Oliver is a third-year Oxford University student studying History and French. His piece confronts the remnants of homophobia that linger within the modern French language.
Growing up, I was lucky enough to be able to spend six weeks a year staying in a village in the South-West of France. An idyllic and quiet corner of France – picture-postcard beautiful. As I grew older, I made friends with some of the young people in the area. These were friends I made pre-puberty, pre-coming-out, pre-a-lot-of-things. At this time, my French was quite limited too. At first, words such as PD (or pédé), tapette and enculé washed over me, and I just assumed that they meant something like ‘dickhead’ or ‘arsehole’. But with time I began to realise their significance.
Their presence in the odd phrase used to never really bother me, until a moment a couple of years ago. Some English friends and I were at a party with some of the people I knew in the area, and their friends. I overheard a couple of guys talking, and one of them was trying to refer to something one of my friends had mentioned earlier. The other guy didn’t know who he was talking about, and so asked his friend to specify. The reply came ‘oh c’est le pédé anglais’ (‘oh, he’s the English fag’). These words bit me. Not long beforehand I had read up on French homophobic slurs, of which pédé is the most severe (and arguably the most common). Pédé comes from pédéraste, which refers to the Ancient Greek practise of pederasty, and literally means, according to Larousse, a man who feels a ‘sexual attraction for adolescent males’. The obvious links with paedophilia, in both meaning and etymology, cannot be overlooked. It was in this mindset that I found myself swinging around and letting out a sharp ‘what’d you say?’. ‘Nothing’, came the hasty reply. Upon reflection the next day, what surprised me most was not the word he had used, but the triviality of the whole exchange. In his description of my friend I heard no hint of meanness or ill will, it was matter-of-fact. For him, the word did not seem to have the depth of meaning and varied connotations that I was attaching to it.
This same thought struck me a couple of days later in a club in the local town when I was chatting to a man in the smoking area. He was garrulously telling me that he really liked my haircut, but was not sure whether he should have it himself, as in France ‘ça fait un peu tapette’ – ‘it looks a bit queer’. Tapette as a slur throws scorn at the passive partner in gay sex and links homosexuality with effeminacy through a feminine ending (-ette), painting it as something anti-masculine. The same is true for enculé, which means, literally, ‘a man who is fucked up the arse’, but is used in the same way we might say ‘bastard’. Once again, it was the banality of his words that caught my attention; he did not say it as though it were a loaded insult that may conceivably be offensive. This homophobic slur was wrapped up in a compliment about my hair.
He was garrulously telling me that he really liked my haircut, but was not sure whether he should have it himself, as in France ‘ça fait un peu tapette’ – ‘it looks a bit queer’.
These anecdotes could easily be written off as just that, anecdotes. However, there is a certain element bound up in these incidents that I have seen repeated numerous times more recently. For the past five months, I have been living in Paris, and I have never heard more homophobic slurs used in my life. In some respects this is not altogether surprising – here I work in a secondary school where the words pédé, enculé and tapette are rarely far away. However, other instances have shocked me more. I have spent time with middle-aged people who have chattily told me that their son’s haircut ‘fait un peu pédé’ (seemingly a running theme), and with university students who say ‘pédé’, ‘tapette’ and ‘enculé’ ten times an evening.
Importantly, in these instances, the slurs I hear are not directed towards a specific gay person. Indeed, most of the time, they are not said by a person who I would consider traditionally homophobic; they certainly have no issue with my sexuality. Young, educated people have said the word in front of me, as some sort of byword for feminity, weakness or faint peculiarity. And yet, these same people would be horrified if somebody used this word to insult me directly. Someone might wonder if the pattern on their shoes ‘fait pédé’ (‘looks queer’), and then ask me five minutes later how my date with Jean-François went. In short, what has struck me most in France is this disconnect between the slurs that are often used and the positive views about gay people that the same people may express.
In describing these experiences, I do not intend to portray everyday homophobia as a purely French issue. Instead, I am trying to articulate a potential paradox in the treatment of homosexuality in France and in the French language especially. Homosexual acts have been legal in France since 1791 – a full 230 years ago. This was 176 years before England, 188 years before Spain, and 202 years before the Republic of Ireland. And yet, homophobia is still rife in modern French language, not because young French people are (necessarily) homophobic, but because homophobia is anchored in the fabric of the French vernacular, handed down by their predecessors, and influenced by the media and society at large. There has been a trivialisation of homophobic language that needs unthreading. Once again, it is important to underline that this phenomenon is not limited to the French language. For example, there are numerous pertinent parallels to be drawn between the French use of ‘pédé’ etc., and the English use of the word ‘gay’, which is an issue particularly amongst school-aged people. Back when I was fourteen, everything was gay; Mrs Benson setting us homework was gay, three assemblies a week was gay, dropping a spot of ketchup on your tie in the canteen was pretty gay. This is the same process: the insult is distanced from its meaning, but nonetheless perpetuates prejudice towards LGBTQ+ people. As such, this is not solely a French issue. But it is still a French issue.
what has struck me most in France is this disconnect between the slurs that are often used and the positive views about gay people that the same people may express.
The symptoms of this problem were seen in 2016, when a hairdresser was fired by his manager in Paris. She called him a ‘sale PD’ – she called him a ‘dirty faggot’. When this was taken to an industrial tribunal, it was ruled that this did not constitute a homophobic insult because many ‘gay people work as hairdressers’. This is a prime example of the process of trivialisation. The etymology of this word, the associations with paedophilia, the centuries of violent discrimination this word accompanied and accompanies, are all effaced. The tribunal was willing to claim that ‘PD’ can be seen as an acceptable synonym for ‘gay’, even when paired with ‘dirty’. And this attitude towards homophobia slurs is not unusual, from my own personal experience in France.
Language does evolve, meanings do change. However, the trivialisation of homophobic slurs is not trivial. Whilst some may overlook the deeper meanings of these words, they remain. These words harm queer people directly and indirectly, no matter how they were intended. They reinforce a lexis which brims with unconscious prejudice. If they are not consciously unpicked, these prejudices will continue to flow from generation to generation.
Language does evolve, meanings do change. However, the trivialisation of homophobic slurs is not trivial.