THE BLOG
02/25/2013 08:10 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Gay Marriage Debates and Interpretative Bird Dances in France

On Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, the French National Assembly passed a bill to allow same-sex couples to marry and adopt children. The bill is headed to the Senate, where it is expected to be approved in May or June of this year.

As Americans, we might assume that opposition to same-sex marriage is articulated more or less the same way from one country to another, but France provides an example of how anti-same-sex-marriage arguments can be framed pretty differently from what we see here (for those of you who saw a recent video of a French man dancing an interpretative bird dance as part of an anti-same-sex-marriage protest, you get what I mean). There are several reasons for differences in the political rhetoric of the two countries:

For one thing, explicit religious references have played a much smaller role in French marriage debates than they commonly do in the U.S. -- indeed, any American news article about French gay marriage that has referred to France as a "Catholic country" is a bit misleading. According to a 2007 survey, 51 percent of French people identify as Catholic, but only half of that 51 percent believe in the existence of God. In addition, French political discourse has a long history of secularism and a stricter separation between church and state than what we have in the U.S. All of this adds up to French opponents of same-sex marriage being much less likely than their American counterparts to invoke religious ideas in the public sphere.

Another relevant difference between the French and American contexts is that in France, religious marriage ceremonies are distinct from civil marriage ceremonies. Unlike the U.S., where a single religious ceremony can serve a double function, in France, a religious ceremony allows a couple's marriage to be recognized by the church and the civil ceremony allows a couple's marriage to be recognized by the state. This explains the case of a retired priest who is also mayor of the village of Eréac in Brittany, who has said that once the law passes in the Senate, he will happily perform same-sex marriages in his town's city hall, but will not be performing religious ceremonies for those same couples in the church down the street. The separation of the civil from the religious encourages people to envision these two kinds of marriage as distinct things, and has made the same-sex marriage bill, which only deals with civil marriage, seem like less of a religious issue than it would in a country like the U.S. where the borders between civil and religious marriage are more blurred.

A third difference between the two countries is France's strong separation between the private and public spheres, especially with regard to sex. None of the arguments against same-sex marriage in France focused on what happens in the privacy of couples' bedrooms -- not a surprise in a country where "sodomy" was legalized as early as 1791 (the first country in Europe to do so) and sexual acts in private between consenting adults, gay or straight, have been legal ever since.

So if the opponents of same-sex marriage weren't talking about sex or religion, what kinds of arguments were they making? Almost all of the opposition has relied on discussions of the purported dangers of same-sex parenting, since marriage would make it considerably easier for French same-sex couples to become parents. French same-sex couples can already avail themselves of civil unions (called "Pacs"). These unions provide essentially the same rights as marriage, with one important difference: couples who enter a Pacs are not able to adopt a child together or have access to reproductive medical technologies. The law says that only married couples are allowed to adopt a child jointly or to use reproductive technologies, such as artificial insemination and in-vitro fertilization (unmarried people are allowed to adopt as individuals, but are denied access to reproductive technologies). Consequently, the issue of same-sex marriage has not been so much about whether the state should recognize same-sex couples (it already does), but whether the obstacles to parenthood should be removed for them.

Gay marriage opponents' primary concern with same-sex parenting has had to do with the alleged importance of sexual difference between parents for a child's well-being, and where religious references have been lacking in French debates, psychoanalytical arguments about the importance of child's experience with the "symbolic difference" of gender in the form of a mother and a father have filled their place. Americans would undoubtedly be surprised to see psychoanalysts testifying before Congress, but that's precisely what happened last November in France's National Assembly, where four psychoanalysts were asked to comment on the effects of same-sex parenting (two saw no harm in same-sex parenting, two were very much against it). A fear among opponents is the potential erosion of gender roles that same-sex marriage is supposed to lead to. Gender roles are important in France and the notion of essential sexual difference runs deep even among some strands of feminism, particularly those associated with the theoreticians Luce Irigaray and Hélène Cixous (in the summer of 2010, when it was announced that high school sex-ed textbooks would begin to discuss gender roles as "socially constructed," 80 députés from the National Assembly and 113 senators -- roughly a third of all senators -- sent letters of protest to the Minister of Education). And so it is not surprising that in the text of the current bill for same-sex marriage, one of the most hotly contested elements was the replacement of the words "father" and "mother" in the Civil Code with the word "parent."

And now to come back to that interpretative bird dance. What we see here is an example of an opposition to same-sex marriage without religious references, without sexual references, but with an emphasis on a child's need for a mother and a father. And though this kind of protest seems more appropriate in the French context than in the U.S. for the reasons I outlined above, that still doesn't explain everything. My guess is that my French queer sisters and brothers would find the spectacle to be just as peculiar as I did.

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