“It was catastrophic for me. It was embarrassing.”
Bernard Bousset recounts in a clear voice the events that changed his life, but, after so many years, he remains visibly deeply worried.
In 1964, a man he had spent the night with stole his watch and some money. After reporting the robbery, police charged Bousset with sexual activity with a minor, under a discriminatory law inherited from the Nazi collaborationist authorities in Vichy, France, that imposed different ages of consent for homosexual and heterosexual sexual relations.
Bousset, who is now 82 years old, finally received a “significant” fine. But what was most disastrous was the press reporting of the conviction, which made it public to everyone around him. The consequences were dire, he recalls. “At that time, homosexuality was perceived so negatively. My family excluded me. I felt very ashamed.”
“You could lose your job and your house for being gay. You had no rights.”
Bousset is one of approximately 10,000 people, mostly gay men, who were convicted between 1942 and 1982 under anti-gay laws.
On Wednesday, the French Senate, the upper house of the French parliament, will debate a bill that would offer a formal apology to victims of homophobic legislation.
If passed, the bill would financially compensate victims of two discriminatory laws. One was Vichy-era legislation, which set the age of consent for gay sex at 21, compared to 13 for opposite-sex relationships. After the Nazi occupation ended in 1945, the new authorities did not repeal the law.
A second law, adopted in 1960, criminalized homosexuality as a “social scourge,” along with alcoholism, drug use and prostitution. Judges were given wide latitude to attack homosexuals under existing laws criminalizing public indecency, says Antoine Idier, an associate professor at Sciences Po Saint-Germain-en-Laye, a political science university.
The lives of victims of discriminatory legislation were often ruined, Idier claims. People could be fined or imprisoned for several months. Upon release, many faced social ostracism. Some lost their jobs or were forced to move cities. “In some cases we even see cases of suicide,” she adds.
Persons convicted under the laws included Carlos Trenetthe singer of classic ballads La Mer and Douce France, who spent 28 days in prison after being accused of soliciting young men in 1963. Although the charges were eventually dropped, the high-profile case publicly highlighted Mr. Trenet’s homosexuality, about which he was discreet.
Hussein Bourgi, a socialist lawmaker who proposed the bill, said: “It is time to do justice to the living victims of legislation that served as the basis for a policy of repression with brutal and punitive social, professional and family consequences.”
If the proposed law is passed, France would align itself with other European countries, which in recent years have officially apologized to victims of homophobic legislation.
The United Kingdom’s “Turing Law,” which received royal assent in 2017, pardoned gay men convicted under some discriminatory legislation. That same year, Germany apologized to victims of anti-gay laws adopted during the Nazi era and maintained by post-war West German authorities.
“France is later than other countries on this issue,” says Régis Schlagdenhauffen, an assistant professor at the School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) who has researched the persecution of homosexuals in France. “But it should officially acknowledge injustice while some victims are still alive.”
“France will be greater thanks to it,” he adds.
It is not certain that the bill will pass. In its initial stages, it received a mixed reception from senators, who were skeptical of proposals to pay living victims €10,000 (£8,730). Even if it were approved by the Senate, it would also need the approval of the National Assembly before becoming law.
Idier says the bill as it stands doesn’t go far enough. He argues that the law should also recognize people who were convicted under pre-1942 laws, which did not explicitly target homosexuals but gave judges discretion to apply them against homosexuals.
As for Bousset, while he welcomes the bill, he says the attempt to consider France’s past has come too late.
“It will not be erased [the pain] “The one I lived with and the one many homosexuals still live with,” he says. “It’s incredible to say, but even today I feel embarrassed when I’m in heterosexual environments.”
“I could never erase this conviction. It lives inside me.”