“Ce n’est pas naturel,” A said. It’s not natural.
“Vous ne croyez pas?” You don’t think so? Our teacher looked around to the rest of the class. “Et vous? Qu’est-ce que vous pensez?” What did the rest of us think?
I was in my thrice-weekly obligatory French course. We’d just finished an exercise in which we were given a series of paragraphs and tasked with figuring out the occupation and gender of the respective narrators. Sometimes the gender of the speaker was indicated by the grammar. In one case, the narrator spoke of a mari (a husband). Because we were given the option of “on ne sait pas” (literally, “one doesn’t know”) it occurred to me that it might be a man or a woman. So I asked.
“Is gay marriage legal in France?”
My teacher replied that it wasn’t, her facial expression a welcome mixture of apology and frustration.
That’s when A piped up. “Ce n’est pas naturel,” she said.
A is from Chechnya. She married the love of her life in a wedding she has described to me as “hilarious” many times. She smiles her biggest smiles when she speaks of that day. That was in 1990. She was 18. Her eldest daughter was born two years later. The war started in 1994.
Over the next ten years, A would have two more children—a girl and then a boy. She and her family would spend weeks and even more than a month at a time in the bomb shelter below their house. She would learn to fear the sound of planes overhead. A is from a family of academics, not soldiers. During the same period, she would lose her husband, her father, her brother, and two uncles—all assassinated by Russian forces. In 2004 she and her children fled as refugees to Germany. From there they were moved to a refugee camp in Poland. She’s been in a smallish town in France for three years.
She still flinches when planes fly over us.
“Et vous? Qu’est-ce que vous pensez?” my teacher asked. C and M, both from Albania, raised their eyebrows and looked down, heaving that telltale sigh of disgust.
K, who sits next to me, said this: “Moi, je suis d’accord. Ce n’est pas normal.” I agree. It’s not normal.
I stared at my pen, grateful that K’s attention was to the front of the class, grateful for a moment of invisibility.
K was born in Meknes, in Morocco. She was raised in the countryside. She loves the smell of cows and sheep and grass. She doesn’t wear a hijab or burqa, but she always frowns at me when I wear low-cut or sleeveless tops. She’ll reach over to me and pull the fabric up, protecting my modesty with sisterly affection.
K was raised in a distinctly working class family. One brother is a mechanic in Paris. He sends money home to the family to supplement the income they make off of their farm. When she was in her late thirties, a marriage was arranged for her with a divorcé in France. She’d never met him. She’d never met anyone in his family. She’d never met the twin daughters to whom she would become stepmother. She’d never been to France. She did not speak, read or write in French.
She does not like her husband, but she’s trying to learn how to love him.
I felt the teacher’s eyes on me. I knew she knew how I felt about it for the same reason I instinctively knew how she felt about it. “Ann? Qu’est-ce que vous pensez?”
I hate disagreeing with these women—A and K in particular because they’re my friends…they’ve let me into their lives a little—but all the women in my class, really. They’re my elders in age and wisdom so much of the time. They have made journeys of the soul I will never understand, journeys I’m not sure I want to understand. They are from Eastern Europe and North Africa. They’re not all refugees or asylum seekers, but many are.
For some of them, like A, France is the promise of one day learning how to hope again. For others, like K, France is a prison. Still, she spreads her wings in defiance with love of her stepdaughters and love of life, forcing the walls of her prison to make room for this love of hers that may even grow large enough to make room for her husband.
What could I say? It’s not often that I “know” I’m right, but on the subject of LGBTQ rights, I know I’m right. Still, what I think flies in the face of my classmates’ “moral” compasses.
“There was a time in the United States when a black man would be…”—I gestured to the teacher. How do you say lynched in French?—“for marrying a white woman.” I paused, and my classmates let me pause. We’re normally a rowdy bunch, but they didn’t jump in this time. So I went on: “It’s discrimination. People should have the right to love.”
The tension in our teacher’s shoulders visibly left. “Pour moi aussi,” she said— for me, too. “C’est dommage que ce soit toujours comme ça ici. C’est simplement discrimination.” It’s a pity it’s still like this here. It’s simply discrimination.
K picked up her papers and straightened them. C and M crossed their legs, but did not reply. A looked down. Perhaps it was because the teacher had spoken, but I don’t think so. My classmates often talk over the teacher even when she’s asked them repeatedly to non fait pas de bruit (not make any noise) because she’s working with another group. I don’t know why, but I’m left with the impression that they were mulling it over.
Then, as quickly as the discussion started, it was over.
Yesterday I learned that California’s Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1172, put forward by Senator Ted Lieu. Three months from now it will be illegal to put children into “gay cure” therapy. As a Californian, I am over the moon, but hurdles like this are bittersweet.
I try to imagine what it would be like to have my parents force me into therapy for caring for animals or the environment. I try to imagine what it would be like if my parents equated my love for my best friends with mental illness. I’m not sure if I can stomach celebrating the criminalization of systematically poisoning children with irrational self-loathing. Shouldn’t this have been illegal years ago? I’m glad the ball is rolling, and I look forward to seeing it roll across 49 more states.
But I also try to imagine what it would be like to have my husband and my home chosen for me. I also try to imagine what it would be like to watch helplessly as I lost every adult man I loved. To be torn from my home and my language and my culture against my will for whatever reason.
In all of these scenarios, I can only try to imagine, because—other than in the cosmic-oneness sense of things—I have been neither victim nor victor. I struggle to know when I should speak up and when I should shut up. I clumsily fail to say the right things at the right times. Too often I passionately aver the wrong things at the wrong times.
I’m deeply aware that humanity has so much further to go on so many levels…so much to figure out. I only wish I knew better how we could go about it.
But I’m also aware that Senate Bill 1172 is a victory for all of us. Thank you, Senator Lieu and Governor Brown, for bringing humanity closer to a proper definition of natural, and a better understanding of normal.
Thank you for righting this wrong.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger
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