Paris has burned


Growing up a queer person of color (QPOC) in the Midwestern United States, I never dreamed that it would be possible for someone like myself to go to Paris.  In fact, until last year I had never been out of the country.  At 28, the world seemed to open up in front of me.  Now 29, I am here.  I’ve arrived in “the most romantic city in the world.”  Well, as with many romances, it all seems to be built up in our heads as some distant possibility.  A possibility that we desire, but accept as an impossibility – which I believe is part of the attraction.

I recalled my obsession with the documentary film Paris Is Burning.  A documentation of the POC queer community in the late 80s.  Though in many ways the film has become a tokenizing artifact of the African American queer existence it still provided me with some hope as a POC queer coming from a sea of whiteness in much of my youth and young adulthood.  This film inspired me to think about what has been happening in the past months as France has passed marriage reform which includes non-traditional couples in the institution of marriage.

As a queer, Paris is romanticized as a place for queer culture in ways that are similar to New York City or San Francisco – an international gay mecca.  The reality, as we are recognizing in the States as well, is that violence and hatred is re-penetrating our claims to space.  In Chelsea just a week or so before our trip, my roommate and her partner came across the crime scene where a young POC queer man had been gunned down simply for being gay in the wrong place and time where I often pass to ride the train home from Manhattan into Bedstuy.  This carried with me to Paris and on our first day in Argenteuil it was expressed that homosexual people were “not seen” or rather, invisible or intentionally blending in due to some perception of necessity in this space.

These happenings inspired me to think of how performing in public space requires a reading, interpretation, and expression that is impacted by the environmental factors of material, design, and psycho-social influences.  I conceived of a narrative that explored how a queer person might behave in a variety of geographies and urban contexts – on the Esplanade, the train, and in front of Hotel des Invalides (the converging epicenter of the protests against same sex marriage on May 26th).  I hope that my work will be accepted in solidarity with those who have been fighting for equity in the recognition of love and family as determined by each and every individuals’ own experience and capabilities here in France.

For now I have uploaded some raw footage to youtube that can be used for comparison of my embodied identity and translation of the same song in two different geographies.  Later, the project will fill in the story between these two places…

– Rashid Owoyele

Raw footage from Invalides

Raw footage from Argenteuil

Queer Paris, day one

parade branding

parade branding

We began our week of “Queer Urban Geography” in Paris on an unusual note: following the predefined path of two marches against the recently passed vote to legalize same-sex marriage. Several bouts of violence had plagued the city earlier and we were warned repeatedly of this possibility, though mercifully this proved not to be the case. What we encountered were two distinctly different, yet similarly confused “manifestations”.

The first was “Le Manif Pour Tous”, or “the demonstration for all”, which seemed to pride itself on not being “anti-gay,” but rather “anti-a-bunch-of-randomly-imagined-scenarios.” To get at the heart of this “manifestation,” an analysis of the event’s branding is in order, (and a much needed vent from a designer’s point of view.) From the derivative name to the overt use of bright pink, this gathering appropriated so many successful signifiers of queer culture that a person passing by just might think it was a “pro” rally. Alas, this holds up only in peripheral vision, for as things came into focus, they just as soon fell apart. The pink, a shade too light and a bit too saccharine, was paired with bright blue to reinforce gender identity. Lacking the bite of the ironic queer pink, it also clashed with the other graphics as well as the French flag, which was a prominent element.

Upon entering the rally (one of three, diagrammed onto the city like a battle plan), I first noticed the organized group of “security” and “hosts” in red and yellow t-shirts. They stopped one man we befriended, Bruno, who was wearing a t-shirt which said “GAY OK”. He politely said that the march was not about homophobia, and so his t-shirt was reminding people of this. They politely agreed and we bid each other civil good-byes. This is indeed Paris.

What is at stake, according their website, how the law will “jeopardize the foundation of human identity: sexual difference.” How inspiringly reductionist. To further clarify, we spoke with many people along the way, wondering what their core message was, if it wasn’t to tell gay people they don’t have the right to marry. A typical response was, “We believe that children need a mother and a father” or “We don’t think that women should rent out their bodies to make babies” or “The family means one father and one mother”. One wonders about all of the many complicated versions of family that already exist, which have nothing to do with the prescribed image of “family” emblazoned on their flags: man, woman, boy, girl…..all holding hands.

I asked a group of girls if they took issue with the way that many heterosexual couples use technology in reproduction, but none of this seemed problematic. It’s only when gays do it, then it is a problem. Most incredible were the signs these polite, friendly “protesters” were holding. Referencing some of the best protest graphics of yesteryear, the branding strived for a certain hipness and currency the message itself lacked.

A few of my favorite banners:

“Notre Existence Tient A 2 Fils” (our existence hangs by two threads), showing a man holding a pink and blue marked kite strings.

“Nos Enfants Ne Sont Pas Des Cobayes” (our children are not guinea pigs), as a topless man raises his arm in protest.

“La Maternité C’est Pas Automatique” (motherhood is not automatic) showing a headless woman’s body with a washing machine in her abdomen.

“Qi Est Mon Père?” (who is my father?) as Darth Vader looms in the background.

This is truly a science fiction of imagined existential crisis. Most signs we deciphered elicited a collective “whaaa?” I was able to score a few posters, feeling the need for a deep crit later this week with our group. At the heart of this is the deep-seated need to control women’s bodies, there are simply so many interesting ways to say this graphically. As we moved along in the procession, music blasted–ironically mostly what you’d hear at a gay bar–though no one was dancing. Yes, missing was the joie de vivre that you see in a real pride march.

From here we departed to see the more “radical” march of traditionalists soon to descend on the Opera. Based on descriptions, I had anticipated an angry mob; “be careful”, we were warned. What awaited us was a motley crew of older catholics who haven’t changed their wardrobe since 1967, their gloomy charges and a few angry looking neo-nazis grouped in the middle. Some carried brooms, which signified a “cleaning up of the city” they evidently aspired to do. In contrast to the noisy if flatly branded march, this one had a mournful tone, almost like a funeral procession.

Underneath both marches was a core message of underlying economic anxiety. “We want jobs, not this law” a group of young men chanted. Ah, yes, well we all know how bad gays are for the economy.


holding protest graphics

Jane (looking angry), Sarah (looking like she has no idea she may soon become a washing machine) and me (looking scared for my existence).