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Spanish lessons

Spanish lessons


How did Spain, a country with a long Catholic tradition, manage to implement marriage equality? A year after same-sex weddings became legal, an on-the-ground analysis of how it happened--and what Americans can learn.

Last fall a Catholic priest invited me to my very first same-sex wedding. I was thrilled. The wedding was between an Episcopal deacon and his long-term boyfriend. The rites were Christian with the priest presiding. Sound unorthodox? What if I told you the priest was openly gay? And sexually active? And that he identifies as a bear?

!Hola y bienvenidos! to gay Spain, where the citizens have been struggling to reconcile their country's Christian underpinnings with a liberal attitude toward gay rights ever since same-sex marriage became legal over a year ago. On June 30, 2005, you were probably as surprised as I was when the Spanish government under President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a Socialist, granted equal marriage rights to gays. After all, the country has a long Roman Catholic tradition, with 80% of its people at least nominally a Friend of Benedict, and homosexuality itself became legal only in 1978. And hello, Spanish Inquisition, anyone?

Yet somehow Spain beat the United States to the altar and allowed all its citizens to marry--which as of late 2006 included more than 4,000 gay couples. Nowadays marriage equality has dropped from the headlines (two thirds of voters supported it anyway). In the capital city of Madrid, one in 10 marriages are between members of the same sex. The city's mayor, a member of the right-wing People's Party, even performed the nuptials of one of his gay deputies.

Confusing? I certainly thought so. So in September I did what any young gay journalist with a temporary lease (and no romantic prospects) would do: I moved to Spain to figure it out.

On the surface Spain is exactly the country you expect it to be. The people have a strong cultural bond with Catholicism, and their festivals explode with as much color and vigor as ever. During Holy Week, men still parade down the streets in brilliantly colored robes and those tall slightly creepy fabric hoods. On feast days, spectacularly bejeweled icons of the Virgin Mary are carried through the streets, and in Europe, Spain's celebrations before Lent are surpassed only by Italy's. During the Christmas season, as I am writing this story, Madrid's wide boulevards have turned into festivals of lights, mangers, and crushes of humanity.

But I learned that underneath this facade lies a much more complicated relationship between religion, politics, and society. All the color and ceremony is what some call "Catholicism of rhythm." That is, people celebrate because they always have, not out of a religious obligation. Since marriage between members of the same sex was legalized, Pope Benedict XVI has railed repeatedly against the Spanish government. Same-sex "pseudomarriage," based on "a love that is weak," is the "greatest threat ever" that the church has faced, he has said on various occasions. But his remarks fall largely on deaf ears. Spaniards remember all too well what happened the last time they allowed the Catholic Church to order them around.

Explaining how a mostly Christian nation was one of the first to bring gays into the family fold, many Spaniards gave me a history lesson about dictator Francisco Franco. He died over 30 years ago, but he remains a powerful, if silent, influence on the country today.

Spain festered under Franco, a fascist and friend to Hitler, for 36 years. After the brutal Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, he pulled the country together by force and intimidation. He called his system of government "National Catholicism" and repressed any behavior or actions that he and the church deemed aberrant, including a free press, sexual freedom, abortion, and divorce. It was a time of great difficulty for all but the most conservative citizens, and many injustices were inflicted on the helpless populace as the church stood by, aloof.

Then when Franco died in 1975 and King Juan Carlos ascended to power, transforming the country into a democracy, the writers of Spain's constitution went to great lengths to keep the church out. "Religion played such an important role in the Civil War and dictatorship," says Kerman Calvo, a Basque sexuality and society expert who has written extensively on the subject, that "people are hyperaware of the dangers of having a politicized church."

"The church is the principal homophobic force in Spain, and they allied with [Franco]. They offended everyone," says Jordi Petit, a grizzled gay rights activist in Barcelona who began fighting for equality in the Catalonia region over 30 years ago. "They are held to account by the public."

Accordingly, Spaniards are extremely hesitant to vote along religious lines. Poll results frequently show that more people are in favor of same-sex marriage, for example, than think that being gay is natural--meaning that just because they may hear antigay views in church (if they even go), it doesn't mean they are going to act on them to deny a fellow citizen rights. In fact, if the church takes a strong stance against something, people are actually more likely to question that position.

In contrast, the situation in the United States, with evangelical voters holding so much power, is laughable to Spaniards. So too is the way George Bush often says, "God bless you, and God bless America." "What is he, a priest?" my Spanish roommate said to me with a laugh one day. I would have laughed with him if I didn't know it was that exact blur between church and state that causes so many gay people to suffer in the States.

Father Jose Mantero is the gay priest who invited me to his friend's wedding, one in a long chain of queer nuptials he's performed since he came out in 2002 on the cover of Zero, Spain's monthly gay glossy. A burly figure with tiny spectacles and big arms, Mantero was good enough to take me out for tea and scotch in Chueca, Madrid's answer to Chelsea, shortly after I arrived in September. He was full of warmth, and as we talked he quoted Scripture like Pat Robertson. It was a somewhat jarring effect. "It's been a year, and everything's normal," he told me.

From the looks of it, everything does seem normal, so much so that a friend of mine recently attended a leather wedding, where all the guests were compelled to wear some sort of hide. It was outrageous and was meant in part to scandalize. But nobody was willing to be excluded from the ceremony, not even the grandmothers. They wore mink.

You have to know some things about the average Spanish family to really understand that logic. In the United States we talk a lot about how important family life is, but in Spain they talk a lot less--and they do a lot more. It's common for young people to live with their parents well into their 30s, even in big cities like Madrid. Many of my new Spanish friends use the three-hour midday siestas during the week as opportunities to go home and have their mother cook a giant--doubtlessly pork-laden--Spanish lunch. The average age of marriage is several years older for both men and women than it is in the United States, and the Spanish divorce rate is 17%, compared to just under 50% in the States.

It took me a while to really grasp this, but it is precisely because family is so important to the Spanish that they do accept gays getting married. "If your mom is conservative and you are gay, you are her son," says Emilio de Benito, a writer for El Pais, the country's left-leaning newspaper. "That's the most important thing."

Of course! If you love your family and you think the institution of marriage is important, you should want everyone to be able to marry. But as an American, I have been trained so that every time someone says "family values," I hear "antigay." Relearning that the two don't have to go hand in hand--and that family values could indeed be gay-affirmative--was at once liberating and extremely painful.

But the situation in Spain is by no means perfect yet. In September a restaurateur made headlines by refusing to host a gay couple's wedding reception in Madrid. The notoriously slow-moving Constitutional Tribunal is currently pondering a protest by the People's Party against the use of the word "marriage" (although, after seeing the popular support for marriage equality, the party downgraded its objection to just the name, as it now officially supports equal rights and benefits for same-sex couples).

And for many who live in small towns, acceptance is not universal. Angel, 27, married in April 2006. As we sat down for coffee in his favorite shop in Madrid, he told me about his intimate wedding in a small town outside of the city. He didn't marry in his hometown because his parents still don't know he's gay. "I am so scared to tell them because they might suffer," he told me. His parents still live in the same tiny town of 600. "People in town might point and say, 'Those are the parents of the gay.' "

Angel's prewedding nerves caused him to gain weight--almost 40 pounds. "I can't look at the wedding pictures," he said. Although his parents didn't attend, his sisters and some friends came and scraped together a few wedding gifts for the couple. Angel and his husband, Alex, now have an apartment together, but the fact that their parents can never come to visit weighs heavily on their minds.

Near the end of my stay in Spain, I sat down with Pedro Zerolo, the secretary of Social Movements and Relations With NGOs, a ministry post. Zerolo is a former president of Spain's State Federation of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgendered Groups and is widely credited with making the marriage equality law possible. After President Zapatero and the Socialist Party added same-sex marriage to their campaign platform, they worked closely with Zerolo and the federation to execute the plan. When it was time to write the new law, Zerolo presented them with language he had already prepared.

I met with him in his expansive office in the party headquarters in Madrid, and we chatted for well over an hour. He was full of political platitudes about "worlds of the rainbow" and how "we won a victory for humanity." Whenever I had conversations like these, I couldn't help but think that in the end it wasn't the activists that made the law possible in Spain--it was the straight people who listened, who allowed themselves to be educated, and who ignored religious and social prejudices. With a large voting majority, passing the law was easy.

I have always been an advocate for marriage equality, which in the United States often means I am caught in complicated logical and theoretical debates. But in Spain it's so simple. Spaniards care immensely about the tradition of family, so anyone who wants to be a part of it can be. The separation of church and state is written into their constitution, so they keep them separate. Equal rights are a founding principle of their democracy, so they give them out to everybody. Seeing it all laid out so plainly makes me feel like a crazy person. U.S. society has the same basis, yet look how dismal our prospects for marriage equality are at the moment.

It makes me wonder what we've achieved as a community if U.S. gay men and women can't explain something so simple to their straight counterparts. So I asked Zerolo whether he had advice for queer activists in my home country. I think about his response often.

"We learned to fight from Stonewall," he said. "I grew up reading Audre Lorde and Walt Whitman. My best teachers were those great, brave leaders in the U.S." He shook his head and smiled. "It's so funny you asked me what I would teach American activists. You can't teach the people who taught you everything you know."

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Chris Rovzar