From gay "wedding lists" at BHV to back rooms and saunas in the Marais; from women-only tea dances in Montparnasse to vibrant lesbian bars near Bastille - our celebration of the city's rainbow hot-spots shows how "Gay Paree" now truly lives up to its name.
Paris has long enjoyed a reputation as Europe's capital of fun, fashion and romance and now, more than ever, gay living in the capital is becoming increasingly geared towards this ideal. As a result, gays are more and more visible with bars very often open onto the street, welcoming a varied and multi-sexual clientele, so gay and non-gay cultures mix freely and openly with few or no taboos.
Like the majority of inhabitants in most capital cities, Parisians are generally tolerant of homosexuals. France has never exercised any form of legitimised discrimination towards its gay community and anti-gay violence is virtually non-existent. Technically, sexual relations are legal for consenting partners aged 16 and over. However, one does not come of legal age in France until 18, so under the murkiness of French law, a lawsuit could be brought against anyone who seduced or coerced someone under that age into having sex, even though he or she, in theory, consented. Therefore, sex with anyone 17 and under, even with their consent, poses a certain legal danger. As a rule, you can walk freely around the capital within the limits of simple good sense and decency. This tolerance extends to cruising bars and saunas where the freedom to do as you please, as long as it remains between consenting adults, is rarely put into question. Do be careful though about open air pick-up points as the Préfecture de Police have now begun using police officers on bicycles to keep check on nocturnal activity in notorious areas such as the Bois de Boulogne. For more information concerning gay rights, you can contact ARDHIS on their web site or alternatively go to the Gay and Lesbian Centre (Le Centre Gay et Lesbien - CGL) on the Rue Keller in the 12th arrondissement where help and advice is freely available. English is also spoken, although it appears that "the best English speaker" is only available at certain times during the week.
The recent and much publicised debate around the controversial "pacs" law (Pacte Civil de Solidarité) opened up the homosexual cause to a national scale and encouraged governmental and public interest. The law now means that any couple, whether of the same or opposite sex, who cannot or does not want to marry can benefit from the same rights as married couples, through an official contract. The pacs came into effect in November 1999 and although highly contested by some of France's right and hard right wing parties such as the Front National, has brought an enormous benefit to gay and lesbian couples. They are now considered as a legitimate entity with rights equal to heterosexuals. However, demand for the pacs has been surprisingly low. Up to the end of September 2000 only 23,071 pacs were signed and the law is considered by many to be far from perfect. This is largely due to the lack of coherent information. One young lesbian "pacsé" describes it as a personal decision to "make a stand" in adhering to the treaty that she composed with her partner and the help of a lawyer. She admits there were still a few problems surrounding the law, mainly because many people refuse to accept it as a serious pact and there are still some hazy areas concerning testamentary provisions (dispositions testamentaires) and division of possessions (indivisions des biens). However, she is confident that in a few years, once past the teething stage, it should soon be accepted as the norm. For more information and legal advice, you can contact the CGL, where there is the possibility to meet with a legal aide most Tuesdays or go to your local town hall (mairie). On a lighter note, the Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville (BHV), one of Paris' largest department stores situated in the Marais, has recently launched an initiative, albeit commercial, for "pacsé" couples. Like future married couples, homosexuals may drop off a kind of wedding list - a "pacsé list" (listes pour pacsés) and benefit from reduced prices on certain articles such as dinner services, hi-fi, even holidays. Although one lesbian I spoke to complained the list tended to favour gay males, the BHV assured me it was open to all, both gay and non-gay couples.
Paris is pretty good at disseminating information. There are a large number of free newspapers that cover main events happening around the city, both gay and non-gay. The only drawback is that they are all written in French, so if you don't speak the language you'll have to brush up on essential vocab or ask a native to give you a hand! Look out for them outside boulangeries or on street corners. The weekly listings magazines Officiel des Spectacles and Pariscope cost only €,40 to €,60 respectively and from time to time will advertise major gay events around the city, like the much publicised Gay Pride in the month of June. If you're really stuck, the Time Out section in English at the back of Pariscope is a useful source.
For information geared directly towards gays and lesbians, free magazines and pamphlets with listings, addresses and general information about the gay scene can be found inside gay bars or at the Gay and Lesbian Centre. E.m@le is a weekly free male magazine targeting, as its title suggests, the gay male population with occasional references for lesbians. The magazine has a diary (agenda) for the week and comes out every Thursday. They also publish a Paris guide every three months which claims it has the definitive listing for all gay establishments in the capital. There is also a small section for lesbians. If you need information concerning everything from cruising bars to hairdressers, from dry cleaners to photo developers, then this guide is where you will find it. It also has the advantage of being in French and English and usefully lists opening and closing times. Illico is another free publication published twice monthly with similar lists of gay addresses in Paris but also with sections on national and international current affairs, culture and fashion. Tetu, with society, news and book reviews, is found on sale at a modest price. A few months ago, a female version was brought out due to complaints that Tetu did not focus enough on women's events. Tetu Madame was not a roaring success, so only one edition ever saw the light of day. For information directed at women, Lesbia is a lesbian monthly magazine with comprehensive women's listings, as well as features, reviews and personal ads. For the more militant, Paris Féministe also carries listings of women's groups and events around Paris.
All of these publications can be found at most news stands and agents around the city. Alternatively, you can visit one of the many pro-gay book-shops, where you can find not only revues but also a selection of gay literature and art publications. The Pause Lecture in the 4th is open seven days a week from 11am (1pm on a Sunday) till midnight and has an English section and regular art and photo exhibitions. Mots à la bouche, also in the 4th, offers a wide selection of French and English publications. The CGL has a well stocked, informative library with a small section in English. You can either buy or borrow the books, but there are specific times when the bookshelves are "unlocked" and free for perusal - it's best to call before, but as a rule, it's every Friday from 4pm to 8pm and from 4pm to 6pm on Saturdays. For those who have access to internet, a search for gay associations and events in Paris will also give you on-line information and Email contact addresses. Alternatively, you can tune into FG, Paris' all gay radio station on 98.2 for up-to-the minute information, as well as excellent music.
Paris' real rainbow home can be found in the quartier du Marais, one of the liveliest and most popular parts of Paris. Beginning just next to the Pompidou centre at the rue Beaubourg, the area is easily accessible and runs from the rue de Rivoli right up to République, roughly corresponding to the 3rd and 4th arrondissements. The neighbourhood is crammed with funky shops, designer boutiques, and a large range of places to eat and drink, making it a favourite for both homos and heteros alike. Its position at the very heart of Paris ensures that it is almost always bustling with activity, although it's at its best as from 7pm onwards, à l'heure de l'apéro, when business suits rub shoulders with Gaultier stripes and tank tops. Although the Marais is THE epicentre of gay activity, not all the bars and restaurants there are gay, although all are certainly gay friendly. As with any city, the best thing to do is just to go there on foot and wander through the many main and side streets to choose from the plethora of establishments, all easily found by simply following the trail of
rainbow flags. The main area to target is Les rues du Temple, Vieille du Temple and Archives and all the roads that lead off in between. Depending on your tastes, bars range from fashion hang-outs like the Café Cox or Open Café to cruising bars such as The One Way or Le Dépôt. Le Duplex Bar, rue Michel-le-Comte in the 3rd, offers exhibitions and literary meetings and if you want to go on line or check out your Emails. Le Quetzal is one of Paris' gay web bars. Back-rooms can be found to suit everyone's taste, small to large, even dodgy if that's your thing. Depending on the place, either an entrance fee will be asked for, or you'll have to buy something before you're allowed to get down to business. You should be given a condom as you go in, if not, don't hesitate to ask for one. Saunas are notorious pick-up joints. However, lesbians be warned - the majority of places are for gay men, as the lesbian scene tends to be a lot more discreet.
Although they do exist, the selection of lesbian clubs in Paris is significantly more limited than those catering for gay males. It has only been during the last few years that the lesbian scene has really begun to show itself more openly than before. This is largely due to the younger generation of 18 - 25 lesbians who have greatly helped to open up the lesbian scene, especially during the last two years. An annual film festival, featuring work from prominent lesbian directors, has done much to promote the lesbian cause and with more and more women's societies and associations available, the choice is endless. For a full and comprehensive list, check out The Dyke Guide, or visit their web-site, dyke planet. There are a small number of bars which are supposedly exclusively for women, although you may well spot an occasional man accompanying female friends. The normal rules apply - discretion is in order. Voyeurs and all-male groups should keep away as they will be asked to leave, according to one young lesbian, who demanded that a group of over-optimistic youths be chucked out (viré). Le Pulp on the boulevard Poissonière is currently the place most in vogue (branché). Situated just above the famous Le Scorp, one of the biggest gay discos in Paris, it welcomes a mainly lesbian clientele from Thursday to Saturday, although gay men are sometimes admitted depending on the night. The door policy means that, like many other happening places, the club is reserved only for the "happy few", but try your luck as it is well worth it. La Scandaleuse on the rue des Escouffes in the 4th arrondissement as well as the Champmeslé are two names that crop up often as places to see and be seen in. The Alcantara café, on the rue du Roi de Sicile, is a small, women-only bar with tasteful décor and a welcoming environment for women, with good music and an all-female staff. It may take a while to find as the bar has retained its original façade of an old boulangerie - easy to miss, but look out for the blacked out windows and discreet signposting on the door. There are monthly parties with guest DJs and, depending on the night, a selection of music from Disco to House with live groups very often playing. For the more sedate, there is a women-only tea dance on Sunday afternoons from 4.30 to 8pm at Chez Moune, rue Pigalle. The Coming Out, another lesbian bar on la rue de Beaurepaire in the 10th arrondissement not far from République is a small, friendly bar run by a gay duo, officially lesbian but which welcomes a mixed clientele. During the second world war the bar was home to a pub run by women for women. In general, bars open at the beginning of the afternoon and close at 2am. You can learn a lot just from keeping your eyes peeled when strolling around the capital, especially in the Marais where bars and cafes will organise special events throughout the year with a never-ending supply of flyers to advertise them. It's a good idea if you're living in Paris to get friendly with some of the bar staff who will undoubtedly reward your
friendship, and custom, with invitations to private evenings in some of the clubs and let you know about the lesser advertised or underground happenings in and around the capital.
Once you've chosen the place for your pre-resto drink, drunk the pastis and finished your peanuts, you may start thinking about a good place to eat. If you are looking for a good restaurant or café the best thing to do is simply ask one of the bar staff for a good address in the area. Don't forget, you're in France, so virtually any restaurant you go into is going to be good. Two good addresses are Le Dos de la Baleine and the aptly named and very reasonable Les Mauvais Garçons, and if you fancy a trip away from the Marais, the bar/restaurant Le 3B on the boulevard de l'Hôpital, serves excellent food with music to match in a gay friendly atmosphere.
The choice of gay sporting associations has greatly developed over the last few years. You'll be spoilt for choice with diverse activities ranging from simple walks along the banks of the Seine to weekends away in the countryside on the back of a bike. For a complete list of all the sporting associations in and around Paris, contact the Sporting Federation for Gays and Lesbians (Fédération Sportive Gaie et Lesbienne). The association Dérailleurs is a cycling club proposing weekly outings and excursions to the countryside and forests around Paris. You can contact them on the web-site or telephone to find out about the next trip. An answering machine will give you all the details, including times of meeting places (usually at stations) and the proposed itinerary. For something more relaxing, you can choose from one of the many gay saunas, the majority of which can be found in the Marais. You will be given a towel and a locker key and the entrance fee will also give you access to the weights room or salle de musculation, and the cabines de relaxation where you can "relax" however you choose… You'll find most Parisians choose Sunday afternoon to go to the sauna, so if you're looking to meet people it's best to go then. Athletic World on the rue du Bourg Tibourg in the 4th offers a free manicure and drink at the bar every Friday for the price of a facial. Paris Aquatique at Montparnasse, offers swimming lessons and if you fancy a bit of synchronised swimming, you can pop along every night from 8 to 10pm. You can contact them on their web site for more information.
The St-Merri swimming pool at 16 rue de Renard, is home to the gay swimming association and proposes nightly swimming lessons from 8.15 to 10.15pm. And if, after all that kicking and stretching, you want to sweat it out on the pitch, Rainbow FC (FC Paris Arc en Ciel) has weekly football matches every Friday at 9pm at the Stade de Boulodrome, 7 avenue de la Porte de Choisy in the 13th arrondissement.
As a rule, the Gay and Lesbian Centre is your best bet for free, helpful advice. A drop-in centre, café and library, they publish a monthly listing of all the events, conferences and debates directed at homosexuals, relative themes and current affairs. In conjunction with the CGL, a recent free event at the Espace Européen was organised around the theme of health and well-being, with contributions and lectures from prominent gay activists, university lecturers and health specialists. The conference treated diverse subjects such as back-rooms, dangers of tobacco/alcohol on physical and mental well-being and, of, course, HIV. The team of CGL workers is made up uniquely of volunteers and is open six days a week from 9am to 10pm depending on the day and the activities proposed. The centre is not exclusively reserved for homosexuals but, as one volunteer assured me, "for all those who are interested in broadening their minds". The centre also proposes services from resident social workers (every Monday from 10am-4pm, Wednesdays from 3pm-5pm and Fridays from 9am-1pm) and psychological assistance (Tuesdays from 6pm-8pm). There is also the possibility of simply speaking to or gaining advice from a gay doctor. (You can also call the gay doctors association AMG (Association des Médecins Gaies). However, for all these services, you must telephone in advance to make an appointment. All chemists and hospitals will offer health care and advice. La Pharmacie du Village in the Marais (8.30am-10pm every day) is run by gays and offers advice on AIDS prevention.