A Lesbian in Paris

Paris has long been known as a romantic refuge for expatriates, artists and progressive poets, but has it kept true to its legacy?

In the early 1900s, lesbian writers such as Gertrude Stein, Natalie Clifford Barney, Djuna Barnes and Colette were gathering to share their work at salons celebrating their queer culture. Le Monocle was the nightclub gay women would flock to in Montmarte, owned and operated by out lesbian Lulu de Montparnasse. (Fun fact: At the time, lesbians were often spotted wearing monocles, like our own version of the hanky code.”

Inevitably, the world changed with World War II and the following decades have been focused on political fairness for lesbians and gays in France (they are a little behind on the trans movement, but it’s coming up next.) Equal marriage has been legal since spring of 2013, but homophobic groups are still hoping for a repeal in the next election. And while same-sex couples are allowed to adopt children, women are still not allowed to be inseminated in the country of France and most lesbians are having to go to Brussels or Spain to get pregnant, hopefully finding a gynecologist in Paris that is understanding of their situation and wants to help them through it. In better news, unlike some of the United States, queer people can be completely out at work without worrying they could be fired. 

Exploring Paris’s modern lesbian culture is best viewed within the lens of its history. Fans of Gertrude Stein can visit both her famous residence with longtime partner Alice B. Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus in the Left Bank where there is a plaque in her honor, and see their shared grave together in the beautiful and expansive Père Lachaise Cemetery. Leave a rose for them, and also maybe for some other queer women buried nearby: famous French writer Colette and out lesbian DJ Sextoy (née Delphine Palatsi), whose headstone surely confuses and delights many.

If you’re up for a walk, it’s only about 15 minutes from Père Lachaise to Violette and Co., the city’s feminist lesbian bookstore. Besides their extensive selection of women-penned French lit, the owners highlight the work of lesbian artists in their upstairs gallery and sell bronze jewelry inspired by clitorises as well as the latest issue of Well Well Well, the French lesbian revue. 

Paris is plentiful with art museums, but they are still heavy on the male. The Pompidou’s video collection, however, is available for hours of viewing the work of out artists such as Sadie Benning, Chantal Akerman and Yvonne Rainer. You’ll find more women artists on the walls of one of the city’s queerest bars, La Mutinere. Run by a collective of LGBTs, the dive bar boasts posters, prints and a feminist lending library as well as cocktails and camaraderie. Located in the Marais, it’s blocks away from the city’s central gayborhood, which includes the 3W Kafé, where baby dykes flock when they’re coming out and looking to meet their first heartbreak. Older crowds prefer Le So What and Les Jacasses on weekends, and Le Bar’Ouf is the place to catch shows by singer-songwriters or play a game of pool. Paris Pride is held in the Marais every end of June/early July, and the girls gather on Rue des Ecouffes close to 3W, affectionately referring to it as “Bush Street.” 

The Marais is home to many gay bars, but mostly of the male variety. There’s also a gay bookstore, Les Mots à la Bouche, but the real highlights include lesbian-owned lingerie and sex shop, Dollhouse, and the Daphné Dasque boutique of hand-fashioned earrings, rings, bracelets and necklaces with enviable charms. Feria Cafe is nearby, where you can grab a coffee and people watch while being served by beautiful women with androgynous haircuts. Lesbian-run restaurant L’Estaminet is also a great option for seasonal dishes or Sunday brunch. 

Pick up a few gifts in the Marais at a huge design and home concept shop called Fleux. (Soko took Kristen Stewart there while they were having their whirlwind romance.) There you can find, among other things, prints of famous people as cats, including “Cata Delevingne.” If you’re looking for some inspired clothing, try some of Héloïse Letissier of Christine and the Queens‘ favorites: Jacquemus (by appointment only) and Etienne Deroeux.

Head down by the Seine to Shakespeare and Co., the “new” location of the historic bookstore that was founded by out lesbian tastemaker and publisher Sylvia Beach in 1919. There’s a huge selection of books in English, as well as some autographed first editions of books from the likes of Jeanette Winterson, and Virginia Woolf peers down from her spot in the upstairs window. Herstory buffs can still stop by and read the plaque at the shop’s old location at 12 rue de l’Odéon, and only a mile from there is 20 Rue Jacob, where Natalie Barney used to hold her famous Académie des Femmes.

Ask most anyone about the place to go and they’ll tell you to head to Rosa Bonheur. Situated in the middle of the scenic Parc des Buttes Chaumont, the lesbian-run bar is named after another famous gay lady, a 19th-century French sculptor, painter and activist. Manager Michelle “Mimi” Cassaro is well-loved for her former lesbian club Pulp, which closed in 2007, but she keeps her patrons happy with regular women’s nights and special events. Get there early to avoid standing in the lengthy lines, and be prepared to fight your way up to the bar. 

Depending on when you’re in Paris, there may be some other Sapphic selections to partake in. Wet for Me is a sporadic pop-up party at La Machine du Moulin Rouge that girls flock to en masse. Put on by the publishers behind the free lesbian fanzine Barbieturix, they bring in the best queer DJs for their events. Past performers include Kim Ann Foxman, JD Samson, Peaches and Planningtorock. La Kidnapping is also a monthly gathering featuring some of France’s best DJs like Chloe and Sara Zinger.

If you’re a connoisseur of lesbian cinema, visit in the fall when the annual The Paris International Lesbian and Feminist Film Festival happens every November. It’s not just movies, either: Cineffable programs specialty concerts, panels, workshops and exhibits to accompany the visual art.

To be close to the arrondissements where you’ll likely be spending your time, try a gay-owned B&B like Tour Saint Jacques or the 5-star St.-Germain des Pres hotel Hotel Pont Royal, where you can walk the same streets of famed lesbian journalist Janet Flanner, who penned a regular New Yorker column, “Letter from Paris.” If you want to stay in the Marais, try Hotel Jules and Jim, a hip and artistic “gay” hotel. Or, to fully celebrate Gertrude Stein, go for Hotel François 1er, which she once wrote a rather long poem about.

Paris is and always has been a place for the sexually fluid to enjoy themselves without judgment. Like most cities in the world, its rich history is somewhat belabored by legal setbacks and self-serving politicians, but they can’t turn down the alluring shine of the love that surrounds you in the city of lights.