Not too long ago, I wrote about how in France the enemies of equal marriage outed themselves as the truly hypocritical bullies they are, when they reacted to counter-protestors with physical violence. Since then, I am saddened to report, the situation has worsened.
Protests and counter-protests are staged at least once a month, with impressive turnouts on both sides, while the law guaranteeing same sex couples the right to marriage and adoption is slowly but steadily moving through the bureaucratic system towards ratification. Like German journalist and blogger Antje Schrupp has said about the women’s quota: It’s coming, no matter what; it’s only a matter of time. The same can be said for equal marriage: In societies that are founded on the principles of democracy and equality, denying certain people basic rights cannot be justified and upheld in the long run. Clearly, Western democracies are at that threshold at the moment, some more than others, but all the signs point towards progress.
(Here’s to you, New Zealand:)
However, France is currently a bitter example that the opponents of equality are not going down without a fight. The protests are just one side of the coin, indicative of an increasing mobilization on all fronts. And while I disagree wholeheartedly with their views, which are reactionary, misinformed and homophobic, a little grassroots activism is part of the democratic process (even though it is all too often accompanied by hate speech). It is comforting to know that at least here in Paris, the city takes care of unwanted vile opinions that are polluting the neighborhood.
However, there is another side of the coin, which is the opposite of democratic. Incited by the most violent rhethoric, even from politicians (“This bill will murder children!”), the heated discussion for and against equal marriage has sparked a radicalisation of the surprisingly diverse anti-equality activists. The consequence? A number of violent, homophobic attacks.
In Lille, a gay bar was vandalized, leaving three injured. In Paris, a young man was severely beaten up for walking arm in arm with his partner. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, of many more reported incidents of physical violence and hate speech directed at homosexuals and supporters of equal marriage. What’s hidden underneath the surface, however, are the true causes of this bizarre popular movement, which sarcastically calls itself “Manif pour tous” (Protest for all as opposed to marriage for all) and reappropriates the highly symbolic color pink for its mobilization. What is uniting this seemingly random group of individuals?
Neither religion nor demographic seem to be a decisive factor, though there certainly is a strong link to right-leaning politics. Members of the conservative UMP and the far-right FN are known to have marched among the protestors. However, it strikes me as symptomatic rather than causal, that the opposition would actively endorse a movement so clearly directed against the politics of the current government. President Hollande is not doing so well in the national polls, and legalizing equal marriage would be a relatively straight-forward way for him to score some points. After all, the majority of the French are still in favor of it.
Is homophobia at the core of all this? Undoubtedly, but it does not fully explain the heavy mobilization against an issue that affects the opponents so little, if at all. Instead, I believe the movement is a reaction to a much larger trend in Western democracies towards liberalization and the destabilization of the traditional bastions of identity: clearly defined gender roles, belonging to the nation state, the nuclear family… In the 90s, the growing uneasiness towards this destabilizing process was termed pomophobia by cultural critic Thomas B. Byers, and I believe that’s what we see happening in France at the moment.
Add to this development a state of economic uncertainty and crisis, accompanied by fear, jealousy and resentment, and you find yourself with an explosive combination. Political fatigue, anti-immigrant sentiments and now homophobia are the tools of the right-wing to mobilize their clientele, when the actual processes at work are too difficult to resolve and too complex to explain in a single campaign poster. These days, the culture shock is taking place at home, and there is no return to the comfort of the familiar, except in ignorance and brutality, justified and fuelled by a false sense of marginalization.
It feels weird, for someone trying to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised, to suddenly find the world on the right side of history and to have to tell the (not so) “silent majority” (which is actually a minority): “This is happening. Deal with it.”
UPDATE: Just today (22 April) the President of the French National Assembly, Claude Bartolone, received a violent threat in the mail, warning him to legalize gay marriage. A letter addressed to him was filled with gun powder, warning him that “if he wanted war, he’d get it”.