Florence had been talking about her broken relationship for an hour before she mentioned, reluctantly, that her ex was female. She had nothing to fear from her audience, which happened to be all-gay. “I’m not open about my homosexuality,” Florence explained.
On January 13 hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Paris to show their discontent with the government’s plans to give gay couples in France the right to marry and adopt children. A remarkable achievement in a country where sexual escapades by the former IMF director Strauss-Kahn and filmmaker Polanski pass as “gallantry”. Yet homosexuality seems to be a bit of a taboo in France – and not just among the catholics and muslims that marched against gay marriage.
Florence is a well-educated, fifty-something woman from Lyon. She has been in relationships with women for almost three decades. Her family is totally at ease with it. But Florence herself is not: she’s not out at work and prides herself on not having many gay friends. “I’m always afraid of what other people might think,” she explains. She reminds me of Viviane, another fifty-something lesbian who is living a closeted life in Paris. At work Viviane told she is a relationship with a “monsieur” – a lie she sustained with difficulty when her partner for years met a tragic end. Another friend, Alain, often says that he would like the French to be more tolerant towards homosexuality and in favor of marriage equality. Yet during the last elections he, a gay man himself, voted for the UMP, the centre-right party that is vehemently against gay marriage.
A recent issue of a French studies journal argues that the republican universalism of the country has prevented gay citizens from asserting their difference and, eventually, rights. I’ve met many French, gay and straight, who have absolutely no issue with homosexuality – but many seem to belong to the younger generations. If the Florences and Alains of France keep thinking they have a reason to be ashamed about their homosexuality, convincing opponents that gay couples deserve the same rights as straight ones might be a challenge.