On the evening of Friday, November 13, I was in the city of Avignon in Southern France for the start of a historic weekend: The Etats Généraux LGBTI (National LGBTI Conference) was opening at Avignon’s ornate 19th-century city hall with a speech by Mayor Cécile Helle followed by a festive reception. More than 250 activists from throughout the country were on hand to take part in two days of discussions about the future of the LGBT movement following the successful campaign for marriage equality in France.
Celebrated stage director Olivier Py, head of the Avignon Theater Festival, also addressed the crowd, telling us that he had once thought of himself only as an artist who happened to be gay, but had come to embrace belonging to the LGBT community. The very notion of distinct communities often makes the French nervous, as they fear that identifying with such groups can produce isolation and separatism – yet Py received rousing applause when he reminded us that LGBT people have created “a beautiful community … a community that has always been about love and about peace.”
We didn’t yet know that at virtually the moment when Py was speaking, a wave of attacks was underway 430 miles to the north in the French capital. Only as my friends and I settled in at a late-night restaurant across from City Hall on the Place de l’Horloge did the news begin to filter in. Checking the tweets on his smartphone, fellow activist Olivier Nostry told us about reports that gunfire had broken out in Paris. By the time we returned to our hotel, the nature of the events was clear: terrorists had struck cafes, a concert hall and sites near a major soccer stadium where a match was in progress, leaving behind carnage and a growing death toll.
A solemn but determined group of activists gathered the following morning at the FabricA, the headquarters of the Avignon Festival, where the meetings of the National LGBT Conference were set to take place. Police reinforcements in uniform and plain clothes were stationed at the entrance to provide increased security for the complex. With activists filling the seats of the main theater, the organizing committee came on stage. Conveners Christine Nicolas and Erwann Le Hô stepped forward, and Le Hô addressed the hall. He stated that the conference would not be canceled – and his brief yet moving words made clear why the work should continue despite the somber news: “We welcome you to the FabricA this morning with heavy and shattered hearts. … Our thoughts this morning of course go out to the families of the victims. And we’re also thinking in particular of the activists from Paris who are here in Avignon this weekend. We hope that you have been able to hear from your loved ones and that all of them are safe.
“The terrorists will have won if fear overtakes us, if we hide in our homes, if we see others as representing danger rather than an opportunity.
“And that’s why we’re present today: to say that we are here and that horror will not overwhelm us. We are united. We are opening our doors, coming together, having discussions, exchanging ideas, getting to know each other in all of our differences, continuing to question ourselves so we can advance our movement. …
“Those are the things we believe in,” Le Hô continued. “Those are the things that will thwart the plans of obscurantists and fanatics of all kinds. And that’s why we are here in Avignon this weekend. More than ever, as our friends from ACT UP say, ‘Action = Life.'”
The participants took up this call with working sessions on Saturday and with report-backs and discussion of strategies and goals on Sunday. In a video posted on the conference Facebook page at the end of the first day of deliberations, Christine Nicolas emphasized the objectives of the gathering, which stood in stark contrast to the events in Paris the night before: “How can we continue evolving together, how can we continuing advancing the movement, how can we avoid being isolated from one another, how can we sustain the value of togetherness? Those are the questions we have to address in the workshops.”
Nicolas also emphasized that developing responses to those questions “doesn’t mean speaking with a single voice. … We’ll remain diverse – and that’s our strength.”
By all accounts, the conference was a success, laying the groundwork for future annual gatherings and opening the way to better coordination of the LGBT movement in France. At present, the country has no organization equivalent to the National LGBTQ Task Force in the United States and no yearly national gathering for activists and organizers equivalent to the Task Force’s Creating Change conference. The discussions in Avignon may very well lead to ongoing coalition-building that could create similar structures in forms adapted to the needs of French culture and the French movement.
Whatever the long-term outcomes of the National LGBTI Conference, the fact that the deliberations went forward in a productive way despite the shadow of very dark news from Paris was a forceful reminder that no one in France is prepared to give in to fear. Despite a range of opinions expressed in the workshops, one common commitment was clear for all the activists who were present: our “beautiful community” in France will continue striving to build a society of greater openness and respect.
Gerard Koskovich is a San Francisco-based queer historian and rare-book dealer who spends several weeks in France every fall-winter.