French attitudes about being gay
France, its inhabitants will never tire of telling you, is “le pays des droits de l’homme”, the country that invented human rights. It is true that law protects many individual liberties, but it is also true that France is a country steeped in tradition — a tradition that includes rigidly applied behavioral rules and tremendous pressure to meet familial expectations. Thus, it isn’t always easy for French gays to come out of the closet, and the French attitude towards gays can be quite complicated.
“Laissez-faire” is a French expression that pretty well describes how this nation of sixty million people regards the private lives of others. The French seldom ask each other questions that might be considered “too personal” and the notion of respecting others’ “jardins secrets” (secret gardens) is almost sacred.
Former president Mitterand, for instance, was able to maintain a mistress and illegitimate daughter during his fourteen years in office without the media pestering him on the subject. It only became an issue at Mitterand’s funeral, when no one seemed to know the proper etiquette regarding this situation. Overall, what you do behind closed doors is strictly private, and the French will often go out of their way to avoid finding out.
This attitude traditionally extends to homosexual practices and behavior. Sharing the fact that you’re gay, especially with straight people, will often be met with blank looks. Demonstrative displays of affection, talk of sexual proclivities and almost any deviance from the norm are generally considered to be in poor taste, “mal élevé.”
Foreigners, luckily, are somewhat exempt from these rules, but you should keep in mind that French gays are fighting against centuries of tradition to be “out” in the Anglo-Saxon manner. Nevertheless, the oppressive machismo found in most Mediterranean cultures is practically absent in France. French and foreigners alike have difficulty discerning who is gay and who isn’t on the basis of their looks.
American culture is affecting France as much as it is the rest of the world and these traditional truisms are beginning to wear thin. Take the Gay Pride parade in Paris as an example: Only ten years ago very few French gays marched in the parade, which seemed to be dominated by Americans and Northern Europeans. “We don’t need to march; we already have our rights” was a typical response, followed by an irony-free, “besides, what if my boss or my parents saw me on the televised news?” But now Gay Pride is a huge event, attracting up to half a million participants in Paris and respectable crowds in other cities all over the country.
An even more significant step for Gallic gays is the PACS legislation passed in 1999. PACS (Pacte Civil de Solidarité) extends many of the same rights to unmarried couples, straight or gay, that only married heterosexual couples enjoyed previously. Met with some opposition at the outset, PACS is now accepted by nearly everyone, a symbol of progress in the realm of human rights and integration with a dynamic, forward-looking Europe.
As a gay visitor to France, you’re unlikely to encounter any manifestations of homophobia. A same-sex couple’s request for a large bed will seldom raise an eyebrow in a hotel, while holding hands in the street may — due to France’s rigid social mores and codes of appropriate behavior. You can rest assured that the rare cases of gay bashing appear to be contained in low-income suburbs inhabited chiefly by immigrants — places you’re unlikely to visit as a tourist. Expect tolerance, but not necessarily warmth — at least not right away —even from local gays.