A few days after my arrival in Thessaloniki, Greece, on July 24th, two women pastors tied the knot at the protestant Church of my home city Montpellier. The first in France, six years after the authorization by the French Protestant Church (A.F.P.) for its pastors to bless same-sex marriage. “A sign of open-mindedness”, according to Agnes Kauffmann, one of the brides.
“Lesbians, pastors and married”
Agnes Kauffmann and Emelin Daude got officially married on July 22nd, 2021, at the mayor’s office of Jacou, a town near my home city. Two days later, they received the blessings of the Protestant Church at the Maguelone temple of Montpellier on July 24th. But the happy event leaves a historic taste: both women are pastors of the French Protestant Church, and their marriage union by law is the first of the kind to be celebrated in the hexagon.
Both currently in their early thirties and in their probationary period requested by the A.F.P. (United Protestant Church of France) to become pastors, both wives talk about their journeys. One was a graphic designer and the other a computer engineer before changing their paths and joining the faculty of Theology in Montpellier, where they met. The pastor who presided the ceremony, Jean-François Breyne, highlighted the symbolic dimension of the event. The A.F.P. won’t just give its blessings, it will also still allow the two pastors among their ranks, which means a lot. Now the couple repeats loud and proud, they are “lesbians, pastors and married”.
When I told some of my French friends about it, many were happy but more surprised than anything else. Indeed, most of them did not even know that women could become pastors in their own country. But this “ignorance” illustrates two interesting realities in my home country: first, a significant position of atheism throughout the country. France is a secular state, which means that the State and religious institutions are entirely separated.
According to the World Values Survey in 2020, about 50% of the population confirmed being atheists and not believing in God. Because religion belongs to the personal and private spheres, it is not taught in public schools. So, aside from the basic knowledge about the three main religions, Judaism, Christianism, and Islam, people won’t know more if they’re not curious, don’t practice a religion, or grew up in a religious family.
Secondly, the Catholic institutions are the ones that ask their priests to remain celibate. Before the law of 1905, most French people were Catholics, and these religious roots are still to be found in the French traditions – Celebrations around the year, common names given to babies, references in the collective unconscious. So, it appears that many people generalize catholic measures to the whole Christian religion.
Can we expect more inclusion of LGBTQ+ and women in the French Christian spheres?
As a matter of fact, the Protestant Church of France did decide independently to bless the gay clergy during marriages or not. The measure was voted during a synod (clerical council) back in 2015, so two years after the passing of the law. However, the subject still looks touchy among the ranks, not just because the first blessed gay clergy marriage happened six years after the vote of the measure. Both Daude and Kauffmann explain that they absolutely wanted their wedding to be blessed; still, both women can’t forget that they could do so thanks to previous battles. The couple also pointed out that many LGBTQ people among the Protestant Church’s ranks haven’t come out and don’t want to talk about it, according to Radio France Hérault.
In every way, this wedding is a turning point in France. Why? First, because it symbolizes the change of mentalities witnessed these following years, then because they are the proof and example that this commitment is accepted, blessed, and supported by some peers. For the two wives, it was an essential element. “We need role models, examples, to know it is possible”, they declared. Another role model for women in the A.F.P. is Emmanuelle Seyboldt. Since 2017, this woman pastor has taken the important role of President of the Unified Protestant Church of France. This is the first time a woman takes this high position in the clerical establishment, a “normal decision” for her, as women have been allowed to become pastors since the 1960s.
The Catholic Church does not allow women to take up important positions in France. In July of last year, seven French women applied for different posts limited to men (priest, bishop…). A mediatized decision meant to tackle the lack of representation for women in the French catholic establishments. And as same-sex marriages are not recognized, the recent “LGBTQ+-friendly” declarations of Pope Francis being supportive on that subject made many priests in France happy: a significant number is wishing for more inclusion of LGBTQ+ Catholics in their religious order.
Montpellier: a LGBTQ+- friendly bastion?
The inclusion of LGBTQ+ people does not just involve the religious spheres of course. On a larger scale, many voices have risen in support of the cause.
Montpellier, where I was born, found itself a pioneer role and promotes LGBTQ+ rights. The city enjoys one of the most popular gay prides nationwide and waves the LGBTQ+ flag daily in front of the mayor’s office. The city hosted the first same-sex pastor’s marriage blessed by the French Protestant Church, and it is not the first time that Montpellier witnessed a historical day for LGBTQ+ rights. Indeed, the southern city celebrated the first gay marriage of France back in May 2013, only ten days after the passing of the law.
At that time, when the former left-wing mayor, Hélène Mandroux, had declared Vincent Aubin and Bruno Boileau officially married by law, she insisted on the fact that it was not a political act. “Through the union of Vincent and Bruno, we’re living a major advance for society. A major discrimination is disappearing. As a doctor by profession, I have always felt that to be discriminated against because of sexual orientation was unacceptable. Vincent Autin says it’s the victory of love over hate, and I can only agree” she explained to the Nouvel Observateur.
Violence despite the gains
According to a I.F.O.P. study from 2019, homosexuality is mainly considered a way to live its sexuality like any other in France. Nevertheless, homophobic attacks are still regularly reported on the front pages of newspapers.
The Observatory against inequalities points out that the number of homophobic attacks has doubled between 2016 and 2020, reaching about 1 590 crimes or offences last year. This number freezes me as much as seeing the pictures of many victims on social media. But it is crucial to raise awareness not just about the attacks but also about how violent they can be. For example, a few weeks ago, during the night of France’s national day on July 14th, a gay couple was injured by not less than 20 people in Corsica.
But the violence does not just lie in the attack. Recently, the French ministry for equal chances Women-Men has been working on educating police officers on homophobia and homophobic attacks. Many of them doubt the homophobic nature of the attack. Arnaud Gagnoud got violently attacked back in 2018 for having hugged his companion on the street. In the courtroom in June 2021, he felt the verdict too light compared to what he went through. The homophobic nature of this attack was being doubted, out of the six assailants, only one has been found and judged with a lower penalty than the one dictated in the French Penal Code. So in many cases, the law enforcement and -personnel still have to face homophobic issues properly and fairly.
So, at least every new LGBTQ-friendly measure appears like a breath for the community. In 2013, the bill about marriage for all introduced by the former Minister for Justice, Christiane Taubira, divided the country. Supported by, among others, the Catholic Church and the political party called “U.M.P.” (“Union for the popular movement”), the movement called “Manif pour tous” (“Riot for everyone”), had gathered around 340.000 people in front of the Eiffel Tower to oppose the measure in January of the same year (Figaro). After the passing of the law, the “Manif pour tous” has been keeping rising back against the bill introducing medically assisted reproduction for lesbian and celibate women. The bioethics measure was nevertheless adopted on June 29th, 2021.
Steps forward that need to be protected
Mentalities evolve in France, as witnessed these past years, so both public and private spheres start to adopt LGBTQ+-friendly measures. From the legalization in 2013 of marriage for everyone to, for example, the authorization in 2015 by the French Protestant Church of same-sex pastors’ marriages receiving the blessings by consented pastors, I’m personally more than happy to see such measures being introduced step by step. Nevertheless, even if France is said to be one of the most gay-friendly countries and historically ambassador of human rights, the reality shows there’s still a lot to be done. Therefore, we should not take these victories for granted. In addition, this wave of inclusion attracts sometimes a crave for electoral votes in a country with a high abstention rate.
As a big fan of cultural and intercultural studies, the task was introspective. I have visited Germany many times before, where the impact of the Protestant religion is way more visible and the role of the Church more accepted in society. These differences are for me invitations to reflect on my own opinion on faith and religious institutions, modestly but thoughtfully. I’m convinced that it is important, interesting, and normal to witness a rising will and urge in our society to see women and LGBT+ people more included. And as acts are better than words, the more examples there will be, the more impact we will witness on local, national, and international scales.