A Gay Mayor in France Sees Good Banish Hate

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SIGOLSHEIM, France -- Thierry Speitel is getting married on Sept. 21. That's big news here, and not just because Mr. Speitel is the twice-elected mayor of this village of 1,300 inhabitants in the heart of Alsatian wine country. He's also gay, which means his could be the first same-sex wedding in the Sigolsheim village hall.

Since the new French law legalizing same-sex marriage went on the books on May 18, the focus of an intensely bitter debate has shifted from raucous street protests, and heated speeches in Parliament, to the country's 36,000 mayors. Some of them have already said that they will decline to officiate at weddings of same-sex couples for reasons of "conscience" and will turn the function over to their deputies.

This stance infuriates Mr. Speitel, 51, who splits his time between his mayoral duties and a job at his tour agency. "It's disrespectful, and they should resign," he said during a conversation that began in his office and continued over lunch with his longtime companion at the village's only restaurant, on a square in front of its only church.

"A mayor is mayor," he continued. "We're here to uphold the laws of the Republic. We're not here to decide which law is good or bad. What if I decided I didn't want to marry a black person, or a divorced person? That can't work!"

Mr. Speitel's sexual orientation -- made public in 2001, six months after he was first elected mayor -- became known nationally in early May, after a letter arrived at his office containing two .22-caliber bullets taped to a newspaper article about him. The writer had circled the words "bien vivre ensemble" ("living well together") in the headline -- Mr. Speitel's oft-stated political credo -- and added a scribbled note: "but not with sick people."

The story quickly made its way onto the national news, and Mr. Speitel, who had initially wanted to play down the incident (which is under police investigation), became a celebrity, as messages of support poured in from all over France.

At last count, he had received about 3,300 letters and e-mails, plus another 1,900 messages on a Facebook site created on his behalf. On May 31, he was chosen "Alsatian of the Week" by 68 percent of the 861 people who cast votes in a poll run by a local newspaper.

It was an unexpected reaction, a tide of good will and tolerance unleashed by hate, which has gone a long way toward soothing the shock of the death threat. "I cracked that first night," he said. "Everything came back, all the pain from my past. It was hard."

What touched him most was the response from Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris who declared his homosexuality years ago, only to watch it become a nonissue in the capital's bruising political battles. "I was really moved," Mr. Speitel said. "I am nobody for him, and yet he wrote, and even called. He said he could only imagine how difficult it must be in a small town in Alsace."

Indeed, it wasn't easy, as Mr. Speitel, a Roman Catholic, now recalls. Born, in his words, a "son of nothing" into a family of vineyard workers, an outsider to the local bourgeois establishment, his discovery of his homosexuality marked the most painful period of his life. "I suffered a lot," he said. "It was the thing that made me cry most in my life."

He decided to go public when he found he was being continuously pressed -- often in snide and hurtful ways -- on why he was a bachelor. "Where is 'madame,' people kept asking," he recalled. "I didn't want to lie. All I want is the right to indifference."

Even afterward, there were incidents, name-calling, rumors and, in his view, an unspoken block on his political career. "I've never been able to rise above mayor," said Mr. Speitel, who has been associated with successive centrist parties. He has now settled on a nonpartisan approach. "I am a humanist," he said, with a grin. "Voilà, that's it. I'm a humanist."

His political survival is hardly a given in a village in which, in the 2012 presidential elections, 23 percent of the vote went to the National Front, a far-right party that opposed the marriage bill.

Mr. Speitel's strongest contempt, however, is reserved for French center-right politicians who, as the issue heated up, took a leading role in opposing the law that allows gay and lesbian French people to marry and adopt.

"What is criminal is the attitude of some politicians who want to divide people and not bring them together," he said. "The things that were said in the National Assembly were so wounding. That homosexuals want to adopt children to have them like pets! Think of the young child who hears this kind of comment!"

Even now, Mr. Speitel is trying to figure out why France became such a battleground for an issue that has been adopted with considerably less drama in eight other European countries. "Any country in crisis gets radicalized," he suggested, "but there is also a French specificity, which is a lack of openness."

During a recent lunch, Mr. Speitel made a tour of the tables, greeting everyone in turn. He consulted the owner over which Alsatian wine went best with fried carp, the local specialty. He took a call from a local woman who wanted to congratulate him on his wedding plans and to discuss another ceremony -- this one for her brother-in-law, who was marrying his male partner.

Then, Mr. Speitel, appropriately dressed in a dark suit, left to attend a funeral in the 12th-century church across the square where the community had gathered, waiting for its mayor.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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