During my undergrad, I spent a year studying in Grenoble, France. It’s a gorgeous southern city tucked between the Alps with dreamy sunsets and a flawless tram system. My host parents often enjoyed lively debates over dinner and the better the conversation, the more they filled my wine glass–the perfect motivation to improve my French as fast as possible. Our debates would often turn towards politics and current issues. 

cultural context jennica betschT​his was just after marriage equality was legalized in France and just before it would be legalized in the USA.​ Even though France secured that accomplishment before we did, protests based around traditional family values were held in Paris and Lyon in 2014 and again in 2016.

I don’t look like the stereotypical lesbian and therefore that part of my identity doesn’t affect my day-to-day life and interactions. However, I’ve had friends who are no longer my friends after I come out to them–and that’s enough to scare anyone. Taking that same risk abroad can make me fear for my safety or stability, so I prefer to keep it a classified secret for those I trust and no one else.

My host mom and I would get passionate during our dinner time debates. Fighting to win and flushed by the red wine, we debated the sanctity of marriage and human rights for the LGBTQ community until well past my host siblings’ bedtimes. Even though I trusted and loved my host mom, this gave me a new motivation to stay in the closet–I didn’t want her to think these topics were only important to me because of my own identity. I wasn’t just holding my position for me, but for the whole LGBTQ community who couldn’t be in the room to defend themselves. I thought it would somehow weaken my stance if she knew that I was included within this community, and so I didn’t tell her that I identified as a lesbian.

In the marriage equality debate in the United States, the religious right was the primary opposition group, saying it defied Adam and Eve and same-sex marriage didn’t biologically make sense since it didn’t contribute towards reproduction. The other side was saying that marriage was an agreement between two people who loved each oth​er: th​e mutual love and respect was the most important part of the sacred agreement. T​hey also brought up the legal importance of marriage in areas like custody of children and hospitalizations.

cultural context jennica betschThese were the points I was most familiar with since I had heard them in American media and from friends and family.​ This was my understanding of the marriage equality debate because it’s what I had been exposed to. My French host mother did not bring these same points to the table. She was not exposed to them in the same way as I had been even though she also watches the news regularly and discusses current events with friends and family. The difference is that she does it in France while my circle of influence is American. Had we even been having the same debate this whole time? Or was it a different conversation because of different cultural attitudes?

Marriage equality was a major discussion in both the United States and France at the same time, but the debate was not over the same premises. The French right was less concerned about the sanctity of marriage and more concerned about allowing LGBTQ couples to have children. The French protesters that chanted for traditional family values had no qualm with marriage equality, but they believed that same-sex couples shouldn’t be allowed to parent and that kids need both a mother and a father to grow up properly. This was the stance my host mom took in our debates, and it caught me off guard.  When I started paying attention, I heard her opinion reflected in conversations with my university classmates and on the nightly news. This was a completely different viewpoint than what I was so familiar with. 

Sitting on the couch one night with a glass of red wine, a video of the protesters popped up on the news.  One picketer was holding a sign that read, “Papa + Maman: Y A Pas Mieux Pour un Enfant” (Dad + Mom: There’s Nothing Better for a Child). In an epiphany, our endless cycle of debate became clear and it occurred to me that I couldn’t effectively engage in this debate until I understood where my host mom was coming from. I realized we had practically been having two separate arguments simultaneously. I was discussing the institution of marriage while she was focused on parenting–no wonder we were going back and forth never completely understanding the other or reaching a consensus.

Our cultural contexts drove our arguments, and not until understanding this could we finally discuss marriage equality on a level playing field. If you are curious, I held my identity as close as I held my beliefs, up until one unsuspecting day after a particularly lively debate when she looked at me and said, “Jennica, es-tu homosexual?” (A​re you homosexual?). 

In proper French manner that tips toward bluntness rather than subtlety, my host mom had caught me off guard. 

I quietly answered, “oui.

How has culture defined how you approach visiting a new country as a LGBTQ traveler?

Photos by Jennica Betsch.

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Jennica Betsch
Jennica Betsch is a Masters of Arts in International Development and Policy candidate at the University of Chicago. She focuses on policy related to international and economic development, foreign aid, and anti-terrorism. She loves long-term travel and has lived in Belgium, France, Burkina Faso, Greece, Morocco, and Guatemala. She believes in traveling responsibly and sustainably, using experiences abroad for consciousness-raising purposes upon returning home. Her best trip so far has been to Burkina Faso where she hopes to one day return to live and work.