What is the feeling among the gay community now?
A typical cafe scene in Le Marais which enjoys a history as rich as a Boudin Noir sausage, a story of rages to riches as it transformed itself from marshland (marais is French for marsh) to the haunt of Parisians royals, and in recent times the trendy gay capital of Paris.
This is the question that whirled around my mind as I soaked up the undeniably hip scene under a brilliant blue sky in Le Marais, the gay capital of Paris.
So too did those fairytale images recording the effervescent smiles of the handsome couple Vincent Autin, 40, and Bruno Boileau, 30, as they French kissed for the cameras on the 29 May. On this momentous day, France’s first male marriage took place in the southern city of Montpelier, ten days after the same-sex marriage and adoption legislation was passed.
Yet the streets, except for the sun’s rare appearance in a month that saw more than its fair share of mackintosh-wearing, seemed, well, a tad too normal.
Not that I was expecting a posse of semi-clad revellers dancing around the fountain in Place de Vosges’ splendidly manicured gardens slap-bang in the heart of Le Marais. Although, I’d happily cheer them on if that were the case!
Le Place de Vosges’ splendidly manicured gardens in the heart of Le Marais form the oldest planned square in Paris.
While this was my first foray into Le Marais accompanying friends familiar with this historic area, but I had imagined we’d see une petite fête (party) or two underway. The popping of champagne corks in the lively outdoor cafés lining the boutique rich streets? Perhaps posters congratulating the flailing French President François Holland for his astonishing victory, particularly given his imploding popularity and the violent backlash to this controversial law.
But no; it was just majestically serene. As though the ancient stone mansions, formerly homes to the French nobility, and the tall, strikingly painted doors that keep open-roofed entrance halls private, knew how to deal with their recent triumph: with that characteristic grace and modesty the French are famous for.
It reminds me of a couple of lines from the famous “IF” poem by Rudyard Kipling, in which he suggests that life’s two impostors ”triumph and disaster” be treated equally. Undoubtedly the passing of this long-awaited legislation is a phenomenal “triumph”.
Stronger words than “disaster” could certainly be applied to recent incidents endured by Paris’ gay community. Since our arrival here in January, I have been acutely aware of the deep divisions in Parisian society over the same-sex legislation. Stark posters announcing the final street demonstration of 26 May, organised by the anti-adoption group ‘La Manif Pour Tous’, still litter lampposts and roadsigns in the western suburbs of Paris where we live; the kids counted more than 15 en route to school from Saint Germain en Laye to Le Vesinet.
And Paris is traditionally supposed to be more liberal than the rest of France—its twice elected Mayor Bertrand Delanoë is openly gay and has served in office since 2001, despite an assassination attempt a decade ago by a homophobic immigrant.
Protestors turned out in their thousands for the last demonstration which saw multiple arrests following violent clashes with close to 100 hardliners wielding sticks and bottles. Several other demonstrations took place on the streets of Paris in the months leading up to the passing of the law.
The macabre suicide of a well-known far right historian Dominique Venner at the altar of the 850-year-old Notre Dame, seemingly as a means of highlighting his objection to this legislation, was extreme as it was bizarre.
In April, Al Jazeera ran the headline “Paris beating gives a face to homophobia” under which they posted the very graphic Facebook images of a French resident, Wilfred de Bruijn, who was reportedly beaten up for walking arm in arm with his boyfriend early one Sunday morning. An appalling incident.
Extract from Wilfred de Bruijn's Facebook page 7 April 2013
"Sorry to show you this. It's the face of Homophobia. Last night 19th arr Paris, Olivier and I were badly beaten up just for walking arm in arm. I woke up in an ambulance covered in blood, missing tooth and broken bones around the eye. I'm home now. Very sad. Olivier takes care of me. Forbidden to work for at least 10 days"
“You’ve got to be with the French to understand the French,”…was the comment delivered effortlessly over lunch by my visitor’s 11-year-old son between large mouthfuls of chocolate mousse.
By extension, you have to hang out with the Parisian gay community to really sense how they feel given the strongly homophobic landscape that presides here. I can’t pretend I do. But if I did, or if my command of French wasn’t as woefully inadequate as it is currently, I would have stopped to talk to the locals engaged in their animated conversations over lunch in the vibrant cafes of Le Marais.
But before the questions, a congratulations would have been in order: whether consciously or not, they seemed to have followed other seminal life advice in Kipling’s “IF” poem, in particular:
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired of waiting…
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, not talk too wise:
…yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”