25 April 2013

Nos Marriages Sont Legaux. J'espere Qui Nous Rend Egaux!

It seems that attacks against members of any group of people become the most violent, and most virulent, when that group is gaining (however slowly) the same status and rights afforded members of the "majority" culture and race.

That is exactly what happened during the Reconstruction after the Civil War, and during the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950's and 1960's.  The Ku Klux Klan got its start during the Reconstruction and had a major resurgence during the Civil Rights era.  But the KKK was hardly alone in intimidating, harassing and even killing African-Americans who had the audacity to pursue their educations, enter the professions, worship their maker, shop, eat and simply live in the ways and places they saw fit.  And, of course, the KKK would use those same tactics, and legislators would pass laws, to prevent African-Americans from exercising their right to vote and do any number of other things white people took for granted.

So it is, unfortunately, no surprise that there has been a wave of anti-gay protests (in which demonstrators brandished signs with slogans like: 1 Pere + 1 Mere, C'est Hereditaire) and, worse, violence over recent days in France.  The other day, the self-proclaimed Country of Human Rights became the fourteenth country to legalize same-sex marriage.  The first gay matrimonial ceremonies are expected to take place in June and, not surprisingly, some members of la droite and various organizations with "famille" in their name (Does that sound familiar?) are doing what they can to have the law repealed.

(To be fair, French philosophes were probably the first intellectuals in the Western world to declare that human beings have inalienable rights because they are human beings.  The Founding Fathers of the United States took much of their inspiration from Voltaire, Rousseau and other French theorists on human liberty.  And, while French colonial rulers did some terrible things, France has probably taken in more political refugees than any country except the US.)

Of course, the fact that such violent homophobic attacks as the one Wilfrid de Bruijn and his partner suffered are taking place means that an inevitable part of human history is moving forward.  As with the lynchings during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights era, hateful reactionaries fight hardest when their cause has just been lost.  Although the vast majority of French are Catholic (at least nominally) and there is a large Muslim population (as well as the fourth-largest Jewish population in the world), France is,  in many respects, more secular than the US and countries like Spain that have legalized same-sex unions.  Having lived in France and known a number of French people, I think they have an easier time of separating religion from government and may be more ready to embrace the concept of marriage that is not defined by religious institutions.  I have said that the only way we will have true marriage equality is when religious institutions no longer have the power to join people in unions that are recognized as marriages (or even partnerships) by secular governments.  France may be more able and willing than the US to do this.

On the other hand, I also know from experience that while French people more readily acknowledge that certain fashion designers and other celebrities are gay, the subject of homosexuality (let alone transgenderism) is not nearly as openly discussed as it is in America.  So, while French officials may be better able to make same-sex marriages more routine (or, at least, seem more routine) than they are in the States, I have to wonder whether same-sex unions will have the same level of respect that they do in some parts of the US, or in some European countries like the Netherlands.

One reason, I believe, that legalizing same-sex marriage may not have the same social impact in France as it's had in those US states that have it is, ironically, that marriage is (arguably) not as important to the French as it is to Americans.  An even higher percentage of French than American couples are cohabitants, and in France, as in most Western European countries, a higher percentage of first children are born to unmarried women.  

One similarity between the French tax system and its American counterpart is that it provides strong incentives for a "traditional" family in which the father works and the mother stays home to look after kids.  However, the French system seems to be much kinder than its American counterpart to cohabitees.  One result is that cohabiting couples stay together longer in France than they do in the US or the UK.

Also, even though France has allowed civil unions since 1998, people living under those pacts are not allowed to adopt children.  And, although support for same-sex marriage has grown significantly in France, public support for allowing same-sex couples to adopt has not grown with it. Now, I'm not saying that the purpose of marriage is rearing children, but I have to wonder whether some couples would feel less incentive to get married if they couldn't adopt children.

Given what I've just described, I have to wonder whether France's new law--laudable as it is, given its circumstances--will actually result in a wave of same-sex marriages as has happened in the American states that have allowed them.  After all, Spain--whose tax policies regarding marriage bear some similarity to those in France--has not had nearly as many same-sex weddings as some people anticipated.   Now, one could argue that Spain is a more conservatively Catholic country than its neighbor on the other side of the Pyrenees.  However, there, as in other countries, there is a vast difference in attitudes between younger and older people regarding homosexuality and related issues.  So, while younger Spaniards accept gays and marriages between them nearly as much as their peers in Europe and some parts of the US, it still doesn't--and may not, for the foreseeable future--translate into more same-sex marriages.

Still, I want to offer words of congratulations to the government of Francois Hollande for supporting the law, and words of support to gay French people who are bearing the backlash of change.

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