Alex Blaze

The Joy of Gay Banking

Filed By Alex Blaze | March 10, 2011 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: bank robbers, France, gender, homophobic behavior, language

Once a while back a few friends, who are French, were over and one read a line of poetry, an awkward but clever metaphor that involved fruit (it was a while ago, I don't remember it exactly). I joked that if I had said that people would have just thought I didn't know how to speak properly, and everyone laughed. Too true.

piggy-bank.jpgA banker called me yesterday and told me I had aged out of my account and I had to sign some papers to get a new one, so I went today. I have a hate/hate relationship with French banking - the people you interact with are always incompetent, they have hidden fees for things I didn't know people could be charged for (including receiving wire transfers, checking your account online, and a monthly fee just for having an account), and everything takes so... much... time.

The French aren't known for their customer service, a skill that Americans invented and excel at in the same way a fish excels at swimming. On the other hand, the French banking system didn't crash the global economy in 2007, so they get some credit.

The woman was in her early 20's and wore a red wool blazer with shoulder pads - not company uniform, but her own personal choice. She looked up at the ceiling when she had to recite a sales pitch, and every five minutes or so it seemed like she remembered that she was supposed to ask me about my personal life and look like she cared. I was charmed.

She went over my civil information to ask what had changed since last year. I told her that I was no longer single, but PACSé. She asked if my partner was at that bank, I said no. She asked how long my partner, she, was at her bank, I replied that my partner, he, has been there for over a decade and isn't thinking about changing.

I don't much care if people assume I'm straight. Most people are and it's not that big of a deal in casual conversation. I just use correct pronouns and continue.

But at around the sixth or seventh time the banker referred to my partner with "she," I had to wonder if she was doing it on purpose. It's not like I wasn't responding with "he," and they don't sound similar in French that she just didn't hear. I mean, maybe she just couldn't deal with two guys loving each other. This was the same neighborhood where, a year and a half ago, Alberto and I held hands in a restaurant and the waitress turned around, screamed, and ran off (we were already leaving), and where almost three years ago Alberto and I got kicked out of another restaurant for kissing only to get into a fight with another customer who was all People just don't kiss in public, it's not homophobia and Alberto was all What alternate universe are you living in? This is Paris!

It wasn't until the banker asked if she (my partner) was French or American, both gendered words and both in the feminine, that I replied with Lui il est fran¸ais - Him, he's French (male) - that I think she got it. Three gender indicators in a short sentence. She couldn't blame that on bad pronunciation.

Before leaving, after she stuck me with a higher monthly fee for a bank account that will still charge me for receiving wire transfers, she gave me a brochure and said, "Give this to your partner, if he's looking to change banks. You see how I keep on trying until the last minute!"

Yeah, he won't be changing banks any time soon.

But it's just one of those things that happens when you have an accent - people assume "language problem" instead of "Oh, this person actually meant to say whatever thing I didn't expect."

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I've never had that kind of problem at my bank, however I bank with NatWest, which is part of RBS, one of the larger UK banks (alongside Northern Rock and one or two others) that were at the centre of the financial meltdown, which is definitely suggestive of a pattern: customer service levels are inversely proportional to economic responsibility. Perhaps I should find a bank with French levels of customer service. Unfortunately I don't know of any French banks with many branches in the UK, let alone in my town. And to be fair to myself I've been banking with NatWest since I was not much more than a toddler, which was about two decades before RBS came in and did its G. W. Bush act.

Wee say dommage kill nuh comprand pah. Or is that kell? I weesh to rint a rim.

Jeannie Robert | March 10, 2011 4:29 PM

I can sympathize with you Alex! I'm a native French speaker, yet the last time I walked into a French bank as a US resident expecting to open an account in 30 minutes or less (as you would in any US bank), they looked at me like I was crazy. As you have probably found out, it takes all kinds of documentation, you have to make an appointment, etc... It's not just the customer's accent; any situation that challenges the bureaucratic norm is met with incomprehension.
A couple years after opening that account, I transitioned from a French male citizen to an American female citizen. I have procrastinated trying to get my name and gender changed on the account, because I expect it to be a nightmare and I'm not looking forward to it!

Frankly, this is much ado over very little, extrapolating from one incident to huge generalisations. Your French Pacs gives you far more civil rights than you'd get anywhere in the US, as does my UK civil partnership. They're not ideal and we're going for full equality, but let's count our blessings for not having to live as second-class citizens in the US rather than confect an offense from every encounter we have. (You have a very rosy view of US banking, I must say.)

Don't worry - my generalizations don't come from this experience but were merely exemplified by it.

Justus Eisfeld Justus Eisfeld | March 11, 2011 7:30 AM

Just for the record - my US bank charges monthly checking fees if I don't have a minimum amount of money in my bank account, they charge me 10$ for incoming wires, even from within the US, and even though I have had a MasterCard for 10+ years in Europe and a good income, all I can access right now is a credit card with 500$ limit that won't even let me pay for a trip home.
Welcome to banking while being a foreigner!

Oh wow. None of my accounts in the US ever charged minimums, so it might just vary from bank to bank.

I don't get the fees for incoming wire transfers. Like, do they have to figure out what to do? This is money, where do we put it? Oh no!