Literally meaning “The Marsh”, Le Marais is one of the most characterful areas of Paris, but it wasn’t always the gay quarter…
I recall about ten years ago being in Paris around the Town Hall looking for a place to eat. We were three small hungry children and two tired adults in total. We had not planned our day properly and had ended up at dusk desperately looking for somewhere – anywhere – to sit down and have some food. We zig-zagged through streets, relying on our keen eye for a good local place, where you’d always see plenty of non-tourists sitting in large numbers chatting over food. We came upon a square. There was a pizzeria. It looked lively. We grabbed an available table outdoors and sat down.
We both breathed heavy sighs of relief and the children cheered as the bread, water and wine was put out on the table. There was a very lively atmosphere and as we relaxed and settled into surroundings, I began to notice a few details that we had completely overlooked in the rush to get ourselves fed and watered. There were a lot of men – a higher proportion than usual. They were all talking animatedly and in slightly high-pitched voices, punctuated very regularly by what one might describe as girlish whinnies. I looked around at the men again. Some were looking at our little Irish family like we were something unusual.
“Did you notice that a lot of people seem to be staring?” my wife whispered to me. “Do we look alright?”
I shrugged my shoulders, lowered my eyelids in a thoroughly Gallic manner and ripped off a bite of bread.
“That’s just France, you know. It was like that when I was in college, I remember – people here just stare more than they do in Ireland.”The couple next to us seemed to look upon us a little disdainfully – a kind-of ‘I don’t think you belong here’ look. It was then that I noticed that they were two men, both were tanned, well-groomed wearing plunging-neckline vest-type tee-shirts and short short shorts. For a fleeting moment, I remember thinking how so many French men were apparently so comfortable with their sexuality that a lot of heterosexual men look a little gay.
Then I noticed that the guys at the table next to them looked even more gay. My jaw dropped lower and my eyes grew wider as I re-scanned my surrounding once more, this time with a re-adjusted radar setting: Tossing heads, affected hand gestures, all male, rainbow flags hanging out of windows, men holding hands… Apart from our little family, absolutely everyone here was clearly gay. My wife had just done exactly the same thing and the penny dropped with both of us in simultaneous unison. We looked at each other and burst out laughing.
It was one of the best places we had ever been to eat: maybe it was something to do with the acute hunger pangs but the food was delicious and cooked with care, the staff were bubbly and friendly; it was a warm evening and the whole quarter was buzzing with life. We even had some free live theatre in the form of a couple having a public argument in classic cinematic fashion – with one on the street and the other shouting from an upstairs window, tossing some of his belongings on to the pavement.
Le Marais is an area that is the closest thing to mediaeval Paris that you can get. The Revolutionary years and, in particular, the re-defining Haussman years of the Second Empire, have meant that Paris is a relatively modern 19th-century city. In this context, Le Marais stands out with its non-linear street structure and older buildings. Perhaps it was its labyrinthine characteristics that attracted members of the gay community in the first place.
Many commentators believe that it took a while for the mainstream press to recognise the Marais as a gay quarter. In France, the default attitude tends to be along the lines of “Well, we’re a republic, aren’t we? So every citizen is integrated and duly represented”. In that kind of context, many would have seen the notion of a homosexual quarter as a ghetto-isation of a certain section of people.But, gradually the Marais became the place where being openly gay was welcome and more and more gay-oriented businesses and people moved there. Other spots in Paris that had been part of Gay Paris such as Sainte-Anne had become run-down and associated with more non-gay-related undesireable elements such as political corruption, prostitution and enforced closures, aiding the consolidation of a truly gay area in the French capital.
It must be noted too that all of this coincided with a general cultural rejuvenation of the Marais – not unlike the manner in which the Temple Bar district in Dublin was re-born around the same time. Residential rents were low and commercial space was available.
Today, the Marais has become one of the most desirable and expensive parts of town to live in. As restaurant and residential prices climb and the lines between “gay” and “chic” continue to blur, we’re probably going to see somewhere else emerge as the new gay quarter of Paris. Next time you’re looking for a cheap and atmospheric place to eat in Paris, take a good look around you… you might just unwittingly discover the new Gay Paris.