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Carrie Dennis Headshot

Thoughts of an American Au Pair in Paris on France's Fight Over Gay Marriage

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My first weekend as an au pair in Paris was marked by the "manifestation contre le mariage gay," in which hundreds of thousands of protesters marched on Paris to show their opposition to the new Socialist government's plan to extend marriage and adoption rights to same-sex couples. Had it not been for a fresh-off-the-train au pair and four children at home, it's likely that my new French host parents would have attended. This is literally the only thing I dislike about the family I live with.

France currently allows civil unions between same-sex couples, but recently instated President François Hollande is actively seeking to legalize same-sex marriage and extend adoption rights to same-sex couples in what, if passed, will be the biggest social reform since the abolition of the death penalty in 1981. The National Assembly is expected to vote on the bill next week.

To placate the bill's opponents, an amendment that would have legalized medically assisted procreation (MAP) for same-sex couples was dropped. Much of the opposition to the bill is rooted in the belief that MAP for same-sex couples goes against nature, but beyond the fact that same-sex marriage is not the direct gateway to MAP that the bill's opponents have ludicrously claimed it is, and beyond the fact that married opposite-sex couples have the right to MAP, and beyond the fact that MAP is an entirely different conversation than what headed into the National Assembly, MAP is an altogether different issue from gay marriage. The two questions are unrelated. But even so, take that argument away, and what you're still left with is, "A child should be raised by a man and woman. It's not right otherwise." I'd like to believe this isn't homophobia, just the hardened religious values of a traditionally Catholic society, but the two are becoming indistinguishable in my mind.

On Jan. 27, thousands of gay marriage supporters marched north from Place Denfert-Rochereau before converging on Place de la Bastille three hours later. I was one of them. Between chants of "égalité!" and "maintenant!" I tried to figure out what I, a straight American girl, was doing there. The decisions of the French government don't affect me in any way; I don't even have French friends close to the cause. "Why are you here? Why are you involving yourself in French politics?" I was asked, only to respond with a gaping mouth and a blank stare. Forget that I don't have the French vocabulary to respond adequately; at that moment I didn't have the English words, either. But ultimately this isn't about me, or even French politics, for that matter. It's about global human progress. "Fier de marcher du bon côté de l'histoire," read one demonstrator's sign. Translated, it said, "Proud to walk on the right side of history."

I go to a French class that is significantly too difficult for me, but I like to sit and listen to the funny, old, fat instructor speak. Each week I understand a little more of what she's saying. Last week she asked us our opinions on "la manif." One woman launched into a dissertation that included something about one gay, two gays, three gays, four gays, polygamy, dogs! Another talked about how poorly children allegedly develop without both a prominent masculine and feminine role in their lives. Yet another talked about the hardship that adopted children with two mothers or two fathers might face at school. I could not understand why the question of who marries whom is their problem in the first place (I literally don't care if someone wants to marry a toaster -- to each his own -- but marrying dogs is another matter, because dogs can't consent), and I found it curious that for all their concern about children lacking both a male and a female parental figure, no one seemed concerned about single-parent households (is a single, heterosexual mother or father better at raising a happy, well-adjusted child than a same-sex couple?), the legal limitations of custody rights for gay parents when their child loses the other parent, or the simple fact that equality is a basic human right. My French eluded me; I mustered something like, "What do you do if you have a homosexual brother or sister?!" Everyone was mostly just surprised that I'd spoken.

I first came to Paris in 2011 as a student studying abroad. I associate much of this time with abject embarrassment at being American. In French I was asked about American politics, and my silence was taken for ignorance rather than difficulty with the French language. In English I was asked about my cheeseburger consumption. I wondered why I hadn't been raised to speak more than one language and marveled at what a huge failure on America's part that was. (I still kind of think this, though not as vehemently.) This time around I've realized not only what it means to be from the United States but what it means to be from a city as liberal and as colorful as New York.

Why, in a modern European country with socialist leanings, does "liberté, égalité, fraternité" fall apart so quickly in the face of LGBT politics? France, particularly Paris, has a reputation as being culturally superior to all of America, but lately it seems that the so-called "city of love" is lacking in love. I'm waiting to see how this discussion ends.