France’s second city suffers from a famously sinister reputation for organized crime, drug violence, and economic distress. Riots following the recent police shooting in Paris of 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk haven’t helped the city’s image. But despite the grim tropes, Marseille remains a destination and a melting pot—a haven for immigrants and short-term visitors—and today the port city is attracting another group looking for its place in the mix: young L.G.B.T. people.
If you stroll around the maze of hills downtown, the signs are subtle but unmistakable: twenty-somethings with dress and hairstyles challenging conventional gender norms walk the busy sidewalks; posters for various L.G.B.T.-friendly events line the aging buildings; same-sex couples linger at bars and restaurants catering to their presence.
The city is massive—about two and a half times the surface area of Paris—and its sprawl hosts plenty of micro-neighborhoods where residents mostly keep to themselves, from wealthy gated communities in the south to impoverished housing blocks in the quartiers nords. But in the ultra-dense center of town, which remains largely affordable, a colorful mix reigns. Near open-air markets and hole-in-the-wall shops run by immigrants and their families, L.G.B.T. people are increasingly putting down roots.
On a balmy Saturday night in June, I chatted with Sasha, a 38-year-old French person who uses they/he pronouns, waiting for their girlfriend at a table outside of Boum, an “inclusive bar” aimed at “L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.” people that opened its doors last November in the busy nightlife district of Cours Julien. Enveloped by graffiti-covered walls, the area is renowned for its high share of creative-minded residents, though its bars and concert venues attract a much broader population. Boum’s multicolored façade and punchy logo blend in seamlessly. Sasha has lived here for seven years, but acknowledged the city’s queer life is in the midst of a heady upsurge.
“There were a lot of initiatives happening before … but it was more underground,” they said over a cigarette, recounting soirées in apartments and parties in squats. “Things are more visible now. We have this wave that keeps growing.”
As well as expanded nightlife options, Marseille has witnessed the creation of several new L.G.B.T. associations and a surge in L.G.B.T.-themed artistic and cultural offerings in recent years. Public support has made a difference, too, since the unseating of a formidable right-wing establishment in 2020.
Under the old regime of Mayor Jean-Claude Gaudin, an octogenarian with close links to the conservative Catholic order Opus Dei, who ruled over the city for 25 years, municipal authorities showed little enthusiasm for the 2013 EuroPride festival, an event that was sparsely attended and widely panned for its mismanagement.
By contrast, the city’s new municipal government, led by a coalition of left-wing parties, has boosted subsidies to L.G.B.T. groups and poured resources into annual Pride festivals. There are plans to inaugurate Marseille’s first-ever L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ “welcome center” this summer, giving groups and events a more formal home.
“Things are more visible now. We have this wave that keeps growing.”
“It’s like night and day,” said Théo Challande Névoret, the 31-year-old deputy mayor in charge of anti-discrimination, when I asked about city hall’s approach to L.G.B.T. issues today. “There’s still a lot of work to do, but Marseille’s not at all what it was like even just a few years ago.”
The mini-revolution in the city is due, in part, to a broader cultural shift. Polls show the French are increasingly tolerant of L.G.B.T. people and that young people are more likely to identify as such. But an influx of new arrivals is also playing a role. As Le Monde has reported, tens of thousands of people in their 20s and 30s are moving to Marseille every year.
Relatively low housing costs and abundant sunshine are obvious enticements, but for young L.G.B.T. people, the city’s track record of welcoming outsiders may also be part of the attraction. Over the last century, Marseille has drawn in waves of immigrants—from Italy, Armenia, the Comoros Islands, and France’s former colonies in the Maghreb.
This high share of foreign-born residents has seen the city being attacked for being insufficiently French. But Marseille has always had a fiercely independent streak. Locals proudly recount that when the city’s imposing Fort Saint Nicolas was constructed, in the 17th century, Louis XIV ordered its cannons to point not out to the Mediterranean but inward to the city itself, ready to bombard the residents, whom he suspected of lacking loyalty to the Crown.
More than a century later, the Jacobins briefly renamed Marseille “the City Without a Name” to punish it for failing to follow their revolutionary program. Today, certain locals will earnestly tell you they’re more Marseillais than French. “You can find a place here no matter who you are,” said Sasha, who previously lived in Paris and Brittany. “It’s hard to be truly marginalized in Marseille.”
Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, a 46-year-old openly gay imam leading an L.G.B.T.-inclusive religious center in Marseille’s working-class neighborhood of Belle de Mai, knows a thing or two about being in a minority. We spoke at the centrally located Théâtre de la Cité, on the opening night of the Aoziz Festival, an “intersectionally queer and inclusive” slate of performances, roundtables, and exhibitions that Zahed has helped organize since 2018.
Zahed told me he believes the city’s well-documented economic woes have played a role in the boom in queer cultural life. He said the lack of investment and limited public services have encouraged residents to create support networks themselves—a theory that also sheds some light on the city’s odd blend of ambition and dysfunction, which can be disorienting to first-time visitors. “It’s kind of a queer city; it’s a bit strange,” said Zahed. “Sometimes people are afraid of it; sometimes people love it.”
Homophobia is still a problem. A machismo common to much of Southern Europe is heavily present here. But, according to Zahed, who immigrated with his family from Algeria in 1995, the presence of disparate communities does breed a particular form of acceptance.
“The idea is ‘Even if I don’t know who you are or what you’re doing, if you don’t bother me and my group, we’re used to looking the other way for 2,500 years and letting people do what they want,’” he said. “And in a certain way, it works well.”
Despite its ancient past, this is not a city stunted by nostalgia. If there’s another reason that Marseille is attracting artists and young L.G.B.T. people alike, it’s perhaps the sense of possibility—the idea that the city is open to experimentation and creation.
“There’s still a lot of things to be done here, unlike other European cities, say Paris, London, Berlin, where they have the recipe for everything, they’ve already understood everything, they’ve already lived everything, they’ve already experimented with everything,” Zahed told me. “It’s very interesting to be a bit at the avant-garde.”
Cole Stangler is a Marseille-based journalist and author. His book, Paris Is Not Dead, will be released in October