The Unexpected Past—and Present—of Gay Paris

Sally Kohn discovers layers of queerness in the City of Light.

A colorful illustration of people walking across a rainbow crosswalk.

Paris—home to multiple world-famous landmarks, a smorgasbord of cuisines, and one of the largest gay scenes in Europe.

Illustration by Clémence Gouy

The fact that I wanted to stay at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris because of the French TV show Dix Pour Cent tells you a lot about me as a lesbian.

In the penultimate episode of the series, aired as Call My Agent! on Netflix, Sigourney Weaver travels to Paris to meet with producers for a film role and stays at the Hôtel de Crillon—in the best suite with the best view, of course—and proceeds to flounce around the city in gorgeous clothes eating gorgeous food. This is the Paris vacation of my dreams. However, there’s a different main character who really allures me, intrigues me, and makes me want to embrace the various facets of myself, but in more glamorous lighting: the talent agent played by Camille Cottin. You see, for most of her life, Cottin’s character was a confident, hard-partying, fast-loving seductress in the Paris lesbian nightlife scene. By the end of the series, she’s a tired, overstretched, often disheveled working mom. I relate to that dichotomy. I want to imagine myself as this glamorous lesbian with a happening social scene that takes place mostly after dark and involves leather pants, but in reality, I just like watching that life on TV.

And sometimes visiting it on vacation. In September 2022, I finally got off my couch, got on a plane, and checked into the as-fabulous-as-Sigourney-Weaver-made-it-seem Hôtel de Crillon, all bold slabs of marble and tall mirrors with impeccably mannered staff whose voices sound like champagne. But when I dipped my toes into modern queer culture in Paris, I learned that the famously tolerant city has multiple sides to it, and there’s tension between them, too.

The phrase “Gay Paris”—“Gay Paree,” if you will—had nothing to do with the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community when it originated. In French and English, the words “gai” and “gay” both trace their roots to the Old French “full of joy or mirth.” It’s believed that the term may have acquired its modern meaning in the late 1800s, when a conservative, morality-focused president was ousted in favor of more liberal leadership, which, as it were, allowed for more mirth. Not strictly gay, but queer in a more expansive sense—emerging around the same time as “bohemianism,” a distinctly French catchall for living an artsy, unconventional life.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the word “gay” became increasingly embraced by activists around the globe trying to forge more positive associations around queer identity and, of course, more favorable legal rights and cultural contexts. In 1968, American activist Frank Kameny famously proclaimed: “Gay is Good.” And since then, the world has become more tolerant and more accepting. Ongoing studies show that worldwide, more and more people support their LGBTQ friends and loved ones and that more and more nations protect LGBTQ rights. Around 20 countries decriminalized or legalized gay sex and/or marriage in the decade between 2006 and 2017. While violence and criminalization remain all too common in too many places, and some countries are unfortunately moving in the opposite direction, Paris is more representative of the global shift. Today, the city’s official tourism website has an entire section devoted to wooing LGBTQ travelers.

An illustration of pink, orange, and yellow drinks on a bartop.

The unofficial gay center of Paris is the Marais, a historic district in the fourth arrondissement of Paris.

Illustration by Clémence Gouy

Whether due to the tourism campaigns or bohemian history or the fact that we gays love extra-buttery pastry, Paris enjoys a reputation as one of the most LGBTQ-friendly cities in the world. On our third day in town, my partner and I took a two-hour walking tour with Gilles Bry, who works for the tourism bureau and is president of Paris Gay Village. He told us that during the French Revolution in 1791, France—emboldened by a broad liberatory spirit—became one of the first nations in the world to decriminalize sodomy. He showed us the spot in what is now the shopping center Les Halles where a vast food market once stood, and where gay men would cruise in the bathrooms in the early 1900s. He detailed the openly gay lives of such legendary writers and artists as Colette, Natalie Clifford Barney, and Mathilde de Morny. I also learned about Violette Morris, a butch or maybe trans athlete who unfortunately became a Nazi spy. In 1920s Paris there were several—I repeat, several!—lesbian-friendly bars, originally in the Pigalle neighborhood and then eventually shifting to the Marais and other areas.

Today, Bry said, it’s hard to keep gay bars gay in Paris. He told a funny story about a friend who owns a gay bar who scolded a straight couple making out on the dance floor. It’s funny because it suggests that to have more uniquely gay spaces, Paris would have to be somehow less tolerant—something that goes against its cultural DNA.

When gayness becomes more accepted, it loses some of the distinctive cultural aura that develops in the shadows of separation and even stigma. Paris inverts this dynamic: Since it’s been generally tolerant for centuries, there’s less specific gay culture and instead an overall bohemian spirit. In most places, the word “gay” went from happy to homosexual, but in Paris it still means happy—and always will, for the most part. “We are not a particular spot for gays,” clarifies Bry. “We are a place where gays go.”

The night after the walking tour, my partner and I, true to form, decided to hang out in our hotel’s bar instead of venturing to one of the city’s handful of lesbian clubs. The Hôtel de Crillon is a Rosewood property, and in my limited experience, Rosewood hotel bars are universally wood, velvet, and aged-mirror throwbacks to a time before anyone was conspiring with Nazis. Now, obviously, it’s a bar in a luxury hotel, so its “inclusivity” is relative on many levels, but on this particular night, as Sarah and I ordered some classic French sidecars and tucked into a banquette, a decidedly queer-vibey all-female band kicked off a night of sultry-toned cover songs in a mix of French and English. Meanwhile, different groups of women at the other tables, some probably gay, some probably not, took turns dancing. Were straight women invading a queer space? Or were queer women invading a straight space? Or did everyone just feel comfortable mixing it up as a French singer who looked surprisingly like Dolores O’Riordan sang a number by Kurt Cobain? Oh Paris, you mille-feuille of moments and meanings.

The next day, Sarah and I hiked up to Montmartre to commune with the spirits of 1920s lesbians and also go to a clothing store we’d heard about, La Blouse de Lyon. It’s an old French workwear uniform store that two stylish partners took over and reimagined, embracing the core history of the brand while exploring fresh materials and twists. Leaning into yet another dichotomy, I bought a pair of moleskin roofer’s pants that could easily be the centerpiece in a chic evening out. But I got them big enough so they’d be comfy when I’m lying around on my couch. Putting the lazy in laissez-faire. Here was a store taking traditional men’s workwear and in part refashioning it as gender-neutral fashion for all. Not queer, but not exactly not queer, either. Inclusive. Like the waistband of my new pants, containing multitudes.

A few days later, we stumbled on one of the city’s passages couverts, covered alleys lined with shops and cafés that Gilles Bry had told us about. This particular one would never make it into a guidebook; it’s a fairly short passage a few blocks from Le Bon Marché and is home to little more than an old movie theater and a Chinese restaurant. It’s definitely not gay. Yet it’s both quotidian and semihidden. Isn’t that, historically, often what gayness is? Historically perceived to be different and thus hidden, but ultimately radical for being just another beautiful expression of love.

In most places, the word “gay” went from happy to homosexual, but in Paris it still means happy—and always will, for the most part.

To be clear, Paris has a complicated relationship to tolerance. The French interior ministry reported that in 2019, anti-LGBTQ hate crimes had increased by 36 percent from the year prior. A crosswalk in the Marais neighborhood was painted in rainbow stripes in 2018 but has been repeatedly vandalized since. Also, discrimination against nonwhite people, immigrants, and religious minorities is widespread. In 2022, an incident in a swanky restaurant in Paris went viral when Black customers were denied service. French communities of color say the incident was not an aberration but indicative of a more widespread discrimination. Queer French citizens or travelers of color might find the city even less welcoming. My dilemma, as a well-off white lesbian from the States, was whether to drag my tired old self out to a chic queer club. The problem for others may be that, even if they want to go live their young energetic hip social lives, they may not feel safe. Camille Cottin’s TV character and I have the luxury to move between public life and private life, between gayishness and heteronormativity, with ease. But the same fluidity of freedom doesn’t flow everywhere or to everyone.

That night at the Hôtel de Crillon bar, I tried to talk with the singer, the band member I thought was most likely to be gay. It was loud, or she didn’t understand my question. So her reply was irrelevant to what I’d asked and yet, magically, entirely on point: “This is Paris,” she said. “We love everyone.”

Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe, like that mille-feuille, it has layers. And, like my new pants, some flexibility to change with the times—and hopefully become more tolerant and gay, in every sense of the word.

Sally Kohn is a television commentator, writer, and executive presence coach working with top executives and political leaders.
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