On a warm spring day in Paris' 20th arrondissement, a couple say their vows and exchanges rings in a room designated for civil-wedding ceremonies. Both are wearing ties. Their parents sit in the front row. And when the couple leave the city-hall building, they do so under a traditional shower of rice.
"It was very moving and very joyful," Nicolas Martin, one of the "newlyweds" later says. "But it wasn't a real marriage."
Martin and his partner, Charly Bordier, have what's known in France as a PACS a civil-union contract applicable to both same-sex and heterosexual couples. Technically speaking, however, they are not married. France has explored the possibility but so far has refused to grant marriage rights to homosexual couples, as has happened in other European countries like Spain, Sweden, the Netherlands and, most recently, Portugal.
On June 14 just 10 days before New York became the largest U.S. state to allow same-sex marriage the National Assembly voted down France's latest gay-marriage proposal.
Like many same-sex couples, however, Martin and Bordier still wanted to have the experience of a wedding. "The 20th-district city hall hosts wedding ceremonies for couples who have signed a civil contract, and we wanted to have one too," says Martin.
The couple signed their PACS more than a year ago, on April 22, 2010, in a Parisian magistrates' court. A photo taken that day shows Martin and Bordier sitting on plastic chairs next to a fire extinguisher. They are in a large corridor waiting for the court clerk to sign the contract.
"Obviously it was not very festive," says Bordier with a sigh. "The court clerk told us that some couples had improvised short wedding ceremonies in her office. Some of them had even brought a cake."
Bordier works as a cook for a Parisian caterer. Martin is a radio producer. They have been living together for several years, and it's important to them that people recognize their union in a legal sense.
"We are like any other couple. We want to show that we are in a serious relationship, that we are not just having a passing love affair. A [legal] commitment is something that shows how we feel about each other," Martin explains. "Signing a PACS is a way to tell everyone that I want to spend the rest of my life with Charly."
So, too, was having a proper wedding party especially since marriage, legally speaking, is still forbidden to couples like Martin and Bordier. Aside from with the ceremony in Paris, the couple also celebrated their union in a 12th century church turned for the occasion into a village hall. They invited 120 guests, served wine in a Tourangelle cellar and had a huge cake.
"It was the most conventional PACS in the whole history of creation," says Martin. "We were asked to make a speech, we stammered for a bit; and finally we just thanked all the people who came to the wedding all the people who accept us the way we are."
By celebrating their union with great pomp, Martin and Bordier were hoping to break the embarrassed silence that sometimes preys on the minds of some gay couples. "There's no reason why you shouldn't talk about it," says Martin. "You can live like this and introduce your life partner as a friend. Everybody will understand and you won't have to say it literally. In this way, things will be much easier for you."
Amantine Revol and Virginie Lemerle have a similar story to tell. The two women want to live openly. "We don't want to provoke anyone; we just want to be able to behave normally to not feel compelled to be discreet whenever we're together," Revol explains. "We're not preaching anything. We didn't decide to become gay. The only choice we have is to learn to live with it or not. Things haven't always been easy for us, but Virginie and I, we have chosen to live life to the fullest and be happy. And we are!"
Revol is a town planner. Lemerle works as a firefighter. They live in a small village of 400 inhabitants near Angers a city in the Maine-et-Loire department of western France. Their daughter Malou is enrolled in classes taught by a local child-care provider. "There haven't been any problems," says Revol. "The child caregiver was very friendly. She just asked us how we should be referred to as 'Mom' or something else and what we were doing for Mother's Day."
When they signed a PACS six years ago, Revol and Lemerle decided to celebrate their union much like Bordier and Martin with some serious razzle-dazzle. They exchanged rings during a cruise on the River Loire. Then they gathered more than a 100 friends and relatives together at an old windmill.
"I was raised in a traditional family, so obviously I would prefer to have a real wedding. The clerk's office is the place you go to get a divorce, or where you marry on impulse," says Lemerle. "We chose to sign a PACS by default, but we chose to organize a huge party that finished at 7 a.m."
Today, Revol and Lemerle would like to marry for real. Why? Marriage offers more civil benefits than the PACS. It makes it possible for people to have the same last name as their partner. And symbolically, it simply holds more weight.
"Some people say that marriage is outmoded. But not for us," Revol says with a smile. "It might be outmoded in a few centuries, but right now gay people don't really have the option of thinking it's outmoded, because they don't even have the right to marry! After living together for 11 years, we want to marry." Revol pauses, then adds: "Don't you think that's cool?"
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