France is such a strange country. I don’t say that from first-hand experience of strolling the streets of Paris — my only brief time there was as a 14-year-old struggling to pronounce ”rue vingt-deux” through an exceptionally thick Kentucky accent. I say it because of my perusal of recent news, where France has been in the vanguard of both legalizing same-sex marriage and in violent protests against homosexuals tying the knot.
It’s always disconcerting to remember that France has an exceptionally vicious far-right element to its society when just a few short years ago our own American far right was patriotically (and loudly) consuming ”freedom fries” lest they give any inadvertent support to French-style European politics. But, you know, France has more than once done such oddball things as blowing up a Greenpeace ship, so comme ci, comme ça.
Even before the protests and violence instigated by right-wingers over the French government’s recognition of marriage equality, I’d recently seen a map of world racism that asked respondents to choose from groups of people they would not want as neighbors. ”People of another race” were named by less than 5 percent of Americans, well known for our ongoing race issues. For France, between 20 and 30 percent of respondents said non to different-race neighbors, a Gallic pocket of red amidst the otherwise progressive blue of western and northern Europe.
Obviously, it’s not a direct comparison between American and French racism, given the differences between the U.S. experience of slavery and Civil War and the French story of colonialism and Muslim immigration. But periodic outbursts of right-wing violence on race and homosexuality, both over the years and in recent days, are enough to make us think about backlash here at home. After all, New York City, one of the biggest gay meccas in the world, can’t seem to make it more than a couple days at a time without a gay man being harassed, punched, beaten or murdered.
Most of the current violence we see against LGBT people in the U.S. seems to be individually, and often randomly, focused — drunken guys yelling ”faggot” at people they see on the street and things escalating from there. While that certainly is fueled in large part by a hatred of homosexuals that’s reinforced by groups such as the Family Research Council, it’s not quite the same as the more group-oriented violence we seen in France, as well as Russia, where gay-hating hooligans make the French bigots seem pacifist. The gut feeling is that Americans are more broadly tolerant of a diverse society, often coming out of debates on gay issues wondering what the fuss was about.
Then again, no one has yet had to tell Mississippi to start marrying homos.
It’s perfectly possible that our debates over marriage equality have stayed mostly in the political realm because the state-by-state approach has limited victories to those regions most primed to accept them (with the notable exception of Iowa). Which is the polite way of saying we haven’t yet gotten around to the South where there’s a tradition of not reacting kindly to political progress on treating everyone as human beings.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t push for national solutions — it becomes ever more difficult to argue the federalist case that millions of us have a certain set of civil rights that come and go as we travel across the nation. When it happens, as it inevitably will, the victory will be the start of another equally difficult and possibly more backlash prone struggle: moving from changing how the law is written to changing how the law is lived.
Sean Bugg is the co-publisher of Metro Weekly. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @seanbugg.