Remembering Paris: How the City of Light Gave Me the Courage to Come Out

The Eiffel Tower at sunset, Paris, France
The Eiffel Tower at sunset, Paris, France

I came out to my mother in a hotel room overlooking the Louvre. We were on spring break -- I was in college, she worked for a different college -- and she had asked me to come with her on vacation as a travel guide and translator. Her first day in that beautiful city had tested both her patience and mine. Jet lag, metro delays and a few glasses of wine at the hotel bar were the recipe for a big argument that evening.

We yelled at each other about nothing in particular from either side of the lavish room -- exhaustion getting the better of both of us.

"Oh, yeah!" I said. "Well guess what, Mom? I'm gay."

I watched the tension disappear from her face, replaced with confusion, then tears. She was the first family member I told. I had not planned to tell her, so soon, only a month or so after I had come out to myself. But there it was -- my truth -- oddly shoehorned into this moment as the Paris night flickered to life around us.

She cried. I cried. Eventually we gave in to sleep. The next morning over breakfast, she asked, "Are you sure about what you said? Last night?"

"Yes."

She sighed, broke open a croissant and reached for the butter.

The trip continued with no more fuss. She rejoiced at the Louvre. She prayed at Notre Dame. Monet and Rodin enchanted her at the Musée d'Orsay. We ate lunch many days at the tip of the Ile de la Cite, flanked on either side by chattering French schoolchildren.

"It was amazing," she tells me now, years later. As for my ill-timed coming out, she thought nothing of it.

"I was mostly upset about the grandkids," she says. "I had this picture of marriage, kids. But now, I'm honestly relieved. The world is in such bad shape."

We were talking about the Paris attacks -- the bombings and shootings that claimed at least 130 lives and injured hundreds others. She had called to make sure I was still in the country and not in Paris. I had planned a vacation this winter, to see again that magical city as a new, out man.

"Worrying about you and grandkids at the same time? I don't know if I could take it," she says.

She tells me this is the worst she has seen the world, and I don't know if I can argue otherwise. Baghdad, Beirut, Paris -- the butchery of the Islamic State has metastasized beyond the Levant and like any indiscriminate toxin threatens the whole body of human civilization. What they have called "obscenity" is nothing more or less than the promise of a tolerant society that works to recognize and cherish all people -- no matter their God, their color, their choice of lover. Only to the lost and the unloved is this obscene.

Paris shared with me her courage over many years. In her streets I first saw two men embrace in love. In her cafes I first laid eyes on two women holding hands -- fingers tracing the edges of their wedding bands. And in Père Lachaise, I too put on red lipstick and kissed the grave of Oscar Wilde with a little prayer -- let me one day live a true life.

Coming out in Paris always felt unexpected, accidental, a foolish and selfish ploy to win a stupid argument with my mother. But after these attacks, I remember how much that city has meant to me as a queer person -- a refuge from the hatred I faced at home, a land of legacy for queer artists. These attacks wound us not just in the many lives they took or tried to take, but also in their declaration of war on all those who grew up different and saw in this city a beacon. That beacon may have dimmed these past few days, but it can never diminish. Not so long as the world continues to believe in the Parisian "joy of life"--the immutable pleasure of living and loving together as best we can, for as long as we have.

Paris shared with me her courage. I hope, as my thoughts and heart and words go out to her people, I can have the chance to return some of that courage.