French LGBT groups denounce ‘culture of hate’ after spate of attacks
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A spate of high-profile attacks on the LGBT community has rattled rights groups in France and alarmed politicians ahead of a sensitive parliamentary debate on giving lesbian couples access to fertility treatment.
Some three thousand people attended a rally in central Paris on Sunday to denounce assaults on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people and demand urgent action from the government. The protest, attended by several members of President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist administration, followed a string of attacks in the French capital and cities across France, including the beating of a gay couple by their cab driver last week. A minute of silence was observed in memory of transgender sex worker Vanessa Campos, who was murdered in the Bois de Boulogne, a park on the city's western fringes, in August.
While activists are unanimous in denouncing an increasingly hostile environment for the LGBT community, physical and verbal attacks are notoriously difficult to quantify. The Paris prefecture says the number of homophobic assaults recorded in the French capital this year is down 37% from the first 9 months of 2017. But campaigning group SOS Homophobie, which runs a hotline where victims can anonymously report assaults, says it has registered a 15% increase nationwide from last year. It points out that many victims are still unwilling to go to the police, fearing the response they will get from officers.
“There are real prejudices with victims who don't know how they're going to be treated, whether their statements are going to be taken seriously, whether the LGBT-phobic nature of the incident is going to be taken into account,” SOS Homophobie secretary Jeremy Faledam told REUTERS news agency. “There's real work to be done to support victims, and also to train policemen about how to deal with LGBT victims.” Citing France’s national statistics institute Insee, SOS Homophobie says only 4% of victims of LGBT-phobic incidents go to the police.
While most victims keep quiet about cases of physical and verbal abuse, some have taken to social media in an effort to raise awareness of hate attacks. They include actor and LGBT activist Guillaume Melanie, who last week took a picture of his broken nose from an ambulance and posted it on Twitter shortly after he was punched and showered with homophobic insults outside a restaurant in central Paris. “I didn't steal anything, I didn't insult anyone, I didn't attack anyone. I'm just homosexual,” Melanie told reporters at the Paris march on Sunday.
Flora Bolter, a former head of the Paris LGBT Centre, told FRANCE 24 she was encouraged to see victims speak out and challenge “a culture that is against LGBT people and in which homophobia is accepted”. Bolter, who now heads the LGBT Observatory at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès, said a recent study by the left-leaning thinktank showed more than half of all LGBT people in France have experienced some form of hate attack and 60% “refrain from public displays of affection” to avoid being targeted.
“There is a very hateful public debate in which we are hearing a lot of homophobic sentiment that is being rationalised and made public, and we feel that is directly affecting our security,” said Bolter, urging the French government to step up efforts to enforce anti-discrimination laws and raise public awareness. “Laws punishing homophobic attacks are not enough, we need to work on culture and education to tackle the roots of discrimination, starting in schools,” added Caroline Mécary, a lawyer and Paris city hall councillor. She lamented the previous government’s decision to abandon a school programme aimed at combating sexism and gender stereotypes, under pressure from conservative and religious groups.
Spectre of gay marriage backlash
As France prepares for a sensitive debate on procreation rights, there is another precedent tied to the Socialist administration of former president François Hollande that is worrying LGBT groups. Five years ago, Hollande’s government successfully passed legislation legalising gay marriage but was widely seen as having lost the PR battle. While the law enjoyed broad support among the public, it proved to be a bittersweet victory for same-sex couples as the bill’s well-organised opponents brought millions of protesters out onto the streets and dominated an often vicious debate.
LGBT rights campaigners felt the bill’s vocal sponsor, then justice minister Christiane Taubira, already a favourite target of racist and misogynous attacks, had been thrown under the bus by her colleagues in government. In an infamous concession, Hollande, who had remained tight-lipped throughout the debate, at one point suggested French mayors may decline to officiate at same-sex weddings on grounds of “freedom of conscience”. The bruising experience soon led his government to abandon plans to extend fertility treatment to lesbian couples.
Such plans are now back on the agenda under Hollande’s successor. Macron has promised to update France’s laws on assisted procreation, which currently limit the practice to heterosexual couples. The restrictive legislation means single women and lesbian couples with sufficient funds often travel abroad for artificial insemination, while those without the financial means cannot. Macron made a reform of the law conditional on approval by France’s ethics watchdog, the CCNE, which gave its green light last month.
Opinion polls have registered a major shift in public opinion on the matter, with some 60% of French citizens now in favour of allowing single women and lesbian couples to become pregnant with medical help. But similar levels of support for gay unions five years ago failed to prevent an outpouring of homophobic sentiment. Rights groups point out that the same-sex marriage dispute saw attacks on the LGBT community almost double year on year, and fear a similar surge is on the cards if Macron’s government allows hard-right groups to hijack the debate once again.
“You can see that claims LGBT people are less legitimate when having families, or that they don't deserve the same rights as other people, have real consequences in the daily lives of LGBT people and they encourage people to actually act on [their prejudices] and attack people,” said SOS Homophobie’s Faledam at the Paris rally on Sunday. His movement is calling for urgent action from the government to stem the surge in homophobia before the procreation debate kicks off in parliament.
In a written response to FRANCE 24’s request for an interview, the office of Equality Minister Marlène Schiappa, whose portfolio has recently been enlarged to include the fight against all forms of discrimination, said 2 million euros had been set aside to finance future projects in partnership with rights groups, with a quarter of the sum to be allocated to LGBT campaigns. “We are not yet at the point where projects can be announced, but the minister is listening closely to actors on the ground,” said a spokeswoman for the minister, adding that Schiappa had held talks with LGBT groups including SOS Homophobie last week.