For nearly eight years, much of my work has involved documenting the many evolutions of the French capital, as it transforms from a change-phobic city to a European powerhouse with global ambitions. Although representations of Paris have started to transcend stereotypes and deeply embedded misconceptions, the stories about its people have regretfully remained myopic, particularly when it comes to women. They perpetuate unchallenged myths about Parisian women—what they look like, how they live, and what they experience as they navigate the city.
In my new book, The New Parisienne: The Women & Ideas Shaping Paris (Abrams), I wanted to recast the archetypal Parisian woman and celebrate the stories, careers, and lives of some of the real women inhabiting and influencing Paris: women such as Clémence Zamora-Cruz—profiled in the excerpt below—whose work as a teacher, trans activist, and spokesperson for the Inter-LGBT nonprofit illuminates Paris as both a place of great possibility and great isolation for those who do not match the myth.
IT WAS EASY TO SPOT Clémence Zamora-Cruz when I went to meet her at the Gare du Nord on an early November morning. She was standing off to the side, scanning the crowds for me with trance-like focus and looked just as she did in her photos—long silky black hair and piercing blue eyes that were impossible to turn away from. We searched for a quiet place to talk, something of a feat in Europe’s busiest railway station. We ended up with coffee and a snug spot among travelers inside the brasserie L’Étoile du Nord, where she insisted that the fact that we were bookended by people who might overhear bits of our conversation wasn’t a concern. And so she spoke candidly about her life, as if we were alone.
Her story begins in a staunchly Catholic family. Zamora-Cruz was 6 years old when she announced that she was a girl. It wasn’t so much a coming out as an affirmation of her identity. There was no wavering or confusion about it, no gender dysphoria—she knew. “My parents told themselves my longer hair and interest in girls’ clothing would be a passing phase,” she tells me. But one particular family dinner set a different tone. Her parents went around the table, asking her brothers and sisters about their futures, what they wanted to do and be when they grew up. “I want to marry my English teacher!” said Zamora-Cruz proudly when it was her turn to answer. Her father rebuked the idea immediately. “You can’t. Boys can’t marry other boys.” She shot back, “Well, there’s no problem, because I’m not a boy.”
This was the early 1980s in Mexico, which was then, as now, one of the most dangerous countries in the world for trans people. (Currently, it is the third deadliest after the U.S.; Brazil ranks first, according to reports by the Trans Murder Monitoring [TMM] research project.) Gender identification issues were heavily stigmatized and either conflated with sexual orientation or treated as a form of mental illness.
“Conversion therapy” and other medicalized care aimed at convincing trans individuals to identify with the gender they were assigned at birth were systematically recommended as “solutions.”
Distraught by Zamora-Cruz’s revelation, her parents took her to see a psychologist, who prescribed “strict masculinization”—no more folk dancing, no more drawing, no activity that could be construed as feminine. “They pushed me into football, which isn’t a problem in principle, but I wasn’t interested in it at all,” she recalls.
Roadblocks and humiliation followed her through her academic life. Her school’s director considered her to be the source of the problem, provoking unwanted attention and abuse with her long hair and feminine clothing. But the school also blamed her parents for their questionable child-rearing and their inaction in “fixing” the problem, as if it were as simple as slapping a Band-Aid on a gash and waiting for it to heal. “As bad as things got, it’s hard for me to blame my parents—there was no support for what they were going through. There were hardly any specialized centers in Mexico or even in countries that were supposedly more ‘advanced’ on the issue,” she can say now with physical and emotional distance. The weight of the social pressure was intolerable and led to harassment not only in school but at home, where verbal and physical abuse abounded. Her siblings blamed her for the bullying they had started to incur by association, and her parents felt helpless. “People often forget the collateral damage that coming out trans can have on a family. It was [an] unhappy place for everyone,” she says.
The transphobia she encountered within her own family isn’t uncommon. Households that reject or deny a young person’s identity or sexuality often compound the sense of alienation they feel at school, and a lack of support puts them at great risk; many choose to emancipate themselves by leaving home but end up homeless (an estimated 40% of the homeless youth population in America is LGBTQ), and the prevalence of suicide and suicide attempts is “much higher among transgender people than the general population” (in France, two out of three transgender adolescents consider taking their own lives, and one out of three act on it). At 15, Zamora-Cruz was pushed into making such decisions as transphobic tensions at home came to a head. It was the night of Christmas. “Insults turned into shoving, then slapping, then hitting, until finally I hit back. I knew I couldn’t stay. I left home and slept outside in Puebla’s main square. I spent the night talking with other ‘social rejects,’ young people who had left home for similar reasons, and took the first bus out to Mexico City the next morning,” she tells me with great composure.
She lived in the streets for over a year, a time she reflects on now as a blessing in disguise. “It gave me a closer look at the social injustices that exist. Even though it was hard at home, I always had a roof over my head and food on the table. That year taught me solidarity, about figuring things out and getting by,” she says, closing her eyes briefly in gratitude. “But also about the kinds of oppression that others suffer, not just gender or sexual identity but economic and social injustices.” It was also a crash course in women’s rights and the issue of prostitution, which is typically discussed from a moralist stance. “I was a sex worker for part of the time I was out there. Many transgender people are refused jobs and become prostitutes as a means of survival. Yet white feminism will try to say that it isn’t an acceptable way for women to liberate themselves,” she notes, realizing this period in her life was the catalyst for her intersectional feminism.
As much as it forced her to grow up, she was still a teen runaway, and the police eventually found her. Her parents were notified, but when she returned to civilian life, it was instead under the protection of her grandmother, who took her in and cared for her despite their estrangement. “She respected me even if she didn’t understand me. She gave me all of her support so that I could go forward,” says Zamora-Cruz. “She encouraged me to go to college. She taught me survival rules—never isolate myself, always come home from school accompanied, for starters.” Combined with the defense mechanisms she learned in the streets, she was on a stable path—for a time. Her grandmother helped her get an apartment in Puebla, and she worked toward a degree in tourism administration, despite experiencing hostility from professors. She pressed on, graduated, and landed her first job. By this point, she had also become an engaged human-rights and political activist, regularly participating in student demonstrations calling for democracy.
“In the beginning, I was left alone during protests and marches. But as police oppressions picked up again, I started being harassed. The Dirty War wasn’t really over,” she explains. If she left home again in 1996, it was because no amount of survival skills could protect her from the increasingly hostile and dangerous political climate: “I was approached at a bus stop one morning by a group proclaiming to be the police. They placed a revolver to my head and told me to leave or they’d come after my family.” Was it because she was trans or associated with the student movement? I ask her. “Surely both. But it didn’t matter—I had to flee,” she recalls.
With a French boyfriend at the time, applying for a visa to France presented itself as the best option. But the fight was far from over. She went through a grueling interview process for a student visa that concluded with a meeting at the French Embassy with a senior official who held her fate in his hands. “I told him that if he didn’t issue the visa, he’d be condemning me to death. He stopped taking notes at that point, and we had a very frank, human conversation,” she says, knowing that he was pivotal in the decision to approve her application. “I’ve found natural allies along the way. They haven’t always declared themselves as such, like that man, but they’ve protected me when I needed it.” She considers herself lucky.
Paris is a lot of things. It’s a fragmented melting pot city and a refuge city for people who come in search of a better life. It’s a city that regenerates as much as it crushes. It’s a living paradox, just like the Parisienne. There’s an image and a lifestyle that isn’t in line with reality.
When she finally arrived in France, Zamora-Cruz thought that life was going to be easier, that she’d have greater rights and more support. In her imagination, she was settling into le pays des Droits de l’Homme—the country known for its Rights of Man. “And in one way, it was. But it was primarily the rights of the white man,” she begins. “Even if the violence in France isn’t necessarily physical or overt, it’s almost more vicious.” She describes a litany of discriminations, from deadnaming to pathologizing doctors to bias-based harassment or discrimination by police who brushed off reports of violence. She recalls a particular moment in her university class where she was ignored by her professor while giving a presentation. When she confronted him, he simply said, “People like you don’t interest me.”
“I wish I could say that life is better for the trans community in Paris [compared with Mexico], but it depends on a variety of factors. You have to consider it from an intersectional point of view: Often, trans people live through other oppressions, be it their race or class, and find themselves in a permanent state of precarity,” she tells me, specifying the difficulty that persists in employment, housing, and health care.
While the country has made inroads in terms of rights and ranks high on the Rainbow Europe Index—France was the first country to remove transgenderism from the classification of mental illnesses in 2010 (the World Health Organization recategorized “gender incongruence” in 2018 from a mental disorder to a sexual health condition); anti-trans discrimination was entered into the penal code; and since 2017, transgender people can legally change their gender without undergoing sterilization or proof of medical treatment, long considered a human rights violation—Zamora-Cruz and her fellow activists say the efforts don’t go far enough. “There remains a barrier to accessing many of the services and rights that exist. Legislation on its own doesn’t protect; it needs to be accompanied by awareness, training, and education. Practical measures, not just theory,” she explains. A police officer may have the responsibility to take violence against trans people seriously but lack the competency to do so without amplifying discrimination.
If things are going to improve in France, she believes it will be through education. Gender stereotypes need to be broken down from an early age. I ask her if she believes it’s possible—can Paris be a leader for LGBTQ rights? Only on the condition that it devotes the resources to it and treats the issue intersectionally, she says. “Paris needs to be at the forefront of antidiscrimination efforts overall. The city has to allocate more funds to LGBTQ rights and to the collective fight.” The question she asks herself now is how the state can combat institutional LGBTQ-phobia—as it insists it is committed to doing—if budgets are being cut in education, and teachers are losing their jobs.
There may not be a good answer for that, but she remains committed to her activism. In her volunteer roles as spokesperson of the Inter-LGBT organization and copresident of Transgender Europe, she is working to make conditions better and safer for future generations. Part of that fight involves advocating for gender self-determination so that trans people may modify their identity documents through a statutory system, not the court system. As part of the transgender organization Pari-T, Zamora-Cruz gives French lessons to trans migrants, and as secretary of the nonprofit Au-delà du Genre, she helps trans youths and their families combat transphobia. “We can’t fight with our words forever,” she says.
Now, 20 years after arriving in France, she no longer experiences the same level of discrimination, nor is she afraid of putting herself at risk. She is happily married and, in the past several years, happily in contact with her family, whom she hadn’t seen since she left home as a teen. When she finally reconnected with them in person, all the transphobic clichés they harbored fell away, one after the other. They not only accept her, they respect her. But she also knows it’s because she fits into their binary conception of the world. “They see me as I am: a woman,” she says. “And so, in the binary of man and woman that they find reassuring, there is a place for me.”
Her Paris: Clémence Zamora-Cruz
FAVORITE WOMAN–RUN BUSINESS?
Marina, an Italian restaurant in the 10th arrondissement. I’ve always loved going there with my husband. The owner is welcoming, and I know her to be a real fighter.
A SOLO RITUAL?
Walk or cycle along the Canal Saint-Martin (shown above). When I lived nearby, it’s where I would go almost daily to recharge.
YOUR HAPPY PLACE?
The library at the Sorbonne. It is a magnificent space with frescoes and lamps. But it’s not a place everyone can go—you must be a researcher or a student. The library will always be an important place for me—it saved my life. As a teen and as a university student in France, it was one of the few safe places I could go.
The New Parisienne (Abrams) will be published on July 7, 2020. Interested readers can order copies now.
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