Gay and Lesbian Culture in Paris

Paris in the early years of the 20th century attracted a wild and woolly lot of characters who defined themselves as “artists.” Many of them also called themselves “gay.” Even though the Assemblée Nationale didn’t vote to decriminalize homosexuality until 1982, the closet door swung wide open throughout those heady Lost Generation years, and artists, intellectuals, and everyday folk resisted the urge to hide their sexuality from the judgmental eyes of the world.

In May 2013 it became legal for same-sex couples in France to not just marry, but adopt children together, too.
In May 2013 it became legal for same-sex couples in France to not just marry, but adopt children together, too. Photo © Frédéric BISSON, licensed Creative Commons Attribution.

Gertrude Stein and her longtime partner, Alice B. Toklas, lived out and proud in Paris’s Left Bank, as did Sylvia Beach, the respected proprietor of landmark bookstore Shakespeare & Company. Oscar Wilde, the great Irish writer entombed beneath a majestic headstone in Paris’s touristy Père-Lachaise Cemetery, sought sanctuary in France after a horrible episode in which he was imprisoned in England for the crime of being gay. World War II was a dark era for gays and lesbians, who were shipped off with Jews, gypsies, and other “deviants” to concentration camps. Thankfully, a lot has changed since then.

In 1999, the Assemblée Nationale passed a law to protect individuals in civil unions and extended this coverage to gay men and lesbians. PACS (Pacte Civile de Solidarité) allows gays and straights alike to register their partnerships and share in some of the social benefits and protections extended to married heterosexual couples. The PACS union is so popular that it’s well on its way to eclipsing traditional marriage as the bond uniting most straight couples. In 2009, more than 170,000 French couples were “PACSed.” In that same year, 200,000 couples married. In theory, based on the French constitution, France only recognizes citoyens; special rights are not accorded to these citizens with relation to their gender, sexual orientation, and religious preference.

For gays and lesbians who believe in the old-fashioned tradition of marriage, there’s good news: In May 2013, President Hollande kept one of his campaign promises and signed into a law a measure making it legal for same-sex couples to not just marry, but adopt children together, too. Believers in true egalité cheered the long-overdue gesture, while French conservatives did everything they could to halt the law’s passage, with legal maneuvering and noisy nationwide protests. Still, polls report that 60 percent of the population stands in support of gay marriage, and in the first six months after the law was signed, more than 7,000 same-sex couples tied the knot throughout l’Hexagone.

Each June, gay pride festivals throughout France draw hundreds of thousands of participants and spectators. In Paris, former mayor Bertrand Delanoë usually makes an appearance at the rainbow-heavy funfest as it weaves through the city, blasting techno music to enthusiastic crowds; and the city’s homosexual hub, the Marais, begins to resemble a gay Disneyland in all the best ways. One way to get a sense of French ideas on homosexuality is by watching films with gay themes. Some of the most interesting, entertaining, and popular among the international crowd are Côte d’Azur, Défense d’Aimer, Donne-moi la Main, Drôle de Félix, Entre Nous, French Twist, Je t’aime . . . moi non plus, Ma Vie en Rose, Naissance des Pieuvres, Presque Rien, Les Témoins, and La Vie d’Adèle.

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