Gay Paris: Not All It's Cracked Up to Be

By Paul Ames

It's Paris under the spring sunshine. Couples stroll hand-in-hand, steal kisses while window shopping past chic boutiques, or whisper sweet-nothings over marble-topped tables at a sidewalk cafe.

These are familiar cliches of the romantic French capital, except that along the Rue des Archives, the couples in question are likely to be same-sex.

This is the Marais neighborhood, a favorite hangout of gay Parisians and a scene of celebration on April 23 when lawmakers in the Assemblee nationale, just down the Seine river, voted 331 to 225 to write same-sex marriage into law.

That celebration, however, was tinged with concern.

The Socialist government's bill to make France the world's 14th country to legalize gay marriage has unleashed a wave of opposition that has mobilized mass demonstrations and revealed a current of homophobia running deep and wide through French society.

"France has generally evolved positively in its attitudes to homosexuality, to the point that many people thought homophobia no longer exists. Well, now we know that it's still there," said Elisabeth Ronzier, head of the campaign group SOS Homophobie.

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Her organization, which campaigns against violence and discrimination, has seen calls to its helpline increase three-fold this year, Ronzier told GlobalPost.

While gay couples are lining up to marry, opponents have launched a legal challenge at the Constitutional Court to block the legislation. A "national demonstration day" in favor of the "rights of children to have a mother and a father" has been called for May 26.

Leading organizers deny charges of homophobia and have sought to distance themselves from more hardline anti-gay protesters. They disowned the designers of a poster for the May 26 event which portrayed Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, as an enraged gorilla.

Nevertheless, grass-roots supporters of the movement frequently use homophobic language and gay-rights groups report a rise in violent attacks since the protests against same-sex marriage began.

"Homophobia is growing in France," said Adrian Lambert, a barman at Cox, a renowned gay bar on Rue des Archives.

"Society is more closed than other countries," he said, while pouring beers. "If you look at Spain or the Netherlands, France is more backward. Plus, there is this extremist tendency we always have to watch out for."

Two of Cox's regular customers were attacked and badly beaten last month after spending an evening in the neighborhood, Lambert says.

Opinion surveys have consistently shown a majority supporting the same-sex marriage bill. A poll published May 2 showed 53 percent backing the "marriage for all" law, which grants marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples. Sixty-seven percent want an end to the demonstrations against the law.

Voters in Paris elected a gay man, Bertrand Delanoe, as their mayor in 2001 and sent him back to city hall in 2008.

Although derided by some as a "gay ghetto," the historic streets and alleys of the Marais appear to be a model of openness.

The district was previously better-known as a Jewish neighborhood - and its gay bars co-exist alongside falafel joints and delis selling knish and poppyseed strudel. Recently, it's taken off as a trendy shopping area, its stores and cafes becoming a popular tourist draw.

Despite such apparent tolerance, the gay marriage bill has attracted opposition on a scale and intensity unseen in France's European neighbors.

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