The Gays in Spain . . . still strive to make some gains

Mark Dowd

From his new home in Madrid, former Quest chair, Mark Dowd, reports on the difficulties that gays still face despite having some of the most liberal sexuality laws in Europe. A case perhaps of the Spanish equivalent of ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’ (The more things change, the more they stay the same.)

Summer 2005. I am in Valencia on Spain’s east coast having swapped my London flat in a holiday exchange for a pad just a stone’s throw from the city centre. Tuning in to the evening news, there is a feature on a male couple. They are the first in the country to have taken advantage of the country’s new gay marriage legislation. The crew from TV España film their first full day as a married couple. And it rather resembles a scene from La Cage Aux Folles as the cameras capture them walking the dogs and ambling down to the bakery for pastries. You can tell that the reporter is keen to inject some tension into the piece by trying to find some detractors. She approaches a gaggle of elderly ladies dressed in solemn clothes. Surely they´ll provide a bit of homophobic opposition? Franco turning in his grave at the thought of same-sex marriage blessed by the state; that sort of thing. When I heard the vox pops, I knew that these new legal changes weren’t just superficial.

“Aren’t they lovely? Why shouldn’t they marry?” asked one woman in a severe black mantilla. “They’re very good with dogs…that’s what I like,” said her elderly companion. In the end, the reporter confessed she’d spoken to a lot of people but failed miserably to come up with any ammunition. So all is well in Spain then? It’s the new gay nirvana?

Well not quite.

I’ve been living in Madrid now for more than five months, enabling me to look beyond the headlines, all the legal changes and get under the skin of what is really happening in the Iberian peninsula. First stop, the Dumbarton Bar on Calle Zorilla just five minutes walk from the Gran Vía. This is Spain’s “Old Quebec” or “el cementerio de las elefantes” for those of you that know the infamous London bar off Marble Arch. I get talking with a man in his early fifties, Pablo. As the conversation progresses, it turns out that he’s a primary school teacher. “Where do you live in Madrid?” I ask him. “Oh no, I am not from around here, I am from Cordoba.” Cordoba! That’s in Andalucia, some 300 miles away. The more I talk to Pablo, the more I feel the optimism of that 2005 TV report fading. Pablo lives with his mother and has not come out to a soul in his home town. He comes up on the AVE, the high speed train, and books into a hotel at great expense once a month. He tells me he feels “free” for 48 hours, before going back to the socially conservative south and his classroom of eight year olds

The power and influence of mothers over their gay sons has become a recurring theme here in these last few months. I am attempting to pass a fiendishly difficult diploma exam in Spanish this May and one of my loyal assistants is a guy called Raúl who’s something of an Anglophile – so we meet up, we talk, we compare idioms and pose maddeningly difficult questions about the imperfect subjunctive to one another (sobre gustos no hay nada escrito  – “there’s no accounting for tastes.”) We have become very good mates, we even went to the premiere last night of the new movie of Opus Dei founder Josemaria Escrivá and his role in the Spanish Civil War. But there´s something rather odd that happens if we are out together late at night – the mobile always seems to go off between 11.30 and midnight. It’s never a jealous lover. I can always tell by Raúl’s face exactly who it is. He creeps away out of sight but I can pick up a few fragments. He assures his mother that he is in no danger (little does she know!) and that, yes, before too long, he will be home. This guy is forty two years old. What is going on here?

Those who have been following the evolution of post-Franco Spain here and in particular the development of a new confident gay identity speak of the difference between the attitudes of men under and over thirty five. The younger ones seem to have taken coming out more in their stride, see in the new legislation an affirmation of their own growing self-esteem, but for the post forties – well, coming out after twenty odd years in the closet with mother, (and that is one hell of a tight space!) involves quite a departure and one that the passing of a new law on marriage can do little to bring about.

If there’s a lesbian scene and society here, I have yet to find it. Certainly not in CRISMHOM, the nearest thing there is to Quest and LGCM in Madrid. Founded in 2006, my attention was first brought to the group by a BBC Radio Four documentary on modern Spain which aired in the UK last November prior to Pope Benedict´s visit to Santiago de Compostela and Barcelona. CRISMHOM meet every Thursday and Saturday for prayer, liturgy, fellowship and occasional “charlas” – that´s a Spanish noun coming from the verb to chat. We’ve had priests on the teaching of the Magisterium, film nights with animated discussions (do see the Peruvian film Contracorriente if you can…a Latino “Brokeback Mountain” with fishermen instead of cowboys),  and one very memorable session with a couple who met here three years ago and who spoke openly about a very challenging dilemma. They are both engineers and have pledged their next few years to the church on a huge community project in rural Brazil. If it becomes clear they are a living as a “couple” they may face difficulties. It’s the classic “don’t ask, don’t tell” bind, that lesbian and gay Catholics find themselves in all the world over. But it was great to see these two guys speaking openly of their need for one another, but also their need to place their relationship in a wider context of gift to the community beyond their own front door.

CRISMHOM is very lucky. It has a fixed meeting place in Chueca, Madrid’s Soho, gifted to them by a well off female patron who admired the group’s goals and placed the duplex premises at their disposal for nothing. It attracts mainly men of all ages, yet it differs from Quest, LGCM and other gay Christian groups in one respect – it really is a full time commitment for a small core of the dedicated activists. Eight meetings a month, speakers, liturgy, websites and all the rest of it. Some of the meetings attract in excess of seventy, eighty plus people. Best of all was the pre-Christmas liturgy, followed by a bring your own buffet supper with litres of rough red wine and a medley of villancicos (carols) until three in the morning.

Scenes that like would have been unthinkable even ten years ago. This is a heavily polarised country. I recall hosting my (straight) Madrid friend Martin Sanchez Chamon at my London flat some three years ago. I had not even come out to him as really there had been no point at which to naturally raise the subject. In our first few meetings it just never arose as a topic for discussion. He had me down as a kindly, liberal, left-ish BBC guy, so when I told him I was hosting a house mass for the feast of Los Difuntos (All Souls), he was more than a little perplexed. To such a man, Catholicism meant siding with the forces of reaction and was a distinctly bourgeois phenomenon. In the end, I didn’t need to come out to Martin. He took his seat at our Quest house mass and his gaydar kicked in. Catholic and Gay? We had a long talk afterwards and I explained that to be RC in the UK is to be part of another anti-establishment minority. Then is all made sense to him. Here in Spain, it is so different. And so much harder. For far too long the Church and the State have been like figures of eight intertwined, co-dependent on one another and both the worse off as a result of it. Render unto Caesar and all that…

This is the legacy that the women and men of the new Spain are seeking to overcome and a good number of them have come a long way in a short time. But this is all about deeply held cultural values, about prejudices and about long memories. And such things lie deep, often located way way down in the subconscious, well beyond the grasp of well intentioned, but often quite limited changes to the legal landscape.

So I toast the new gay marriage laws and the four thousand plus newly wedded couples. But I am under no illusion. In the eternal debate over which comes first: legal change or society’s values, it seems to me that the latter will always drive the former. Here, more than anywhere.

This article has been originally published in the Quest Bulletin, Spring 2011