Paris after Orlando: gay prisoners of racial prejudice

Vigil held in Houston, Texas for 2016 Orlando shooting.Wikicommons/Ashton Woods. Some rights reserved.Reading
between 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 this 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 to 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.

Excluding liturgies

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 a bewildering
survey published by political scientist Sylvain Brouard. 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 gay men 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 Muslism.” 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 last Thursday, 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).

Beyond borders

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 closer others are
further othered, are we safer?

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