Reading between the words is a “precipitous” art, wrote Jean Genet in Prisoner of Love: “The space between the words contains more reality than does the time it takes to read them.” The reality buried in press articles and official statements in France in the wake of the Orlando massacre was dreadful.
From the day of the shooting until the weekend when Gay Pride was held in the streets of Paris, public discourse showed the shrinking and toxic civic imagination of a European liberal democracy engulfed in homophobia and racism.
Death is increasingly brought in our browser tab, as writer and photographer Teju Cole has pointed out. We are increasingly exposed to camera footage of homicides and massacres that suddenly plunge us “into someone else’s horror.” Occasionally though, we share some of the victims’ social identities, prompting us into digital or, more rarely, physical acts of collective mourning and protests. For gay men and women across American and European liberal democracies, whose memories are burdened by experiences of abuse, discrimination, and violence, the Orlando shooting was proof that their lives could be destroyed again, with an even greater furor.
The reverberations of the Orlando shooting with French gays and lesbians’ own painful memories were made even more sorrowful by the fact that the victims’ sexual identities were only reluctantly acknowledged. This erasure by journalists and politicians has highlighted the lasting homophobia of French society. It served also as a reminder of how fragile the tenuous progress made for gay rights is amidst the rise of rightwing and fundamentalist Christian groups in France.
With a rare unanimity, on the day after the shooting the media overlooked the fact that most of the fallen were gay to concentrate on the sole identity of the shooter: US citizen, born to Afghan parents, having pledged allegiance to ISIS. Le Monde used the very clumsy word ‘anti-homosexual.’ Le Figaro chose a picture of a man and a woman crying in each others’ arms. Causeur, which had stood against gay marriage, published “Terrorism: let’s not amalgamate all the homophobes.”
From the whole political spectrum, French politicians, most of whom felt emboldened by global Islamist terrorism to amplify their calls to the populist ghosts of an alleged ‘national identity’, also showed how uncomfortable they were dealing with homosexuality among their citizens and electors. François Hollande kept absurdly changing the wording of his condolence, without ever really finding a message dignified for the deadliest attack on a gay target in American history.
The rampant homophobia of the French government was even more striking when Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve asked the organizers of Gay Pride to cancel it, before allowing it continue but with a shortened route. According to Cazeneuve, Pride could not be protected by a police force short-staffed due to the Euro 2016 soccer tournament. Using both the context of Islamist threats and the legal means of a seemingly perpetually extended state of emergency, the Ministry has recently shown a mastery in the art of authorizing or banning marches according to the government’s economic and social preferences, ultimately betraying its indifference to civil liberties and constitutional rights.
But death has a more democratic imagination than the excluding liturgies of the neoliberal French state. Death does not know class, gender or sexuality, nor borders, status, or time. In the days after the shooting, the future of the fallen tragically converged with the past of their path. Friends and relatives flew from Puerto Rico and Mexico to attend funerals in the United States. Bodies were repatriated to be buried in their homelands. Organizations provided financial assistance for the spoils of the undocumented dead.
The victims’ racial identities, mostly Hispanic and many Black, were not really highlighted by French LGBT organizations, while they denounced the generalized erasure of the victims’ sexual identities.
LGBT mainstream organizations in France have been extremely reluctant to address the increasing numbers of gays and lesbians moving to the extreme right. Didier Lestrade, the co-founder of Act Up Paris, warned of this shift in a book as early as 2011. The CEVIPOF Research Center of Sciences Po confirmed the trend this year with bewildering data. 38.6% and 26% of homosexual males and females had respectively voted for the Front National at the last regional election, compared to 30.2% and 27.8% of heterosexual men and women
Worryingly, LGBT mainstream organizations have failed to elaborate an inclusive agenda for ethno-religious minorities. This has led some to organize alternative events such as Pride de la Nuit or Paris Black Pride. Artist and writer Ṭarek L. told me: “If you are queer folk of color, they just negate or avoid this part of your identity because, in France, the universalist ideology forbids any conversation about race.” Régis Samba-Kounzi, a photographer and activist who worked for Act Up Paris for ten years, said: “Difficulties met by people of color due to the multiplicity of oppressions are not taken into consideration by LGBTQ organizations. They feel doubly excluded.”
A few years ago, the main coalition of LGBT associations in France, Inter-LGBT refused to integrate the Muslim organization Homosexuel-les Musulman-es de France (HM2F). His founder, an openly gay imam Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed was told: “We can’t trust Muslims.” This exclusion reinforced previous accusations of homo-nationalism made against Inter-LGBT. Contrary to the wording adopted by the Association of LGBT Journalists (AJL), in its post-Orlando press release Inter-LGBT did not acknowledge the plurality of prejudice that gay ethno-religious minorities encounter, whether anti-Semitism or Islamophobia.
The meeting, organized by François Hollande a week ago, of Inter-LGBT with some members of the French government is not promising for the future of an effective, inclusive struggle. Present at the meeting was the Minister for Women’s Rights, Laurence Rossignol, who is being sued by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) for “private insults of a racial nature.” Early this year, she compared veil-wearing Muslim women to “n*** who were in favor of slavery.” The struggle to end discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation should soon be incorporated into the goals of the Interministerial Delegation Against Racism and Antisemitism (DILCRA). This public body’s representatives have constantly refused to acknowledge the very validity of the Islamophobia concept, despite the fact that it is routinely used by international organizations and NGOs in gathering data and developing policies and advocacy, as pointed out by a recent report by the National Advisory Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH).
The recent terrorist attacks have shaken the foundations of a French society already weakened by unemployment and poverty. The responses of the French government, ranging from counter-terrorism operations to cultural and identity battles, are straining its very democratic fabric. The so-called war against terrorism is increasingly used to reinforce the prejudice that was an integral part of the toxic French political imagination long before the lethal advent of ISIS.
The inability for mainstream LGBT organizations to acknowledge the diversity of the gay population may risk alienating thousands of militants and weakening future struggles against homophobia. As Moroccan novelist living in Paris, Abdellah Taïa, wrote in Infidels: “You see, I’m like you. In misfortune and in power. Divine and orphaned. I’m made of the same stuff as you. I’m in you. In every body. Every night. Every dream. . . . I’m human. Extraterrestrial. Everywhere. Nowhere. Man. Woman. Neither one or the other. Beyond all borders.”
As the attacks in Orlando made all too clear for gays and lesbians in France, we certainly feel very vulnerable when we seem to be condemned to death like distant others.
But, when others closer are further othered, are we safer?
Jean-Philippe Dedieu is a WIGH Fellow at Harvard University and a CIRHUS Fellow at New York University. Specializing in African diasporas, he is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times. He recently published a book, La Parole Immigrée: Les Migrants Africains dans l’Espace Public en France, 1960-1995 (Paris: Klincksieck/Les Belles Lettres, 2012).