At night the streets of the Marais seem like a movie
set. The narrow avenues and 17th-century buildings could easily be mistaken
for the work of a master Hollywood set designer created on some vast soundstage.
Streetlamps cast the lanes in a rich golden glow and paint the walls of the
centuries-old grand mansions in patterns of shadow and light.
People pass by singly and in bands, traveling from caf?
to cabaret like extras in an updated version of Baz Luhrmann's popular staging
of La Boh?me. But today's cabarets are bars like Le Raidd, where the
patrons stand shoulder to shoulder drinking, smoking, and chatting over deafening
house music while a perfectly built man showers nude in an elevated plexiglass
In places like Le Raidd, the neighborhood recalls less the
varied gay history of Paris than it does New York City's Chelsea district and
West Hollywood, Calif. But like other essentially American concepts, the idea
of the gay ghetto has not been entirely well received in France.
Gay political radicals reject the separatist nature of the
ghetto, while mainstream critics claim that elevating the community over society
threatens the very foundations of the republic itself. One cheeky radio commentator
has even called the Marais "a game preserve," comparing it to Jurassic Park,
a place where "one keeps the monsters together."
Regardless of the criticism, the Marais, which encompasses
most of the third and fourth arrondissements, is the recognized center of gay
Paris. There you find the greatest concentration of gay-specific shops, restaurants,
and bars. This is a relatively recent development in the centuries-long history
of the neighborhood, which in part explains some of the hullabaloo.
In French, marais means "marsh," but the marshes
are long gone; they were drained during the Middle Ages by the Knights Templar--the
powerful monastic military order formed during the First Crusade--in their quest
for agricultural land.
As the centuries passed, the farmland was swallowed up by
the growing city, and the Marais became the preferred address for Paris's privileged
class. They built their h?tels particuliers, the grand mansions, for
which the district is still famous today. These were eventually converted into
workshops for local craft industries after the affluent residents sought out
more chic addresses or followed the royal court to Versailles in the late 17th
Most recently, after years of disuse and decay, many of
these mansions have been restored and now house museums--like the Picasso Museum,
a beacon for art lovers gay and straight alike, and the Carnavalet Museum, a
one-stop survey of French art from prehistory through the 20th century--and
upscale shops, bars, and restaurants, all thanks to a 1965 law declaring the
Marais a protected historic district.
This 1965 legislation also provided opportunities for gay
businessmen like Joel Leroux and Maurice McGrath. In the late '70s and early
'80s these men were among those who took advantage of the low rents and real
estate prices and opened the first gay caf?s in the district. Unlike gay bars
of the past, these establishments operated during the daytime as well as at
night and were open onto the street.
Leroux and McGrath consciously set out to create a gay quarter
based on the model of New York City's Greenwich Village (Leroux's first bar
was even named Le Village) and the Castro in San Francisco, and their caf?s
reflected the openness of the gay residents in those cities; they represented
a new kind of gay culture. Before then gay bars were virtually hidden and were
open only late at night. This experiment in bringing gay Paris into the light
of day succeeded, and in the intervening years gay businesses have continued
to flourish in the quarter. Not only that, their actions also catalyzed the
waves of gentrification that have renovated the once-dilapidated quarter.
Today, during the daytime, the countless boutiques, museums,
caf?s, bars, and restaurants draw crowds along the central streets, transforming
the narrow sidewalks into slow-moving lines as people leisurely stroll from
storefront to storefront hunting for all manner of necessities and luxuries.
An afternoon in the Marais is not complete without a stop
in one of the two gay specialty bookshops in the neighborhood--Les Mots a la
Bouche, the grand dame of Parisian gay bookstores, and Le Blue Book, the new
kid on the block.
The French value their literary heritage, and they take
their bookstores very seriously. Unsurprisingly, the depth of selection at both
shops is superb. Alongside new editions of the works of gay literary pioneers
like Gide and Genet are books by France's new generation of gay novelists, art
and photography monographs, literature in translation, and works of serious
scholarship. You'll also find more carnal pleasures like the popular "Dieux
du Stade" calendar, which features professional French rugby players in the
But gay Paris is more than the Marais--something that every
lover of queer literature knows. East of the Marais, at the end of the Rue du
Chemin Vert in the 20th arrondissement, lies P?re Lachaise, the famous cemetery
in which three gay literary luminaries and one divine opera diva are buried.
Marcel Proust rests under a plain slab of marble in his family's plot; Maria
Callas is remembered with a bronze plaque over a wall niche just to the south
of Proust; a little farther on Oscar Wilde occupies a modernist tomb dotted
with the lipstick kisses left by thousands of visitors through the years; and
finally the celebrated lesbian thinker Gertrude Stein rests in an austere plot
near the southeast corner.
But not everyone wants to spend his holiday in a cemetery.
Paris's gay club scene has undergone a recent rebirth after falling into a deep
funk in the late '90s. Gay nightlife aficionados Fabrice De Simone and his lover,
Jean-Pierre, returned to Paris to take part in this recent resurgence of gay
club culture after living abroad in San Francisco for several years. The two
men are excited by the reinvigorated scene and now produce ParisForGay.com,
an interactive Web site that tracks gay clubbing hot spots.
They suggested I start off with dinner in the Marais. Quelle
surprise! Le Reconfort (57 rue du Poitou) is a North African-themed dream
of a restaurant, simultaneously cozy and exotic. The food is superb, the atmosphere
narcotic. Each tiny detail merges with all the rest, like dots in a pointillist
painting, to create a spellbinding evening. B4 (6/8 Square Ste-Croix de le Bretonnerie)
is sleek and modern, but the food is not particularly memorable. However, the
highly watchable crowd and the picture windows looking out onto one of the busiest
corners in the Marais provide limitless entertainment.
Around the corner from B4 is Le Cox (15 rue des Archives).
The crowd channels a sexy San Francisco vibe without sacrificing the a la
fran?aise. Le Cox is famed for its Friday and Saturday night happy hour,
which has the crowds spilling over onto the streets, and for changing its decor
every season. When the disco calls, most gay tourists still think of the Queen
on the Champs Elys?es in the eighth arrondissement. Though this old standby
still draws a crowd, she lacks the feverish, decadent energy of her youth. (If
the club were located in New York City, the term "bridge and tunnel" would be
tossed about frequently when describing the patrons.)
Not to be missed, however, is Plaisir, the Sunday tea dance
at La Sc?ne Bastille (2 bis rue des Taillandiers) in the 11th--a smaller gay
neighborhood abutting the Marais where the Paris's gay and lesbian center, CGL-Paris,
makes its home. Paris's hottest men are there. This is a club for people who
hate clubs and people who love clubs. The music is fresh and exciting,
the crowd is happy and humpy, and if you're not a dancer, you'll be entertained
all night long by the people watching. La Sc?ne is fresh and buzzy like young
love or a perfect summer day.
If old school is more your thing and you're looking for
a disco off the beaten path, check out L'insolite (33 rue des Petits Champs)
in Les Halles (in the first and second arrondissements). You won't find many
tourists there because finding this place is an adventure in itself. Once you
locate the street address you'll pass through an archway and veer to the left
where an unassuming doorway opens onto a staircase descending to the basement
club. It's all very undercover and hush-hush: a disco on the down low, if you
will. You almost expect the doorman to ask you for the secret password.
Once inside L'insolite, perhaps you'll get a taste of what
gay life in Paris was like before the Marais, when clubs were more secretive
than the French resistance during World War II. L'insolite is not particularly
fashionable, and it surely hasn't been hip since Mitterrand first took office,
but it's a lot of crowded, attitude-free fun, and definitely not for those who
can't appreciate slumming.
Much of the credit for Gay Paree's renaissance goes to gay
mayor Bertrand Delano?. Elected in 2001, Delano? has brought a sense of fun
to the city (importing sand to the banks of the Seine every summer to create
the Paris Beach, for example). His openness and popularity have emboldened the
city's gay community. And he's hired young gay men in key government positions--like
Laurent Queige, the mayor's office tourism assistant--who have acted as Paris's
gay ambassadors to the world.
People like Queige, club scenesters like Fabrice De Simone,
and a new generation of promoters and entrepreneurs have helped make Paris's
gay scene hip again. Just in time for spring! The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any new information.