(Updated March 2018)
Gay life France: Paris is like surround sound: at dinner one evening near the Pompidou Center we were, by chance, accompanied on three sides by gay couples sitting tete-a-tete at tables for two. To our left, a quiet couple, one talking on his cell phone while the other perused the menu. Behind us a more animated duo talking about an important issue. The third couple, looking smooth and casual, talked gently back and forth looking around occasionally at the others in the restaurant.
To anyone scanning this scene the moment appeared without distinction, anonymous. A Friday night in the city center among spraying fountains, trendy cars, sex shops, ornate facades illuminated like floating sculptures and pastry shops with dark chocolate rabbits for Easter.
But for me the setting was unique. I had just arrived from Cairo, the big city with the huge pyramids, where such a scene could not happen. True, guys socialize with guy friends there in cafes playing backgammon, smoking and toking on water pipes. But they don’t sit as couples, talk like couples and look at each other like spouses. Not that the Paris boys were overtly intimate but they focused on each other in ways that straight Muslim male friends don’t. Paris is tres gay, Cairo is tres guy.
Ironically, however, fewer guys (and women) hold hands in the gay Marais district of Paris than they do in Cairo or Alexandria or Luxor. Of course the meaning of the touch is very different. For Parisians it’s a sign of intimacy and attachment. In Egypt virtually none of the hand holders go to the same home and sleep in the same bed.
After our dinner and a walk around les Halles the evening passed without incident other than some drunk Australians; safely, legally and so removed from the MacDonald’s in Cairo where a friend had been arrested by seven policemen last year for being gay (not doing anything but meeting a friend.)
Gay Paris in the Springtime
The next day warm sunshine bathed the Marais as we cruised around this historic district by Notre Dame Cathedral. The early spring air brought many winter-weary souls out of their compartments and into the numerous cafes and bars. The sidewalk tables and chairs were full of mostly gay men chatting, smoking and drinking coffee tea or beer as they schmoozed with their seated friends or others passing by on their way to shop for flowers or dog biscuits.
Light kisses on the cheek for some, a handshake for others, spring cheer for all. Gay life was renewing itself on the streets, along the Seine river, in the manicured gardens and in the restaurants and cafes. Symbolic of this ‘joie de gai vivre’ the former mayor, Bertrand Delanoe, was openly gay (as was the mayor of Berlin, Germany) and was a participant in the Paris Pride parade.
A few blocks away the well-known gay bookstore Les Mots dans le Bouche (Words of Mouth) was busy with shoppers and browsers on both floors picking among hundreds of LGBT titles including such topics as a Freudian analysis of homosexuality (another one), a bio of the gay mayor, gay comic books (including one from Japan where gay comics are very popular with straight girls), the latest gay novels, art photo books with pretty asses and tits in full-page color, as well as a couple dozen LGBT magazines from the USA, UK, Germany and other European countries; none from Egypt.
This is as free as gay life gets anywhere. But the freedom can be risky as I was reminded as we came upon the AIDS education center with it several clever posters advocating condom use. Further along the same street I passed a condom vending machine. HIV in France still takes a toll and like other metro centers there is concern that the infection rate has ticked upward in this age of drug-cocktail-induced denial.
A couple of blocks later we happened upon a conference hall in time to hear a lecture in progress about homophobia in France. Tables were set up with information about homophobia as well as other LGBT issues such as AIDS, gay-friendly education in schools, international affairs (ILGA) and service of the Paris LGBT Center. Central to all this was a long signatured petition protesting homophobia in France along with a sign-up list for an upcoming rally against homophobia in June.
As the petition suggested, throughout the country in small villages and even in some big cities, to a lesser degree, there are still ignorant and hateful ideas about same-sex life and love fired up mostly by religious conservatives. However, since France is a mobile culture, lesbigay individuals tend to migrate to places where they have support and ’family’. Staying obedient and attached to one’s family in a small gossipy village may be one’s fate in Egypt but not here.
Lesbians in the Marais are not as visible as men. I was told there are women-only or predominantly lesbian venues scattered throughout the city but they are not focused into an area like to Marais. Women don’t hang out on streets the way guys do. It’s less to do with being gay than a gender thing: women don’t show themselves in public (less predatory?) the way men do; it’s unusual to see a group of women having beers together in front of a cafe after work. But don’t misunderstand, the French lesbian community is alive and vibrant to launch an annual film festival: (http://www.shoestring.org/mmi_revs/cineffablelesbi-ms-128393170.html)
But for both gay men and women France is one of the world’s leading societies to recognize homosexual unions as valid forms of domestic living. Few other countries (mostly Western Europe and North America) have better statutes that not only protect against discrimination but have sanctioned gay marriage.
Michel and Karim
Around the corner from the Paris LGBT Center in the Bastille district live Michel and Karim. Together as a couple for 15 years their lives can well serve as a model for much of gay Paris in both appearance and quality. Their two-story townhouse on faces out onto a courtyard engulfed by other flats and townhouses. Their neighbors are friendly, straight and some with kids. In the course of any weekday virtually everyone in the court is up early and out to work in skilled professions. Karim–handsome, serious and originally from Morocco–works for Air France and drives his Peugeot Convertible to DeGaulle airport fifteen miles north of Paris. The airline offers marriage health benefits as well as generous travel perks to Michel, Karim and Karim’s mother; they can fly anywhere on Air France for only 10% of usual ticket costs.
Michel is short, cheerful and playfully witty. He’s been a telecommunication software engineer for most of his career but now at the age of fifty he has bought into a new restaurant and catering business with a friend. (Anyone who has walked around Paris knows there is an infinity of restaurants, cafes, bistros, bars and braziers.) Sitting in their spacious living room with atrium windows the sunlit room is cheerfully decorated with two large original paintings on the walls, a stylish modern sofa, with decorator pillows of course, and leather chairs. Art books lie on the coffee table while the small kitchen is well stocked with gadgets and utensils for cooking and entertaining friends.
Upstairs are two neatly decorated bedrooms and a modern bath. Michel bought the apartment about twenty years ago; it was not cheap as comfortable housing in Paris has always been dear. Looking at listings in the storefront real estate offices around Paris reveals one bedroom flats in a desirable area now cost about four to five hundred thousand euros.
The upside of being gay in Paris is obvious. From the accepting and casual ambience of neighborhoods like Michel’s and Karim’ s with its cafes, grocery shops, opera house (Bastille), clothing stores, florists and Gothic churches —to the very public circus of Pride Festival and on to the privacy of gay saunas. The city offers a quantity and quality of modern gay urban life that sets a standard for the world.
Gay marriage in France has brought all the same rights and privileges as straight marriage, including child adoption, inheritance, housing, immigration, health benefits, job transfers, synchronized vacation time, responsibility for debts, and social welfare. They also can file a joint tax return.
There are many LGBT couples who don’t care one way or another to be married since they don’t want children and have legalized their union with trusts and wills.
See the France News and Reports–#11 and #12–link on this site.)
As for the downside of gay life in France, my hosts said this has to do with the occasional homophobic attack or slur from ignorant or hostile people—usually from poorly educated white lower classes or the occasional immigrant from African Muslim countries.
(Clearly, however, the great majority of immigrants are glad to be in prosperous and safe Paris where opportunities exist far beyond anything in their native countries. Despite their lack of knowledge or experience with gays, they understand that the rule of law and ‘live and let live’ are required here. Although many of these foreigners do live better in France they often have impoverished lives here sleeping in substandard housing and relying on free or cheap kitchens for at least one meal a day. I observed one such soup kitchen in the same mid-scale district where Michel and Karim live.)
An very unusual but severely homophobic incident occurred early in 2004 in which lower working class guys taunted a gay couple that escalated into a attack with gasoline and fire that left one partner nearly dead. The attack aroused shock and horror throughout the country that reached to the highest levels including then President Chirac who wrote to the victims to express his sympathy. (As usual, some saw his gesture as political, others saw it as symbolic of France’s appreciation of gays and minorities; some were grateful for the gesture while others wondered why it took the President a month to go.)
Political and Social Action
Karim and Michel said there is no single major nationwide political action group that lobbies the federal government for LGBT causes. However, several smaller organization are hard at work. The Paris-based Campaign Against Homophobia persists vigorously in its public program to educate and reform social and political attitudes by presenting conferences, press releases and TV interviews as well as organizing street marches and petition signings. Act-Up is also active in Paris advocating for HIV education, prevention and care. It vigorously and vocally supported passage of gay marriage.
The biggest event, Gay Pride Paris, has recently taken on a somewhat less party atmosphere and increased it’s political flavor. Additionally, the LGBT Center offers social outreach services. One of the staff members there is a sociologist who talks to universities and private corporations as well as civil and government organizations to increase their awareness and sensitivity to LGBT issues.
Publications: there are numerous magazines, newsletters and pamphlets published for the LGBT community and most of them are free and available in many shops and cafes in the Marais district. The biggest rag is Tetu a glossy monthly magazine that mixes sexy beefcake with feature stories, interviews, film-book-music reviews, fashion photos and the latest gay news around Paris, France and the world. It’s slick and trendy style is similar to Out magazine in the USA and Gay Times in UK. Tetu was started about 10 years ago by a former lover of Yves St. Laurent so one can be sure the mag is a trendsetter. (Unfortunately it ceased publication last year.)
Another newer splashy mag is JeParis with similar features about the community and the latest happenings. Listed in both magazines are dozens of LGBT organizations throughout Paris and France offering social, political, health, sporting and religious meetings as well as countless entertainment venues for eating, dancing, drinking, having sex or cruising.
The best listing of LGBT organizations is the booklet put out by the Paris LGBT Center called ‘Genres’. Across nearly two hundred pages are listed perhaps a thousand different associations, clubs, focus groups, travel agents, medical resources, publications, youth groups, phone lines, web sites, parents support organizations, Asian-Jewish-Muslim-Armenian groups, leather guys, Pride Parade, sex shops, anti-homophobia activists… no interest group is left out. There is an annual LGBT film festival in November.
Gay sports are big in France. In August 2018 Paris will host the 10th Gay Games that expects about 10,000 participants from 50 countries to compete in 30 sporting events.
In addition, the Attitude travel publishes it own magazine (http://www.attitude-travels.com) specifically for the LGBT community offering a wide variety of destinations, tours, and venues for romantic getaways or ships for LGB cruises.
Paris LGBT Center
Just around the corner from Michel and Karim is Paris’ LGBT Center, a three-room storefront operation staffed by one full time person, three half time staff members and numerous volunteers. It’s a busy place with social and club activities scheduled throughout each day and month. From sports to medicine to youth to outreach for Muslim immigrants the Center hosts a panoply of smaller groups too small to have their own meeting place. On the brightly colored walls are signs and posters for upcoming or past events. On the tables and in racks are dozens of brochures and leaflets and post cards and magazines with advice, articles and advertising for entertainment, sexuality, health, social action, women’s issues, counseling and more.
Coffee and tea are available at the Center along with accepting words if needed. I spoke to one of the half time staff, Yamina, originally from the Czech Republic, who served as the general office manager for the Center. She makes sure the place runs smoothly to accommodate the various associations who need time and space such as Les Vendredies Femmes (The Friday Women) who gather to talk as a support group and then go out to dinner or to the movies once a week.
Symbolic of the LGBT community’s integration into the complex tapestry of Parisian life is the location of the Center directly across the narrow one-way street (rue Keller) from a grammar school with its squealing and scrambling youngsters. Yamina said the Center has never had a complaint from the school. Then too, it may only be a coincidence that the Center doesn’t open until four PM when most (not all) of the kids have left.
As usual there are free condoms; I noticed one swarthy dark haired young man take a some packets from the jar as he looked around to see if anyone was watching. It’s a safe guess he was a Muslim immigrant from one of the sexually repressed Islamic countries of North Africa. France is now home for many of its former colonist citizens, especially Algeria. A volunteer told me that outreach to these community members is difficult and awkward because they still hide their sexuality deep in their Muslim closets. Very often they share housing and food with friends or family in Paris and still feel the strong grip of Sharia law and negative attitudes about homosexuality.
The other part time staff included a sociologist, Massimo, who focuses on education outreach to the larger community such as universities, corporations and religious organizations. Another staff member was responsible for public communications and fundraising. The only full time person is a social worker much of whose time is taken up with counseling and doing case work that includes providing shelter (there are five rooms upstairs for emergency short-term housing) and food money for immigrant gays or rejected youth who come to Paris to escape intolerant home situations. The Center’s web site is: https://www.centrelgbtparis.org/
Rob and Yannick
If you’re lucky on your next visit to Paris you may be able to stay at the well situated bed and breakfast run by Rob and Yannick, a handsome Dutch-French couple who host their guests in the top floor of an old but classical building overlooking the Plaza Republique. Their three-bedroom apartment is appointed with molded 12-foot ceilings sprouting chandeliers, a marble fireplace and light-filled eight foot windows that flood the rooms with morning sun (or gray light from an overcast sky).
Originally from Brittany province in northern France, Yannick came to Paris ten years ago after 27 years of small town life where his parents also ran a B&B. I asked if he had experienced any homophobia in the hinterland as he was growing up or as a young man. “I never heard such a word,” he said without pausing, “you don’t see that usually.” Very rare was aggressive gay bashing. He mentioned the dramatic burn attack that had occurred but other than that neither he nor Rob had ever experienced problems.
Rob, the Dutchman, had lived previously in Amsterdam and hailed from a small town in southern Holland. He said gay life in Paris was virtually the same as in Amsterdam, considered by many LGBT folks to be the gay capital of Europe. Life for gays in both cites was significantly free of bigotry and bias in general.
We sat with them in their modest elegant living room, yellow tulips on the coffee table, a well-cushioned sofa and two Queen Anne chairs, a bookcase of literary, cinematic and gay books—all bathed in bright mid-day light. They met on a beach in Ibiza, Spain and it was love–and not a little bit of lust–at first sight eight years ago. For four years Rob commuted between Holland and France until he was able to move in full time. They were planning their next trip, to Gran Canaria Island, soon.
Both Rob and Yannick as well as Michel and Karim are both mixed-culture couples. This is not surprising considering that Paris is one of the most cosmopolitan cities of the world and international travel is as common as domestic travel is in North America.
Their B&B is booked through next summer but it’s insufficient to support them since they rent out only one bedroom. Rob is a graphics designer and Yannick works for a travel company that organizes tours in Europe and Africa. Rob had just celebrated his 37th birthday with a group of best friends gathered around the large dining table for dinner and loving comradeship. For them gay Paris was safe, comfortable, dignified and sufficient—it was home. Their e-mail address is: email@example.com
Paris—City of Light & City of Queens
(This has nothing to do with gay Paris but it’s too good to leave out.)
Speaking of queens, while we were in Paris Queen Elizabeth—QE2–of England came to town via the Eurostar chunnel train from her digs in central London in just over three hours. Talk about local international travel!
Here for a state visit for four days she was a fluffy relief from the gruesome news about war and poverty. Without making prior arrangement with us Elizabeth showed up on the same day in two places we happen to be, one of which was at the beautiful palace in the Luxembourg Gardens, probably the most pleasant open green in the city. Here she was greeted with full honors by handsome gendarmes in shiny brass helmets with red feathers riding on their sleek brown stallions.
Her Majesty was much the honored guest of (then) President Chirac and his wife (in a white hat nearly twice the size of Elizabeth’s blue one) greeted her to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Entente Cordiale between France and UK that hardly anyone remembers.
Amidst flourishing state dinners, black tie formal receptions, visits to haute shops, Liz was also feted, unbeknownst to her, on TV later that night with an outlandish talk show satire.
Dressed in kitschy bright red with black leather gloves and matching handbag her incredibly close look-alike appeared in an interview forum with a live audience that laughed its way through an hour of comedy and satire about her and her family. Appearing with her was (then young) grandson William also in red (sweater) and cut off pants.
The show was of course in French so we missed most of the verbal humor but the satirical photos displayed on a large monitor above the TV stage spoke much about the speaking. William, another remarkably close look-alike, was shown nude holding a towel in the appropriate place and Liz was shown hiking up her skirt to adjust her garter. It was all good fun but the remarkable similarities of the actors to the royals was uncanny and the mockery at moments bordered on tabloid scandal.
Frustratingly, at the same time on TV was a live report about homophobia and gay marriage in France with interviews with government officials and LGB activists pushing for further liberal reforms for gay citizens. However, the report lasted for only five minutes and I could not tell which activist group spokesman or government official was speaking. So we went back to Elizabeth’s roasting just in time to hear William talk about joining brother Harry and dad Charles for the occasional ‘toke’ of pot much to the sour disapproval of HM: “I am not amused,” said the royal She. Soon the show was over and Elizabeth could rest regally in whatever elegant pied a terre the French provided for her in the City of Light.
The Real Challenge of Parisian Gay Life
The quality and pace of gay and lesbian life in modern Paris has less to do with sexual orientation, sex or gay liberation than it has to do with other essential tasks of modern urban living such as career management, affordable housing, food and dining, taxes, solving domestic conflicts, maintaining friendships, caring for one’s family–and choosing the right wine, of course.
(For me there was hardly a greater contrast than openly gay life in Paris and paranoid Cairo where countless LGBT folks live dual, hidden, secretively manipulated and inhibited lives in constant fear of exposure and humiliation. Not to mention the exasperation and frustration of not being able to casually express one’s feelings for one’s lover or having infrequent access to him or her.)
Parisian gay life is virtually full spectrum life with all the opportunities and responsibilities that entails. For many French homosexuals, as it has been for Michel and Karim, Yannick and Rob, the biggest challenge has come not from family, neighbors, religion or the state but from within the emotional and intellectual turbulence inherent in a committed, intimate and ongoing relationship.
Both couples have worked through unstable periods of injured feelings and misunderstandings that inevitably arose from the endlessly tangled synergy that two linked and different personalities generate under a shared roof and in a shared bed.
Despite its shortcomings and the inevitable neocon opposition Parisian LGBT life carries forward the beacon of human rights and the rights of human love. The French stand proud, determined and willing to lead the civilized world forward in this effort.