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Gay Times February 09 - Issue 365

Nunca Olvides (Never Forget)

Spain was one of the world’s first countries to embrace gay marriage and consistently votes to support equality. But only 34 years ago, under dictator General Franco, life was much harder for gay people. Claire Walker meets two men who have witnessed – and driven – an extraordinary social revolution

“If those persons want to live together, dress up as bride and groom and get married, they can do so, but that should not be called marriage because it is not.” These are the words of Spain’s Queen Sofia to author and journalist Pilar Urbano. The Queen’s comments were reported last November in Spain’s left-leaning newspaper Publico under the headline: ‘Why Doesn’t She Shut Up?’
Queen Sofia clearly hadn‘t heard the adage: “When you’re in hole, stop digging.” She said: “The immense majority of families are normal. I can understand, accept and respect that there are people with other sexual tendencies – but being proud to be gay, getting onto a float and joining a parade? If all of us who weren’t gay went on a parade, the traffic would be chaos in every city.” She and her husband, King Juan Carlos, are the constitutional monarchs of a country that legalised same-sex marriage four years ago – only the third country in the world to do so at the time.
Her comments have caused deep embarrassment, not least because they hark back to an intolerance of homosexuality in Spain that most Spaniards would prefer to forget. Indeed, forgetting the past is the preferred modus operandi in Spain. The pacto del olvido, or ‘pact of forgetting’, was intrinsic to Spain’s transition from Franco’s brutal 40-year dictatorship to today’s modern democracy.
There were no truth and reconciliation commissions for Spain after Franco’s death in 1975. No. Silence about the past was deemed to be the key that would finally lock the door on General Francisco Franco’s oppressive, repressive rule of cruelty and injustice.
Franco was not original or innovative in any sense. He was just like all dictators: crush any political opposition and vilify those who are weak, poor or ‘different’. Terror and violence were the means to his odious ends.
Antoni Ruiz was ‘different’ – he was gay. His mother was a devout Catholic. In 1976, aged 17, he came out to his family. Their reaction? “Terrible. Very, very bad,” Ruiz says. His mother told her sister, who in turn told a friend of the family, a nun. She went straight to the police. Franco may have been dead for a year but his draconian laws were still very much alive, and Ruiz was arrested at home. His family, who had known in advance about the raid, watched as Ruiz was taken away to the station.
It was three days before he appeared before a judge. In that time he was interrogated – his tormentors demanding information on other homosexuals – threatened, beaten with a wet towel and thrown into a windowless cell. The police allowed him no sleep and relentlessly persisted with their questions. Ruiz did not capitulate. At no time was there a lawyer or family member present.
Before the judge, Ruiz was charged under Franco’s 1970 anti-gay law, the Danger to Society and Social Rehabilitation Act, and sentenced to a week in prison and a year of reform school. He never saw the latter. Instead, he endured three further days in a cell, naked and shivering, and was left feverish after a smallpox vaccination. He was hosed with cold water and sprayed with DDT. He still refused to inform.
Instead of reform school, they threw him into an adult jail. On his first night, a guard opened his cell door and allowed three other prisoners to rape him. He still didn’t talk. He told GT: “The experience of being in prison at only 17 years old was terrifying. In 1976, Spanish prisons were full of common delinquents and the atmosphere inside was one of total insecurity. Every day we would suffer abuse from other prisoners as well as our custodians.”
Ruiz was freed three months later, but was branded a homosexual and thus consigned to only menial jobs. His experience was not singular: “As a result of the two laws passed in Spain against homosexuals… 4000 people were imprisoned,” he says. Some put that figure at 5000. What is clear is that countless more were beaten, tortured and incarcerated in psychiatric institutions, where they were subjected to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).
Federico García Lorca, Spain’s most famous poet and playwright, was shot during the Civil War. García Lorca's biographer, Stainton, states that his killers had made remarks about his sexuality, suggesting that it played a role because he was gay and an intellectual. It’s also believed that his murderers made their point by shooting him in the backside.
Not all gay men suffered equally under Franco’s regime, apparently. Some homosexuals from the upper classes describe the Franco era as a great time. Ruiz concurs, saying: “It can be confirmed that the majority of homosexuals and transsexuals who were imprisoned came from the less-favoured social classes… those who were well-off or followers of the Franco regime didn’t have so many problems practicing homosexuality.”
Ruiz is now only 49, and in today’s Spain there is same-sex marriage (introduced a year before the UK’s cop-out Civil Partnership); plenty of Gay Pride festivals, as Queen Sofia will confirm, and the majority of Spaniards are in support of equal rights for LGBT people.
“In terms of the Spanish population, more than 70% are in favour of same-sex marriage and over 60% favour adoption [by LGBT couples]. These percentages are higher in Basque [countries].” So says Inigo Lamarca, also 49, gay and married to his life-partner. Lamarca is Ombudsman for the Basque Country in Spain, a position he was elected to by the Basque Parliament in 2005 with an overwhelming mandate: “There were no votes against him and very few abstentions,” says his chief-of-staff Asier Vallejo.
In many ways, Lamarca is a symbol of the sea-change regarding LGBT rights that has taken place in Spain since the days of dictatorship. Having studied law at the University of the Basque Country, he became Professor of Constitutional Law, teaching at his alma mater for 10 years. Until 2004, he was lawyer for the Basque Parliament’s Gipuzkoa region. Lamarca has written a book, unflinchingly titled: I Am Gay, and has fought for LGBT rights all his adult life.
In 1997, Lamarca founded GEHITU (meaning ‘to join‘) alongside nearly 40 other co-founders, including EGHAM and the Lesbian and Feminist Collective, with a view to consolidating the efforts of various LGBT groups. He says: “It’s a broad movement that promotes LGBT rights in terms of human rights,” adding firmly, “There is a crucial principle at the heart of GEHITU – it is against any form of violence. Historically, violence has been used against LGBT people.”
Besides its political and social activities, the organisation runs an educational programme for 13-16-year-old school pupils called Let’s Talk About Homosexuality. GEHITU members talk to pupils and provide literature to those schools that want to elucidate the life experiences of LGBT people. Changed days, indeed.
Lamarca says: “In a generation of 25 years there has been a complete social revolution.” It was slow to start, though: the Danger to Society and Social Rehabilitation Act wasn’t repealed until 1980. As Lamarca puts it: “Who cared about the dispossessed?” He continues: “On November 20th, 1975, Franco died and the democracy movement grew, 1977 saw the first democratic election, and in 1978 the new constitution was written. In 1977 gay and lesbian organisations were still illegal.” Indeed, June 1977 was Gay Pride Day, Spain’s first, with marchers chanting: “We want sexual liberty.” It was celebrated in Barcelona, and violently repressed by the police.
Looking back at Spain’s political past reveals a glimpse of the seeds of today’s changes. The 1931 Spanish Republic was socialist, radical and egalitarian, which is why, in 1936, Franco and his henchmen stepped in. “So historically there has been a liberating, modernising left-wing,” Lamarca explains. “Franco dies in 1975 and in two years democracy arrives. It’s clear that the Franco regime was decomposing.
“The original change started in the 60s. Slowly but surely a new generation of leaders, many educated in the UK and US, were giving strength to liberal forces in Spain. When Franco died, they got into power.” But what about the church? “That’s another factor. Spain has seen a very fast secularisation. Catholicism has lost much prestige. It was, after all, associated with the Franco regime.” After reflection, he adds: “Of all the intellectual, social and cultural trends, post-Franco, liberty has been the main theme. Liberty has been like a tsunami that washed the old, conservative Spain away.
“So the change for LGBT people has evolved quickly because of the value placed on liberty after 40 years of dictatorship. LGBT intellectuals have been making the most of the tsunami and surfed on it.” Stark contrast, then, to the Franco era: “It’s very clear that being gay was totally underground in terms of being a counter-culture. [Today] there is nothing tangible to identify.”
To suggest that Spain in 2009 is LGBT heaven would be misleading, however. Antoni Ruiz argues: “In terms of legal equality in my country a lot of significant progress has been made in recognising rights, but much work remains to be done. A country does not change because laws are passed – what’s needed is profound social change.”
Ruiz set up the Asociación Ex-Presos Sociales in 2004 to represent those LGBTs who were imprisoned under Franco’s laws, in order to preserve their historic memory, their dignity and to win financial compensation for their suffering. He has little time for the pacto del olvido, saying, “We must not forget anything, nor that a society that forgets can repeat the mistakes of the past again. Our obligation is to recover the memory and make it known within Spanish society, without any compromise, so that we can create a fairer society.”

With thanks to translators Asier Vallejo and Jan Fairley. Claire visited Spain as a guest of the Spanish Tourist Office. E-mail:
Photo: Colita, 1977

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