Back in the fall of 1998, I remember sitting at my office desk and firing off an elated e-mail to a friend from high school. It read something like this:
"I met this new guy. He's French..."
I got an answer almost immediately: "I did, too!"
Thus began two love stories that unfolded in parallel. I met my husband in Boston the year after I graduated from college. We moved in together the following year. My friend met a Frenchman in Chicago while they were attending the same university, and they moved in together in the same city shortly afterward. We all met up when we could after that, celebrating Thanksgiving together in 2001 in Boston and then New Year's in 2007 with my friend's in-laws in Western France. In 2007 we had our first child, and they adopted theirs -- a baby girl -- in 2008. They adopted their second child, a baby boy, in 2010, the same year Mademoiselle was born. Now we're all in the trenches of parenting young children and juggling our careers.
With stories so similar, you'd think we might find ourselves all living in Paris. I've long cherished the idea. For years, however, it wasn't thinkable, because my friend is gay, and their family is therefore in a legal limbo. My friend had no right to marry his partner and therefore no path to French immigration. Their children complicated things further, since France did not recognize gay adoption.
This month France legalized gay marriage, or le mariage pour tous ("marriage for everyone"), as the law was named by the Socialist government. And today, the "Manif pour tous," an anti-gay marriage protest group, was out again in the streets of Paris demonstrating for their lost cause. We saw families walking back from the demonstration carrying French flags and wearing garish t-shirts with the silhouettes of a stereotypical family of four: a woman, a man, a boy, and a girl, all holding hands.
Seeing the protesters made me want to roll down the window and scream insults (though I refrained). My husband, who feels the same way I do on the issue, pointed out that I wouldn't care so deeply if it weren't for our friends, and I acknowledged that he's probably right. I can't help but feel this personally. If I make an effort to understand, I can "get" that the protesters are scared of something they can't picture: a new form of family that doesn't fit into anything they've seen before. We've been there so many times in the past: the family with a mother who works. The family with parents of different colors. The family with different religions. Different languages or different cultures. But society wasn't allowed to build ramparts at the frontier of fear and intolerance then, and it will not be allowed to now.
Even beyond the fringe that's taken to the streets, the debate has divided France in a way I suspect few issues have since the Dreyfus Affair. It is not a topic you discuss with your neighbors or colleagues, at least if you feel strongly about it, as I do.
Today I'm angry and I'm proud. I'm proud that France did the right thing. Intolerance is going to lose this fight, even if it takes a decade for the fight to be forgotten. Yet I'm angry that those people carrying flags and wearing an image of an "ideal" family would exclude my friends, deny their children the right to be French, and ignore the truth: that they are just like us. Just like them. Just like me and my husband.
I've thought some about what I'd do if someone tried to hand me an opposition flyer. Blue and pink with a picture of France's symbolic Marianne, they've been plastered all over Paris this week, and I half expected one to be foisted on me on my morning commute. Me being me and a bit of a wimp, I'd probably just say a firm "Non" and hand it back with a shake of my head and a stern look. Because after all, it is worth arguing with someone who's convinced enough to hand out flyers at a train station? But when the part of my imagination that has serious guts pictures it, I do explain myself, and it goes a bit like this:
"I disagree. And if you want to know why, let me tell you a story. No, no, really, you should listen: It's a love story... and it sounds a bit like my own."