lingers, as do the questions about how at home France’s LGBT community feels despite recent advances. “For the most part, I feel lucky to be here,” Jon says. “I read about places like Uganda and it helps me relativize.”

Fondacci agreed that, though there is progress still to be made, the country has come far.

“The legalization of marriage was a formidable step forward in the fight against homophobia. It allows LGBT people to feel better in French society. Just for that, it is a victory”, she said.

Another recent victory was attained in the United States when, on June 27, 2015, the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the country. But if France is any indicator, things in the US may become worse for a bit before they get better. But they will get better: in 2015, SOS Homophobia reported that the number of reports of homophobic attacks had dropped in 2014. Hopefully, it truly means less cases and not just less cases reported.

Maxime, however, said he is keeping his eyes on the future.

“Our hope is to be treated in the same way as anyone else. As long as that is not the case, we must continue being as visible as possible even if we stir up hate. We have to live this phase of “forced visibility” in order to achieve total acceptance. Because, in the end, nothing is worse than having to hide yourself even if it makes life easier in the moment.”

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