Guest Opinion: Montpellier takes pride as the 'French San Francisco'

  • by Malcolm Biiga
  • Wednesday July 26, 2023
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Kris Perry, with her spouse, Sandy Stier, drove then-attorney general and presidential candidate Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, in the 2019 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Bill Wilson
Kris Perry, with her spouse, Sandy Stier, drove then-attorney general and presidential candidate Kamala Harris and her husband, Doug Emhoff, in the 2019 San Francisco Pride parade. Photo: Bill Wilson

On May 29, 2013, a month after the final adoption of Marriage for All, then Montpellier mayor Hélène Mandroux presided at the very first same-sex wedding in France. Vincent Autin and Bruno Boileau became the first gay couple to be married. First in history, Montpellier became the center of attention: Agence France-Presse gave the city a new nickname when it wrote, "international media converged on Montpellier — dubbed the French San Francisco." It turns out the moniker is far from anecdotal given the shared history between the two cities.

A month after the ceremony in Montpellier, San Francisco also celebrated its first same-sex wedding after winning a court case: lesbian activists Kris Perry and Sandy Stier said "I do" before the California Attorney General Kamala Harris, now vice president of the United States. Perry and Stier were the lead plaintiffs in an epic legal battle to obtain the right to marry, which was recognized in 2013 in California after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to overturn an appeals court decision that Proposition 8, the state's same-sex marriage ban, was unconstitutional. (Same-sex marriage was legal in California for a brief period before Prop 8's passage in 2008.) It wasn't until 2015 and the Supreme Court's Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that America saw "Marriage for All," as it's called in France, legalized nationwide.

Gay or lesbian, French or American, from Montpellier or San Francisco, these "pioneers of pride" were the faces of Marriage for All on both sides of the Atlantic. Ten years later, Autin and Perry agreed to participate in interviews with me. More than ever "allies," Montpellier and San Francisco commemorated the "rainbow decade" together.

The rainbow awakening in Montpellier and SF

What's viewed as the catalyst for the modern LGBTQ rights movement occurred in 1969 with the Stonewall riots in New York City. Regularly arrested by the police, the LGBTQ community rebelled against the authorities. On June 28, 1969, gays, lesbians, and transgender people let their voices heard in the infamous gay bar, the Stonewall Inn. This event became the founding act of Pride celebrations in New York City, San Francisco, and numerous other cities, and of the LGBTQ struggle around the globe.

The aftermath of Stonewall saw the launch of the Gay Liberation Front in New York City, and 1977 marked a turning point: on June 25 of that year, 400 LGBTQs marched in Paris' first Gay Pride. The call to demonstrate was issued by the Groupe de Libération Homosexuelle (GLG) and the Mouvement de Libération des Femmes (MLF). The crowd rallied behind the slogan "Phallocracy, morality, virility, enough is enough!" Far from the capital, 1977 also marked a turning point for Montpellier and San Francisco.

Perry believes that what Montpellier and San Francisco have in common is that both cities have had courageous municipal officials: "The LGBTQ struggle is all about leaders. A mayor can change a city, a country, and the world," she said in an interview. In 1977, Harvey Milk became the first openly gay elected official in California when he won his San Francisco supervisor race. Sadly, he was assassinated in November 1978, 11 months after taking office, but his legacy lives on. In February 2004, San Francisco mayor (and current California governor) Gavin Newsom ordered city officials to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some 4,000 same-sex couples married during what became known as the "Winter of Love" before the California Supreme Court declared their unions null and void.

In France, George Frêche was elected mayor of Montpellier in 1977. For Autin, the election was the starting point for "the city's particular history with LGBT struggles." One of the mayor's first acts was to grant a place to meet for the GLH (Groupe de Libération Homosexuelle). A powerful political act that transformed Montpellier into a haven of tolerance. In 2009, Mayor Mandroux delivered the "Appel de Montpellier," a speech in favor of same-sex marriage.

Vincent Autin. Photo: From his FB page  

France is a U.S. ally in the LGBTQ struggle
In 2014, France celebrated the first anniversary of Marriage for All, and Autin wanted to mark the occasion. "As president of the Montpellier Pride, I wanted to reinforce the city's image as the French San Francisco. So I decided to invite Stuart Milk," he said in an interview. An LGBTQ rights activist, Stuart Milk is the gay nephew of Harvey Milk. Stuart Milk, founder of the Harvey Milk Foundation, went to Paris and Montpellier that year — the 20th anniversary of Montpellier Pride — hosted by Montpellier Pride and the U.S. Embassy.

Is the link between Montpellier and San Francisco a little-known aspect of Franco-American friendship? "Yes," according to Perry. "Marriage for All has given new meaning to the word ally. France and the U.S. have been allies since the American Revolution and remained so during both World Wars. They are now united in the fight for LGBT rights, thanks to Montpellier and San Francisco," she said. Perry and Autin even agree that Marriage for All would not have been possible without heterosexual allies such as Newsom, who participated in the recognition of this right for all.

This year, Perry and Autin celebrated the 10th anniversary of their respective marriages and commemorated the 10th anniversary of the laws that made their unions possible. Perry, who has never had the chance to visit Montpellier, has already received an invitation from Autin.

Separated by 10,000 kilometers, Autin, a Montpellier native, hopes one day to meet his Bay Area counterpart. Conscious of "the honor of having made history and now being part of it," their long struggle has enabled young and old LGBTQ couples to get married but, above all, to love each other, freely.

Malcolm Biiga is a young French Black straight ally and a political specialist of U.S.-France relationships. He previously worked at the U.S. Embassy in Paris, at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. House of Representatives and the French Senate.

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