As same-sex couples in France try to adopt, conservative forces push back

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
A participant attends the annual Gay Pride parade in Paris, France, June 30, 2018.

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France, like nearly two dozen countries in Europe, has passed laws in recent years to allow marriage and adoption for same-sex couples. But social norms and a religious history rooted in conservative Roman Catholicism have prevented LGBT couples from exercising the rights to which they are legally entitled. Around 7,000 same-sex marriages take place each year, but only a handful of same-sex couples manage to adopt. In June, France was wrapped in controversy after two regional adoption agency officials made disparaging remarks about same-sex couples: one saying that agencies would always favor heterosexual couples over homosexual ones, and another that same-sex couples were “atypical” and should be prepared to adopt “atypical” children – those who are older or with disabilities. The problem comes because all couples must go before a “family council” to assess their suitability for adopting. Those councils often feature disproportionate representation from Catholic family organizations that disfavor same-sex adoptive parents. “France is very secular in how religion is dealt with in the public sphere,” says Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne, “but the church is still very present and active.”

Why We Wrote This

France may look highly progressive, given its legalization of same-sex marriage five years ago. But French society is more conservative than it seems, a fact manifesting as now-married LGBT couples try to adopt.

Like many couples basking in the euphoria of France’s passing of a law to allow same-sex marriage five years ago, Pierre-Jean Jestin and his husband started immediately on adoption proceedings. Mr. Jestin, who was adopted himself, knew how long the process could last – for all couples, gay or straight – and didn’t want to wait.

But during one of the interviews halfway through the lengthy, paperwork-intensive process, Jestin says, “A psychologist told us, ‘In any case, you’ll never adopt in France.’ ... The council [that ultimately decides on adoption cases] is Catholic and they’ll never give a child to a gay couple.”

Jestin and his husband closed their file indefinitely with the state. One year later, they had adopted two boys from Brazil – and acquired a bitter taste about France and gay rights.

Why We Wrote This

France may look highly progressive, given its legalization of same-sex marriage five years ago. But French society is more conservative than it seems, a fact manifesting as now-married LGBT couples try to adopt.

France, like nearly two dozen countries in Europe, has passed laws in recent years to allow marriage and adoption for same-sex couples. But social norms and a religious history rooted in conservative Catholicism have prevented LGBT couples from exercising the rights to which they are legally entitled.

In June, France was wrapped in controversy after two regional adoption agency officials made disparaging remarks about same-sex couples – one saying that agencies would always favor heterosexual couples over homosexual ones, and another that same-sex couples were “atypical” and should be prepared to adopt “atypical” children – those who were older or with disabilities.

The comments have dredged up latent discrimination in a country that thought it had progressed further than that, and have forced French society to look inward for solutions.

“In terms of homosexuality in general, France is still quite conservative even when it comes to accepting same-sex marriage,” says Sébastien Chauvin, a French sociologist who studies gender and sexuality at the University of Lausanne. “You can see this in terms of visibility in public spaces… In France, people are still hiding.”

Catholics' lasting influence

While the law to allow same-sex marriage has been accepted relatively innocuously in France, that for same-sex adoption has been a harder sell. Around 7,000 same-sex marriages take place here each year, but only a handful of same-sex couples manage to adopt.

France remains an inherently Catholic country, despite empty churches, increasing diversity, and its insistence on secularism. This rich tradition, while not always evident in daily life, is still visible in the inner workings of civic groups across the country which dictate social mores, political decisions, and, ultimately, laws.

“France is very secular in how religion is dealt with in the public sphere, but the church is still very present and active,” says Michael Stambolis-Ruhstorfer, who studies sexuality and family at the University of Bordeaux Montaigne. “It’s not only through the clergy itself but through a whole collection of powerful Catholic family organizations that play a behind-the-scenes but very important role in shaping family policy in France.”

Mr. Stambolis-Ruhstorfer says that civil society organizations have membership on decision-making boards of regional government bodies, and Catholic family organizations are over-represented in these bodies. The influential “Manif pour Tous” (Protest for All) coalition that has led anti-gay-marriage and -adoption protests since 2012 is chiefly Catholic. While parts of the Catholic Church have embraced homosexuals and their partnerships, the official line remains against such unions.

This is often a problem for same-sex couples in adoption proceedings. All couples must go before a “family council” to assess their suitability for adopting. Nicolas Faget, the spokesperson for the APGL, a national organization representing LGBT parents, says this is where many same-sex couples get stuck.

The meetings take place behind closed doors, without any accountability. Some rights groups have suggested that making adoption files anonymous would end the discrimination. But “there needs to be more education for adoption personnel,” Mr. Faget says. “We didn’t do this after the same-sex marriage law was passed.”

Jestin says that during his interviews, he was asked questions about his and his husband’s sex life and if they frequented gay bars. “We encountered so many stereotypes about what it meant to be a same-sex couple,” says Jestin. “Even before we got the answer about our case, I said stop, that’s enough.”

Different feelings about families

Alternative conception methods for same-sex couples have also been controversial. Currently, lesbian couples must travel abroad to receive in vitro fertilization, as the practice is presently not allowed in France. Last September, Emmanuel Macron’s government proposed opening up the practice to all women. A bill was planned to go to the National Assembly last week, but was scrapped at the last minute amid doubts that it would pass.

Still, while a BVA poll from March showed that 58 percent of French people were in favor of assisted procreation for same-sex couples, only 70 percent believe that same-sex couples can successfully raise a child in the right conditions.

Stambolis-Ruhstorfer says the way the French view marriage and parenting – in contrast to the US – could be a reason why same-sex adoption and conception methods have been more difficult to accept here than marriage.

“Part of it is related to the different cultural position and power of marriage and family in each country. Marriage is really important culturally in the United States; we spend a lot of time investing in it, the rate of marriage is higher than in France,” says Stambolis-Ruhstorfer. “At the same time, there’s a higher birth rate in France and a higher out of wedlock birth rate. People are not as worried about getting married but they are worried about having families.”

In addition, there are statistically fewer children to adopt in France than in the US, so that when family organizations are presented with multiple dossiers – including heterosexual and homosexual couples – the heterosexual couples usually win out.

Most observers agree, however, that the swiftness with which the public and the government reacted to the controversial adoption statements in June is an indicator of progress made. One agency official was suspended after the remarks, while the other is in the early stages of a discrimination lawsuit.

“We have to take into account that there was even a scandal,” says Mr. Chauvin. “Twenty years ago there wouldn’t have been one because there was no same-sex adoption. The fact that we noticed there’s discrimination shows that this type of behavior is no longer tolerated.”

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