Sociological observations on the French and US LGBTQ+ movements
Why the business and political gay elites in France remain in the closet and how it affects francophone Africa
I believe some of the key disparities in the outcomes of the French and US gay liberation movement can be explained by the difference between a working-class led movement versus an elite-driven movement.
In turn, this observation can help us understand how to achieve progress in societal acceptance in other countries but also how to bridge the gap in progress in the francophone world versus the anglophone one.
Of course, other parameters such as the language barrier and the philanthropic culture play a role, but I argue that the main explanation is the extent to which the LGBTQ+ elite — and to be frank mostly gay white men — lent its clout and money to advance the cause.
One explanation is the difference between French and American culture and particularly puritanism. The French culture, more permissive with the dominant class, gave a pass to affluent gay men provided they were discreet about their homosexuality and did not ask for rights. As such many prominent gay men in France could maintain their social status despite their homosexuality. On the other hand, the US, obsessed with questions of morality, persecuted upper-class gay men as illustrated by the “lavender scare” as an example.
For this reason, the US LGBTQ+ elite was eager to see change and invested its resources and connections to achieve it. On the other hand, the French gay elite kept the movement at bay as it benefits from the invisibilization of homosexuality.
I observed a situation like that of France when I first travelled to in India in 2012 where the poorest, facing the brunt of homophobia and transphobia, wanted change and decriminalization. However gay male elites — often keeping a straight family and a gay boyfriend — argued for an Indian specificity and the status-quo.
In 2012, Richard Descoings, a well-known French academic, was found dead in a New York hotel room. In the aftermath of his death, his homosexuality came to be known. Despite being in a relationship with the equally closeted head of SNCF (the French railways), he had married a woman hoping to secure a cabinet position. The scandal highlighted the fact that many prominent businesspeople, politicians, and public figures remain totally or partially in the closet in France. They often claimed “this is my private life” as a justification, an argument we know to be highly correlated to a homophobic environment. They also claim that identity politics go against republican principles.
Similarly, in 2017, the French Presidential election favourite Emmanuel Macron was forced to deny a ‘gay affair’ with the CEO of Radio France, a rumor that had been started to discredit his campaign. This highlighted how being gay in a position of leadership remain frowned upon in France.
Things are changing recently. The Minister for European Affairs, Clément Beaune, came out in 2020. L’Autre Cercle, the French association for the inclusion of LGBTQ + people at work, now publishes a list of LGBTQ+ models and allies in business creating an incentive for leaders to come out. Yet, there is no out CEO or Executive Committee members in major companies. Gay people in these positions typically entertain an intentional vagueness (“flou artistique”) around their sexuality. I can count on both hands the number of Enarques (graduates of the omnipotent Ecole Nationale d’Administration) who are fully out.
The reluctance of gay elite to engage in the French movement has negative consequences on the funding of the movement, the engagement by Governments and workplace inclusion (see my 2017 article, “Why is France so slow to include LGBT people in the workplace?”). On the other hand, it also means that there is less elite capture in defining the movement’s priorities.
In Angels in America, the infamous Roy Cohn claims “Like all labels, [“gay”, “homosexual”, “lesbian”] refer to one thing and one thing only: Where does a person so identified fit in the food chain? In the pecking order. Not ideology or sexual taste, but something much simpler: clout. Who owes me favors. Not who I fuck or who fucks me, but who will pick up the phone when I call. To someone who doesn’t understand this, homosexual is what I am because I sleep with men, but this is wrong. Homosexuals are not men who sleep with other men. Homosexuals are men who, in 15 years of trying, can’t get a pissant anti-discrimination bill through City Council. They are men who know nobody, and who nobody knows. Now, Henry, does that sound like me?”
Almost 40 years after his death, Cohn has been proven wrong, the US gay liberation movement is well-funded, well connected, and impactful. It has passed some of the most advanced pro-LGBTQ+ laws. It has generated an unprecedented shift in societal attitudes. Perhaps more importantly, it has convinced successive administrations to make LGBTQ+ global issues central to the US Foreign policy.
This came with an important price tag. The combined budget of GLAAD, the Trevor Project, HRC, the Victory Institute, GLSEN, Equality California, the LGBT Centers in LA or New York, Lambda Legal, The National LGBTQ Task Force, the Council for Global Equality etc.. probably comes close to a billion dollars a year. The bill was widely picked up by rich gay white men.
On the other hand, the French gay liberation movement continues to be penniless and excluded from decision-making settings. In 2014, at the height of the anti-marriage equality movement, the budget of Inter-LGBT — the LGBTQ+ umbrella organization — was 108,000 Euros. It had no employee or office. At this point, the only French corporate donor was Pierre Bergé, the partner of Yves Saint Laurent.
This lack of clout impacts the French Government’s engagement. While it expresses support for human rights of LGBTQ+ people in international settings, it does not do much concretely abroad. The Quai D’Orsay has very few openly gay top diplomats and reluctantly engage on LGBTQ+ issues. Similarly, while Canada ( a position which has gotten absorbed in the Ministry for inclusion), the US and the UK have special envoys on LGBTQ+ issues, France does not. France has an Ambassador on Human Rights who indeed had taken some action on LGBTQ+ issues. Clément Beaune made some strong statements during his recent trip to Poland but the amount of resources devoted to global LGBTQ+ inclusion remains minimal. When the US will donate $10 million to the Global Equality Fund in 2021, the French contribution will remain at around 15,000 Euros (the GEF does not share publicly contributions by individual countries)..
Our partners at the Global Philanthropic Project (GPP) publish in its Global Resources Report a list of governments that support the fight for LGBTQ+ rights. The government of Sweden spent in 2017 and 2018 more than 30 million dollars in international aid for LGBTQ+ issues. The United Kingdom, nearly 19 million dollars and the Netherlands almost 14 million dollars. Far behind, we find France with $ 264,000 (page 33) up from $164,778 in the previous report.
As a result, the funding for francophone countries in Africa — DRC, Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Niger, Mali, Senegal and Benin is minimal compared to other countries. Cameroon (a bilingual country) which receives the most international aid on LGBTQ+ issues tops the chart with 837,000 euros. The total aide of the 9 most assisted French-speaking countries is 2.8 million euros. This is to be compared with the aid received by the LGBTQ+ movement in Kenya (10 million), South Africa (7.5 million) and Uganda (5 million).
As I mentioned previously, one silver lining is that affluent white gay men have less of a monopoly on defining the movement’s priorities in France and organizations have more legitimacy in the movement.
Ultimately, the French and US examples provide lessons for our campaigning efforts in the many countries where LGBTQ+ movement are nascent: i) the need to articulate the case for LGBTQ+ elites to engage themselves in the gay liberation movement, while ii) ensuring that LGBTQ+ organizations remain representative of the entire community.