American gay life in the 80’s! Everything was about figuring out how to be gay and “come out”. Are you out? How long have you been out? Are you out at work, out to your parents? Between tricks and lovers, shopping and jobs, we were also discovering politics and demanding our rights. In 1987 I can clearly remember being blown away by the films of gay Spanish director, Pedro Almodovar. It was in an art theater in Seattle that I first saw his early films, “Law of Desire” and “Matador” and I was hooked!
In Almodovar’s world nobody agonized about coming out or organized politically. Nobody questioned their desires. It was like watching “Days of our Lives” on acid. Who were these odd people living in Barcelona or Madrid with their strange sexual obsessions and twisted intertwined lives? Some were clearly gay. Like, hugely gay. But they blended right into the mix of other people’s lives without any apparent issues. In Almodovar’s weird and wonderful world the colors popped and the characters lived in a bubble of sexual freedom that seemed decades ahead of anything we were experiencing in conservative Seattle. Where did that incredible burst of creativity and gay freedom come from? We may think as Americans we have a sort of patent on gay rights. But let’s take a few minutes and look at the truly astonishing evolution of gay rights in Spain.
Since little is known about homosexual love amongst the Neanderthals, we can probably start with the lusty Romans. Spain was a province of the Roman Empire and a beautiful prosperous province it was. The early Romans admired the Greeks and we know how generally accepting of male bonding the Greeks were. Senators and emperors had lovers and there may even have been same sex marriages. The literature on the subject inspires into the present day. It was a liberal and pleasant time for gay love. But Christianity was evolving in the East and moving West. By the 4th Century a new and restrictive morality was taking hold. Sex was relegated to an act of procreation. The rest became suspicious and then immoral. Finally, the church and Christian Emperors made laws that ranged from castration to burning at the stake. This was not such a good time.
But the Roman Empire was not as sturdy as the Romans supposed. When Rome fell in the 5th century there was an invasion of Spain by a violent warlike Germanic group called the Visigoths. The Visigoth morality seemed to draw the line at being the “receptive” partner in sex. Their gods following the Norse model seemed sometimes to be pretty flexible, but this was a culture where the men were men and there were punishments for any deviation. There seems to be a dearth of homoerotic literature from Visigoth poets, or even poets for that matter.
In 718 the Islamic expansion crossed from Africa into Spain. For hundreds of years Spain was under Islamic rule and again a certain degree of culture and freedom returned. We have seen the evidence of this fantastic cultural flowering in the dazzling palaces and fortresses of the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar in Seville. This was a rich and highly educated culture with a refined appreciation of pleasure and beauty. Poets spoke of love. Nightingales sang. Handsome young men and boys came and went. For the upper classes and the powerful this was a time of romantic tolerance. And yet there were strict legal codes following Islamic law that seemed to be applied rarely and only to the lower classes or those without political support. This would have been a favorable place to be for the wealthy and powerful, and maybe also for the beautiful and desirable.
It was a queen who brought all this poetic love to a halt. King Ferdinand and Isabella drove the last of the Islamic rulers out of Spain in 1492. With Isabella came the Catholic church and a zealous fanaticism that led right into the Inquisition. The liberal acceptance of Jews and other foreigners was gone. The power of the church became absolute and small infractions could cost you your life. This was of course a terrible time and place for same sex love. And yet does anyone suppose the church to have been much different at that time with it’s forced celibacy and exclusive enclaves of men? In this time we are talking torture, burning, castration, or maybe exile if you can afford to buy your escape.
In 1812 a short, good looking Frenchman named Napoleon captured Barcelona which is near to France. Napoleon’s control did not last long, but during that time same sex intercourse was made legal! Vive la France! In 1814 Spain became a unified kingdom and in 1822 a legal code was established that specifically legalized same sex intercourse. But by 1928 the ruling dictatorship recriminalized “habitual homosexual acts.” I’m thinking they also frowned on occasional acts.
In 1936 Spain entered a period of bitterly divisive and destructive civil war. The forces under General Francisco Franco were victorious and for nearly 50 years his repressive regime made laws that sought to eradicate same sex love altogether. But in this more modern time the tool brought to bear was science. Homosexuality was categorized as a mental illness and men were arrested, put into special prisons called “galerias de invertidos”. Thousands of men and women were imprisoned and tortured with shock treatments, drug injections and any number of terrible “treatments”. It is shocking to think that the defeat of the Nazis and the reforms that swept Europe after 1945 did not liberate Spain. Franco stayed in power until his death in 1975!
This superficial overview of more than two thousand years of history reads like a metronome. First somewhat acceptable, then death, then a more forgiving period, then torture and burning capped by a 50-year dictatorship. This then can serve as a kind of explanation for the phenomenon of modern Spain and the swift embrace of freedom and liberalization we have seen in our lifetimes. When Franco died a wave of liberal political action swept over Spain. Not immediately, but in time it touched and liberated gay citizens too. In 1979 same sex intercourse was again legalized and remains legal today. More reforms followed and in 2005 same sex marriage was approved. Gay people can adopt children, serve in the military, donate blood, and are protected against discrimination and hate crimes. And most fascinating, a recent poll by the Pew group shows that 88% of the citizens of Spain have a favorable attitude toward gay people. This compares to 60% just recently reached in the United States.
I come back to my adoration of Pedro Almodovar and his marvelous films. When we enter his world after looking at all these thousands of years of history it seems more comprehensible. In America we came out. But in Spain the entire nation came out! Countries like Spain may be as close as we have been able to get to true equality and acceptance. I find all this very profound and inspiring. It certainly makes me want to return to Spain, see these incredible places and join in their beautiful hard-won freedom.
Dan Gregory has worked behind the scenes researching locations for Toto Tours since 1992. Toto Tours invites you to see the Best of Spain, August 29 – September 8, 2019. You can read the details here:
Shah and page boy
Almodovar center and cast of one of his films
Path of Visigoths into Spain
Madrid Pride 2008
Madrid Chueca Street during Pride 2017
Federico Garcia Lorca
Bust of Emperor Hadrian
Barcelona Pride Stage 2012
Barcelona Pride Stage 2012