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Victims of anti-gay laws in France could be compensated under new bill

Gay Pride march in Paris, France.
Gay Pride march in Paris, France. Copyright Benjamin Girette/AP
Copyright Benjamin Girette/AP
By Katy Dartford with AFP
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France's Senate is to debate a draft law on Wednesday that would allow people convicted under anti-gay laws before 1982 to receive financial compensation.

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Michel Chomarat was arrested in 1977 during a police raid on a gay bar called "Le Manhattan."

"Homophobia by the state consisted of hunting gays down everywhere," he said.

The bar was a private space with restricted access "but even so, police took us away in handcuffs and accused us of public moral outrage".

Thousands were sentenced under two French laws in force between 1942 and 1982. One determined the age of consent for same-sex relations and the other defined such relations as an aggravating factor in acts of "public outrage."

Now 74, Chomarat says a new draft law that would see people convicted under anti-gay laws to receive compensation has come "too late" because many people entitled to compensation had already died. 

French lawmakers are set to begin debating the draft law on Wednesday. 

Homophobia by the state consisted of hunting gays down everywhere.
Michel Chomarat
Arrested in 1977 during a police raid

The bill sponsor, Senator Hussein Bourgi of the Socialist Party said "This draft law has symbolic value".

Bourgi wants the French government to recognise the state's role in discriminating against people engaging in same-sex relations.

"It aims to rectify an error that society committed at the time," Bourgi said.

The punishments meted out by the courts had "consequences that were much more serious than you might think today," he added.

"People were crushed. Some lost their jobs or had to leave town".

Beyond the government's recognition of wrongdoing, Bourgi said he also wanted an independent commission to manage financial compensation of €10,000 for each victim.

Senator Hussein Bourgi of the Socialist Party
Senator Hussein Bourgi of the Socialist PartyAFP

Repressing homosexuality

Antoine Idier, a sociologist and historian, called the initiative "salutary" but added that focusing on two laws of the period made it too restrictive.

"Judges employed a much wider judicial arsenal to repress homosexuality,". These included laws that were not specifically aimed at same-sex relations but at "moral failings" or "inciting minors to commit depravity."

Regis Schlagdenhauffen, a social science professor at the EHESS school in Paris, said at least 10,000 people had been convicted for being gay in France between 1942 and 1982, mostly men from working-class backgrounds.

A third of them were married and a quarter had children, he said.

"Those condemnations brought disgrace and were a terrible experience to live through," said Schlagdenhauffen.

This was the reason why many victims of state repression might not come forward, he said, preferring not to revisit the traumatic experience.

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In June, activists, unionists and civil servants called for a recognition and rehabilitation of victims of anti-gay repression in an op-ed piece in LGBTQ magazine Tetu.

"One of the reasons why homophobia persists in today's society is that state laws, rules and practices legitimised such discrimination in the past," said Joel Deumier, co-president of SOS Homophobie, a non-profit organization defending lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex rights.

For Bourgi's text to become law, first the Senate (the upper house of parliament) and then the National Assembly (the lower house) have to vote in favour.

During this process, there are often negotiations about the final wording of a bill to make it acceptable to both houses.

European precedent

There is precedent for the French initiative elsewhere in Europe. Germany decided in 2017 to rehabilitate and compensate around 50,000 men convicted based on a 19th-century law criminalising homosexuality that was broadened by Nazi Germany and repealed only in 1994.

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Austria is taking a similar approach, to become law next year.

In Britain, where sex between men became punishable by death under the Buggery Act of 1533, sexual relations between men were decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967, and later in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

But this was only if the sexual relations occurred in private and the people involved were over 21.

Under a recent "disregard and pardons scheme," people in Britain can get a historic conviction for gay sex offences removed from police and court records.

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