Content warnings: homophobia, racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, misogyny
A couple weeks after my arrival at the Marquillier home, I noticed a pink flag flying above the house. The small rectangle of fabric carried an innocuous white logo of a family: a mother and father holding hands with a girl and a boy, respectively. I recognized this as the logo of Manif Pour Tous, a French organization promoting “respect for the greater concerns and basic needs of the child, threatened today by social reforms inspired by gender ideology.” These alleged threats include gay marriage, surrogacy, and abortion. To the movement and its supporters, these threats are social ills that harm children, the “most vulnerable citizens of France.”
After seeing the flag, I started to notice the little family logo everywhere in the house: a sticker on my host brother’s laptop, on my host sister’s sweatshirt, on my host mom’s umbrella. I began to realize that my year abroad might be more difficult than I had previously anticipated. When I decided in my first year at Wellesley that I wanted to spend my junior year in France, I hadn’t realized how being a lesbian might affect that experience. As I prepared to leave during sophomore spring, I decided I would not come out to my host family, but remain quietly closeted. In any case, I assumed LGBTQ+ issues would rarely come up and, if they did, that my imagined host family would be tolerant at best or indifferent at worst.
I was wrong. The family didn’t talk much about politics during my first month or so as I settled in, but soon political discussions became frequent and unavoidable. Politics, after all, reveal a great deal about who we are and what we value, and the Marquilliers are a spirited and opinionated family. Jean-Christophe, the head of the family, presided over these conversations with zeal. He is a proud spiritual descendant of the chevaliers, knights who had a strict code of honor long lost to France. Chivalry is not dead, he told me, even though some women are now offended when he opens doors for them. I laughed it off and assured him that I didn’t mind having doors opened for me, but that I believed everyone should be willing to open a door occasionally. Not like those féministes.
The question of door-holding was an easy one to skirt. Other discussions demanded a more delicate balancing act as I tried to express mild dissent, never totally agreeing with their views while taking care not to reveal my own. Silence was usually the best choice—though not the most effective for learning French. However, with the American and French elections approaching, maintaining silence became impossible. One night at dinner, the conversation inevitably turned to the choice Americans were faced with: Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. “Hillary Clinton,” said Jean-Christophe slowly and politely, “is a demon who supports the murder of babies.”
I just nodded. “Ah,” I said. This was the first time the topic of abortion had been breached, but not the first time I wondered whether my language abilities were affecting my understanding of the situation. It is difficult to misunderstand the literal meaning of “Elle est une démon,” but I wondered whether démon was perhaps a less damning insult in French than in English. While I am a fairly confident French speaker, I was left speechless by the virulence of their hatred. Even with the vocabulary to argue about the morality of abortion, I felt that I was unlikely to change the opinions of six conservative Catholics over a dinner conversation. Such an argument would be unproductive, grammatically challenging, and had the potential to make living with the Marquilliers very unpleasant.
Uncertain how to respond, I instead asked more questions over the following weeks and months. What about Donald Trump? Though everyone, especially Christiane and her daughters, objected to his vulgar comments about women, the family generally felt that he had the right ideas. They especially liked his stance on immigrants, who in their view were flooding the U.S. just like the refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries were flooding France. As far as the Marquilliers were concerned, refugees and immigrants were dangerous criminals and a wall was a fitting solution. “They’re changing France,” Christiane said. “There are places now that won’t sell you pork, stores that don’t close on Sundays. It’s ludicrous! This is a Catholic country,” she emphasized. The Marquilliers were of course aware of the French law of laïcité, the restriction of religion to the private sphere. But France itself is deeply steeped in Catholicism, and in the eyes of traditional families like the Marquilliers, Muslim immigrants represent an existential threat to the nation.
In many respects, these opinions are not so different from those of my own family. My American father also hates Hillary Clinton, not for her support for reproductive rights but for her “corruption.” My mother frets that immigrants from China and Mexico don’t assimilate enough into the mythical melting pot of America. We’ve had enough terrible, painful arguments about these topics and more that I know how hard it is to change someone’s mind. But before living with the Marquilliers, I had never felt so wholly unprepared to argue, and uncertain whether I should. At home, I knew my parents would not punish me for arguing with them; we would pass an unpleasant day or two at most after an argument before making up, however begrudgingly. I know the thresholds of my parents’ tolerance. In a stranger’s home, I had no certainty that my hosts would be forgiving.
Perhaps more importantly, at home I had not heard direct attacks on my own rights at the dinner table. A few nights before Christmas, Jean-Christophe argued that homosexuality is an illness. If a cancer patient came to us, he argued, would we tell him that he is not ill? I was taken aback by the harshness of the analogy, but couldn’t help but laugh to myself: I wasn’t dying of queerness. A few nights later, he called abortion “a Holocaust of the unborn,” which is about when my previously lukewarm feelings towards Jean-Christophe curdled into quiet dislike.
Some would dismiss these disputes as mere politics. But closely-held beliefs about religion, marriage, and gender roles run far deeper than the clichés of French culture—the food, the art, the music—and touch on something more vulnerable. These questions are as important to me as they are to the Marquilliers, so their rejection of my values and my identity left me stunned and speechless. Of course, this meant I lost many opportunities for conversational French. But I always had the option of moving, as the program director and my friends reminded me multiple times. Yet I chose to stay. Maybe this was foolish; it was certainly stubborn of me, and I wouldn’t recommend it to someone else in my place. I stayed because I knew that my experience with this family was more challenging than any other would be, and that I would learn more about the complexities and contradictions of French culture there than anywhere else. A year later, je ne regrette rien.
From February 2018 issue