Paris -- the number 6 train shoots up out of the ground headed west from Montparnasse Metro station, and we're suddenly sailing on elevated track with greenery on both sides. Ah, Paris. This is the city of food, the Louvre and love. And, more specifically, a refuge for the passions. How many queers have fled here to escape their less forgiving home countries? James Baldwin, Henry James, Oscar Wilde....
But an exploration of Paris haunts tells me it's not the sanctuary it once was. In fact, a darkness has descended over the City of Light. This is a burg that can elect a gay mayor born in Tunisia but at the same time vote in overwhelming numbers, as it did earlier this year, for the anti-immigrant party of Jean-Marie Le Pen.
"No one ever talks about that now,' sighs our host about the national embarrassment caused by Le Pen's shocking first-round election result earlier this year. Mercifully, he was wiped out in the final. Then she heads off on her holidays, leaving us an apartment where you see the Eiffel Tower from the kitchen window.
"The tower is friendly,' French literary critic Roland Barthes wrote, "connecting me above Paris to each of my friends who I know are seeing it.'
But the camaraderie is selective. There are really two cities here. One is in the inner arrondisements (districts), where the twinkle of the Eiffel Tower continually makes unexpected appearances as you round the corners. The other comprises the districts to the east and the suburbs, beyond the shining tower and the highway known as the Périphérique that encircles Paris like a medieval wall. Here, Arabs and other minorities crowd the apartment blocks where crime and despair are the order of the day.
If you want a measure of this racial divide, all you need to do is check out the gay/lesbian scene. On the walls of the Paris gay and lesbian community centre are photos from this year's Pride parade. But there's something odd about the display: no black- or brown-skinned partiers are depicted. Nor do you see many off-white faces on a Saturday night in the gay cruise bars, many of which are in the Marais, a tangle of narrow streets that's now the improbable home of both Orthodox Jews in yarmulkes and coiffed gays in white tank tops.
But on Sunday nights in a club known as the Folies Pigalle, located not in the gay quarter but on the same street of sex shops and strip clubs as the celebrated Moulin Rouge cabaret, gay "beurs" (as French-born Arabs prefer to be called) do what they can't do at home -- be themselves.
On the balcony of the club, there's a guy wearing a Jordan basketball jersey who's so tall his head brushes the ceiling, while more diminutive guys with 29-inch waists display their keys conspicuously on their right side, the telegraphing of submissive sexual desire understandable in any language.
These "tea dances' (6 pm to midnight on Sundays) are hosted by Kelma, a gay beur group whose Web site (www.kelma.org) gets hits not only from Paris but from guys in Muslim countries. The musical lubricant at the Kelma soiree is heavy on rai, the techno version of traditional North African folk music.
The highlight of the weekly party is the contest to pick the sexiest black or beur in a bathing suit. Kelma president Fouad Zeraoui emcees, asking the contestants, "Quel age avez vous, quelle origine?' Everyone has an answer -- Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, the Maghreb, Guadeloupe -- though these are the birth countries of their parents, not places most of them have ever visited. It's significant that no one says "France.'
Of course, the muscle guy with the big pecs wins. Then at midnight, studs turn into Cinderellas and rush for the door to catch the last commuter train to the suburbs.
I meet Zeraoui again the next day, this time outside the Belleville Metro station. It's only a few stops from the Paris of baguettes, brasseries and tourists, but it may as well be on the other side of the world.
The people spewing from the rush-hour trains wear flowing African robes and Muslim caps. A man next to me gives traffic directions in Arabic to a passing motorist, and another passes the time reading a Chinese-language paper. The few white people have the drawn faces and tattered clothes of poor people everywhere.
We repair to a shisha joint down the street, and soon appear the hookah pipes and ash of apple that Eastern people around the world are fond of smoking. The level of homophobia among young beurs is intense, he explains, because unlike the France their fathers came to 30 years ago to build a life, this country has nothing to offer the progeny: no jobs, no understanding.
"So they hate,' Zeraoui explains as the white smoke from our pipes bathes our conversation in a bigger and bigger cloud. It's especially difficult for young gay beurs whose brothers have turned to religion. "Some get violent,' he says.
The city's layout makes the problem worse, Zeraoui says, because suburban beurs live among their own tribe, without the liberalizing influences of mainstream French culture. "They live in a ghetto, and they watch everybody. They have a satellite dish watching Arab TV. They live like they do in the (rural) areas of North Africa.'
The young gay person faces a painful dilemma, Zeraoui explains, because family is so central in Arab life, exerting an emotional pull as strong as the gay life at the other end of the train line. "We don't really have a concept of being merely an individual, outside the family,' he says. "It's a comforting presence, and even the gay son doesn't want to give that up.'
It's quite an indictment of French society, I muse as I make my way back toward the Eiffel Tower. What do others in the gay community have to say? Curious, I get together with Micha Meroujean Karapetian of the gay/lesbian Armenian association of France. As he sits at Le Troisième Chinon with his café noir and a smoke, he could be just another Parisian on a summer evening. But he's of recent vintage, having arrived as a refugee in 1995 from his native Armenia, where being gay is still enough to get you shoved around by the cops.
"In Paris being gay is no big deal,' he says. The only thing, he says as an afterthought, is that you must fit within the confines of what it means to be a "French citizen."
"They don't understand multicultural,' he says, adding forgivingly, "I don't think there's any racism in the Paris gay scene.'
Maybe there isn't. Maybe "racism' is too crude a word to describe the tensions that swirl around this country, which, while it wonders what to do with its young beur population, also faces a threat from the far right. A country that thinks so much of its past is at a loss about how to deal with the present.