Spain at the Forefront

Three years after Socialist win, former Franco captive nation gay-friendliest in Europe.

By: DOUG IRELAND | With strong support from the Spanish government led by Socialist Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the nation's federation of queer activist groups, La Federación Estatal de Lesbianas, Gays, Transexuales y Bisexuales (FELGTB), on July 22 won official consultative status to the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).

This represents a significant breakthrough at the world body. The consultative status had long been blocked by conservative, homophobic UN member states like those from Islamic countries, but represents a key means for civil society to access the UN system. It allows nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to deliver oral and written reports at UN meetings and to organize events on UN premises. With it, these groups can share their information and analysis of the abuses and discrimination LGBT people confront around the world.

The Dutch group COC was also approved by ECOSOC at the same time.

The admission of FELGTB to consultative status at the UN came just two months after French gay activists succeeded – after a year-long lobbying campaign and a “die-in” at the Élysée Palace at which gay activists were arrested – in extracting from President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservative government a promise that the it would use the current French rotation at the presidency of the European Union to press the UN to take a stand in favor of the universal decriminalization of homosexuality. (See this reporter's May 23-29 article, “France Fights for Decriminalization.”)

“We have a clear commitment from the Spanish government to lead any international initiative in favor of LGBT rights,” David Montero, the FELGTB international affairs and human rights officer, told Gay City News. “In this particular case we are already lobbying to make a UN stand in favor of global decriminalization possible.”

Spain may now lay claim to having the most pro-gay government in Europe. Within a year of taking the reins of the Spanish government, Zapatero, in mid-2005, delivered on his promise to legalize marriage for same-sex couples. Last year, the Spanish capital of Madrid was chosen as the site of the annual EuroPride demonstration in recognition of the pro-gay reforms passed under Zapatero's government, and 2.5 million people took to the Madrid streets to participate in this celebration (see this reporter's July 5-11, 2007 article, “Pride In Europe Looks Globally .)

The transformation in Spain has been remarkable in the years since its transition to parliamentary democracy following the 1975 death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco, who had ruled Spain with an iron fist since 1939. Once considered one of Europe's most conservative and most Catholic countries, Spain is now considered a model for acceptance of LGBT people.

We asked FELGTB's Montero to assess what most explains this pro-gay transformation – cultural change and the resulting shifts in public attitudes toward sexual dissidents in the post-Franco era, or political organization by the LGBT community?

“Both,” he replied. “It's true that Spain was considered for ages as a kind of spiritual reserve of Catholicism but it's also true that religion is not an issue in our daily lives anymore. People identify themselves as Catholic but in their lives, religion is just an anecdote. Religion no longer rules our lives – fortunately, in my opinion. But it's clear that without a strong LGBT movement, and without the work of activists, all this would not have been possible. In Spain and in any other country in the world – in these issues but also in others related to social progress – nobody gives anything for free. We have to struggle hard to get it. And we did it.”

Montero, a 36-year-old lawyer from the city of San Sebastian, told Gay City News, “I've been a gay activist since 1997, when some friends decided to create GEHITU, the biggest LGBT organization in the Basque country. My coming out was easy: I had had a boyfriend for seven years and nobody knew it. So when GEHITU started, I became one of its representatives and started to write pro-gay articles in newspapers and so forth. One day my mother came to me and asked me why I was doing this – she thought it was perhaps because I was a lawyer – and I told her the truth and came out to her. In 2004, I decided to move to Brussels for a while because I fell in love with a lovely Belgian named Marc Debouver and married him in Belgium. My husband and I run a small hotel in Playa del Ingles, an LGBT resort in the Canary Islands, and have some other businesses in Brussels.”

Montero continued, “The history of the Spanish LGBT movement is a long one, as we have been recently celebrating the 30th anniversary of the first gay demonstration, which took place in Barcelona in 1977, not long after Franco's death. Compared to the American LGBT movement, in Europe we have big differences, especially in the availability of personal and economic resources. This has always been an obstacle for our development, as everything – and I mean every single thing – we've achieved has been done by volunteers. Anyway, this had a positive side, which was credibility. We had reason on our side, and it made public opinion come to our side as well. We grew up in the '80s because of public grants given for prevention projects related to HIV and so on. But in those years our political presence was not significant. It was only in the early '90s when we started to demand civil rights for ourselves and for our families.

“The first time that gays and lesbian had any legal recognition of our civil rights was in 1994 under a Socialist government, when the law governing rental of housing recognized that the partner of the tenant could take over the lease if their same-sex partner died, whatever the gender of this partner was. One year later Vitoria, the capital of the Basque country, was the first city to create a registry for unmarried couples, including same-sex couples. After this, the Criminal Code of 1995 passed by the Socialists included homophobia as an aggravating circumstance in the commission of a crime.

“Then there came the years when the very conservative Popular Party was in power, from 1996 to 2004, which was a break in this pro-gay process. Some civil-partnership laws at the regional level were approved in different parts of the country, but they were always quite limited in the rights they granted. The best and most extensive of these civil partnership laws were challenged in lawsuits by that conservative government before the Constitutional Court.

“Under Prime Minister Zapatero and the Socialists, marriage for same-sex couples and their right to adopt was approved in June 2005, and last year Parliament passed a very important law on gender identity, allowing transgendered people to adapt their name and gender to their identity in official documents.”

Zapatero's speech to the Spanish Parliament in support of same-sex marriage and adoption by gay couples was, without question, the most ringing and forthright pro-gay declaration ever made by a head of government anywhere in the world, and Montero recalled how “listening to our prime minister in this speech reading a poem by Luis Cernuda, a splendid Spanish gay poet, before the members of the Parliament, was one of the most emotional moments that I have lived.”

Montero explained that the Socialists' support for LGBT rights was won when “many Spanish LGBT activists entered the party and pushed forward the creation of LGBT groups within the structure of the party. These groups then became responsible for designing and deciding the position of the party regarding LGBT issues. I will mention, just as an example, Pedro Zerolo, a former president of FELGTB, who since 2004 has been a member of the Executive Board of the PSOE, as the Socialist Party is called. I think the work by the activists at this level was very important in achieving our successes.

“I remember an interview with Zapatero one year before the first election that he won. In that interview he stated, 'Marriage, yes. Adoption, we'll see…' One year later, he came into power and made both things possible, and showed an extraordinarily powerful commitment to our demands. I think that he went through the same process that millions of people in Spain did – they faced the issue of equality for LGBT people without prejudices and with a clear concept of justice, and then reached the only possible conclusion. In 2004, the year before the law on same sex marriage was passed, a poll taken by El Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, a public body, showed that 66 percent of the people said that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry, and 75 percent agreed in saying that the most important thing was to preserve the well-being of children regardless the sexual orientation of the adopting parents. And 79 percent said that 'homosexuality is an option as respectable as heterosexuality.'”.

Acceptance and inclusion of gays also extends to the mass media, Montero added: “TV series always have a lesbian, gay, or even trans character. The way they treat this is very positive and optimistic – the most known lesbians in Spain are a couple from a soap opera, and another one from 'Big Brother.' Among out gay personalities I clearly have to mention Jesús Vázquez, a fixture of Spanish TV since the '90s and the conductor of the biggest musical program – a kind of Spanish version of 'American Idol' – that airs in prime time and the most respected one. Vasquez speaks openly about himself and his husband – he's married – and their life together.

“And he's not the only one – many others did the same already a long time ago. And I think that this made it possible for every Spanish family to get in touch with the daily life of a gay or a lesbian. It's like they put a gay in everybody's home, and it became usual, current, you know?”

When it comes to openly gay elected officials, Montero said, “There are not a lot. But we have some gay men elected either for city councils or for regional parliaments. In the national Parliament we have only a few, like Ernesto Gasco – he was one of the very first politicians to come out back when he was a city council member in San Sebastian in the Basque country, which is my home town.

“We know there are many more homosexuals in elected office, but they're all in the closet. Unfortunately, lesbians are invisible here. We know of some mayors of big cities that are lesbians, but it's their decision to stay in the closet. Politicians on the left side of the political spectrum are friendly to us and have a very good attitude when facing LGBT issues, but politics in general doesn't seem to be an easy area for coming out yet.”

Gay-bashing in Spain, said Montero, is “unfortunately not that rare. The number of attacks has increased lately in Madrid, for example, which COGAM, the LGBT local group in Madrid, denounced recently. But I have to say that the political response is always positive. Of course, within the police you can always find some individuals that are aggressive and disrespectful with us, but that's not common.

“And no need to say that rural areas are less open-minded than big cities, but do you know that there is a very small village in the center of Spain, in the middle of nowhere, called Campillo de las Ranas, with a gay mayor which has become a reference for gay couples that want to get married? He marries gay or lesbian couples every week, from all over the country.”

Montero explained, “FELGTB is a federation with more than 50 LGBT local and regional groups. In these groups, some are bigger than others, but federated all together create the biggest and most influential organization in Spain, outside the political parties. We are a truly democratic organization, probably the only one. The structure in FELGTB is not by regions but by thematic areas – lesbian policies, education, religious issues, health, international cooperation, training and volunteers, and so forth.”

After so much progress, what are the principal political issues remaining on FELGTB's agenda?

“We are giving more importance now to education,” said Montero, “trying to include education against homophobia in the official curricula. We're also working with the trade unions in the fight against homophobia and in international cooperation.

“After the law that was passed on gender identity, we are working now together with national and regional governments for sexual reassignment surgery to be included in the public health service so that it will be free of charge – it's like this in some regions, and will be in the whole country very soon – and we're working for policies in favor of the integration of trans people in the labor market.

“Plus we're working for HIV-AIDS issues to be given more funds and resources.”

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The web site of FELGTB, La Federación Estatal de Lesbianas, Gays, Transexuales y Bisexuales, is http://www.felgt.org/. The LGBT division of the PSOE, Spain's Socialist Party, is at http://www.psoe.es/ambito/lgtb/links/index.do. Doug Ireland can be reached through his blog, DIRELAND, at http://direland.typepad.com/.The text of Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero's remarkable gay rights speech in favor of same-sex marriage and adoption is available at:

http://direland.typepad.com/direland/2005/07/when_the_spanis.html.

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