This gag reel of a reporting trip culminated in la Manif pour tous, or “the demonstration for all.” Hundreds of thousands of people marched through Paris to protest marriage equality during one of the final days of my trip. I arrived at the manif with a friend, and we both remarked on the thousands of candy-pink and baby-blue posters held high, decorated with bold slogans proclaiming every child’s right to a mom and dad. Families came with young kids; high schoolers congregated like it was a hot social event. The streets had the same frantic energy as a big-city Pride parade, but for all the wrong reasons.
We followed the crowd through central Paris, two queer women smothered by hate in patriotism’s clothing. A few paces ahead of us, an older woman with powerful Dolores Umbridge energy heard us speaking English to each other. She whipped around and asked, “Are you here to protest zees stupidity with us? Or not?”
So we joined the chant with everyone else. I felt sick to my stomach and moved my lips, the sounds barely coming.
“Hollande! La loi! On n’en veut pas!” A cry addressed at the president, demanding the reversal of marriage equality.
It felt similar, in a way, to the pseudo-reckoning many of us have faced over the last four years—the hard truth that bigotry has always been here, waiting for its cue, and that some of us have had the sheer luck not to have to face it. The progressive privileged cry, “This is not America!” But those who have lived that ugliness know it is. This was my first time being out in France, and already I was hiding again.
I was highly aware of how my privilege as a white, feminine-of-center, cisgender person allowed me to get through these conversations—and a literal homophobe rally—with relative safety. All I had to do to blend in at the Manif pour tous was take the “love is love” button off my peacoat.
Several of my interviewees asked me how I felt about the issue. Each time, I mumbled a phrase I had memorized about remaining objective as a journalist. Only once did I tell someone the truth, a guy my age who argued against same-sex parenting because “a child should know who he’s really from.” And by truth, I mean a version of the truth. I told him I supported equal rights; I didn’t say I was gay.
I wanted it to be simple, being queer and being French and only being in this country for a few days every few years. But the France of family vacations is the same France that protested me in the streets those years ago. What if being queer was a bigger deal than I made it out to be? What if being French was less?
Imagine someone explaining to you, in perfect English, that they don’t speak much English. That is what it sounds like when I try to tell salespeople and waiters and my own cousins about my level of French fluency.
If I keep to sentences of six words or fewer, like when I’m ordering something to eat, I can pass as a born-and-bred French person. As I stumble into more complex sentences, my American accent comes out. And while my comprehension is pretty strong, I’m worthless at contributing to real conversations on interesting topics like politics or books. My thoughtful uncle asked how my wife and I were faring in Trump’s America, and I responded with the vocabulary of a first grader: “Not good. Really not good.”
The longest time I’ve ever spent away from France was for four years in college. In that time, I changed more quickly than I likely ever will in another four-year period of my life: I came out completely, started having sex, began to take my mental illness more seriously, began to take life more seriously. I talked about these milestones to anyone who would listen, and they all spoke English.
In that time, I was already so far removed from my French family that coming out felt like one more reason they might want to keep me at a distance. Elle est Américaine et gay aussi?
So here I was all this time later, no longer one of the kid cousins, with no concept of how to talk about the realities of my day-to-day life in French. I still do not know what the French phrase for coming out is, or whether anyone actually uses the term bisexuelle, the word I’d say in English.
This disconnect is particularly terrible during late nights with my French family, when I’ve had more wine than sleep and my brain is working so hard to stay up, when I know I am saying the wrong thing and I cannot stop.
On one of our more recent trips to Paris, in 2018, I met my cousin Raphael’s wife for the first time. She intimidated me: slim, angular features, an air of elegant confidence. Very French. When I got up to leave, I kissed my cousin on the cheek, hugged his wife, and stammered, “Ç’était bien de prendre une nuit avec toi.” It was good to take a night with you.
I didn’t think it was possible to say something so creepy and so utterly nonsensical at the same time, but alas. C’est moi.
My first-ever visit to France with my wife in tow—though she wasn’t my wife yet—was for a cousin’s boisterous wedding in Étampes in 2016. Kaitlyn and I had gotten engaged a few days before leaving, so this wedding doubled as a welcome tour for her to meet my entire extended family.
It was also my first time back to see my family since my mom had told them I was queer—over email, because that’s how complicated news is broken across long distances, I suppose. I nagged my mom later to find out how they had taken it, if anyone had been surprised or upset or confused. She summed up their response with a shrug. I took it to mean that nobody cared much.
Kaitlyn doesn’t speak French, and most of my family doesn’t speak English. Still, they found a way to bond over long dinner tables, communicating in nods and exaggerated accents. “Encore du vin?” “Oui, merci!” The basics.
The morning after the wedding, I woke up and checked Twitter. A story was breaking about shots fired at a gay club in Orlando. (We were six hours ahead, making it around 2 a.m. in Florida.) Hungover and worried, I shook Kaitlyn awake and told her something scary was happening, then stayed glued to my phone as we got ready. Soon we got back in the car with my cousins and lost Wi-Fi access—our only connection to the news back home.
We didn’t talk about what had just happened as my cousin Margaux and her boyfriend, Guillaume, drove us back to Paris to crash at their apartment for the night. But a few hours later, as we settled in and turned on the TV, the news had already spread to international networks.
Margaux is four or five years older than me, and for that I have always adored her. She was a rebellious kid in the eyes of the grown-ups but was always gentle with my brother and me—the ones who couldn’t keep up, who needed everything explained to them. The Americans.
There’s a famous home video from a long time ago. An eight-year-old Margaux and her dad, my mom’s late brother, are sitting in our small living room as my brother and I pad around the Christmas decorations. At one point, the camcorder catches me peeking into the red puffy stockings hung in a line along the staircase. Margaux calls my name, playing like I’m in trouble. In French, I mutter, “I’m just looking! I’m just looking!” You can tell from my face I’m devastated to have disappointed her.
More than twenty years later, my instinct was the same: I didn’t want to give her any reason not to like me. We stared at her TV and I tried not to show how much pain I was in, worried I might be making this faraway crisis too much about myself.
But as the confirmed death count ticked higher, Margaux told us she still felt shaken by the shooting at the Bataclan just a few months earlier. Her older sister, whose wedding had brought us all here, was a regular at the venue.
“Tout le monde connaît quelqu’un qui connaît quelqu’un,” Margaux told us as I curled up on her couch, glued to the TV. Everyone knows someone who knows someone. Kaitlyn and I both grew up in Florida, and we checked our feeds over and over for news of acquaintances or friends of friends who might have been at Pulse that night. Margaux and Guillaume understood. I felt my walls start to come down.
As the afternoon became evening, I held Kaitlyn’s hand and racked my brain for some sophisticated vocabulary. I wanted to tell my cousins that they had made us feel so loved, from stocking their fridge for us to bearing witness to our shock; that I appreciated how sweet they had been to Kaitlyn, welcoming her into their home only a few days after meeting her; that I forgot, sometimes, how having one affirming family across two countries doesn’t mean the rest of the world is as welcoming.
But I didn’t know how to say any of that. Instead, I cobbled together a sentence that came close to expressing what I felt.
“C’est difficile d’imaginer . . . qu’il y en a . . . qui nous déteste comme ça.”
It’s hard to imagine there are people who hate us this much.
Nous. Us. The first time I’d ever claimed queer identity in French. My cousins nodded somberly, kindness in their eyes, and brought us more blankets for our nest on the couch. I knew we were safe here. A tightness in my jaw softened.
Nous. Us. The first time I’d ever claimed queer identity in French.
As the night went on, we opened up a little more, telling Margaux and Guillaume about the updates we’d seen on Twitter. Part of me felt guilty for not being able to express my grief in exactly the right words, as if the inability to pinpoint my feelings in French made them any less real.
But my cousins talked with us both in French and in the few English phrases they knew, aware that we were distraught and meeting us where they could. We talked about what it meant to feel safe and what it was like to realize that safety was an illusion. Eventually, we talked about me and Kaitlyn.
“Et vos parents, ils sont tous d’accord avec vous deux? Ta maman a l’aire très contente, Camille.”
I smiled and turned to my future wife. “She asked if our parents are okay with us being together.”
Kaitlyn laughed and squeezed my hand. “My parents love Camille as much as they love me. Maybe more. So they’re thrilled.”
I puzzled over how to translate and opted for an easier version. “Oui, bien sûr. Nous sommes très . . . lucky.”
I wish it hadn’t taken an international tragedy for me to open up to my family about how central queerness is to my life. But that night, something inside me cracked open. Queerness is my most sacred identity; even if I could choose something else, I wouldn’t. Queerness has brought me community, comfort, and an understanding of myself I only dreamed of when I was growing up.
Maybe I couldn’t quite translate it, but I owed it to myself to come out of hiding.
Kaitlyn and I got married on a farm in Queens, New York, in 2018. All of my mom’s living siblings and several of their children made the trip from France for the wedding.
During the course of planning, my mom had fretted about what the French family would think. Was our venue too rural for New York City? Would the cousins prefer a hotel in Manhattan instead of Brooklyn? Was our selection of wine elevated enough for their taste? We didn’t go my parents’ route—our officiant married us only in English—but as the saying goes, “love is love” in every language.
For a minute, I wondered if so many of my family members came for the spectacle of it—the first gay wedding in the family! But when I look back at the pictures, I see my uncle hugging my brother’s childhood best friends, my cousins clinking glasses with my college roommates. I see my countries colliding in the reliable way they always have.
Throughout the weekend, we visited with my family in a drunken mishmash of English and French, conveying our meaning via smiles and gestures, as if to say, “Can you believe we’re really all here?”
I watched, overjoyed, as aunts and uncles made small talk with other guests at the welcome party, recycling friendly bits of English over hors d’oeuvres. We’ve all seen each other enough times in the last few years that my cousins have gotten to know Kaitlyn a little better; when it was time to hit the dance floor, nobody was shy. There was a great deal of champagne.
There’s one photo of my mom and her siblings standing in a row, glasses in hand, smiling. I look more like my mom every day, but I wonder if I get my love for writing from my uncle Marc, if my aunt Monique will ever teach me to make tarte tatin the way she does.
It takes commitment to travel across the world for the big gay wedding of a niece you barely know, but my family took me up on the offer. We have always started with love, trusting that language will follow.
Camille is a writer living in Chicago. Her work has appeared in BuzzFeed, Bustle, Narratively, Autostraddle, the Daily Dot, and elsewhere. She's also the author of Queer Disbelief: Why LGBTQ Equality is an Atheist Issue.