Spain marked 10 years of gay marriage this week, while last weekend the LGBT community took over many of the country’s city centers with Pride celebrations. The march in Barcelona — attended by the city’s mayor for the first time ever — was heaving with tourists. The city is among the top destinations for the LGBT community in Europe, while Madrid is among the continent’s unofficial gay capitals.
Outside of guaranteed sunshine and beaches, a contributor to this phenomenon is Spain’s reputation as a frontrunner for progressive LGBT legislation. After the Netherlands and Belgium, the country was the third on Earth to make gay marriage legal back in 2005, and Spain recently took first place in a poll that studied acceptance of homosexuals in 39 countries.
Modern Spain would be unrecognizable to a young Eugeni Rodríguez. Now spokesperson for Catalonia’s oldest gay rights group FAGC and President of L'Observatori Contra l'Homofòbia (OCH), Rodríguez was born in 1965 in the Franco years when homosexuality was illegal. Raised in L’Hospitalet by an impoverished family with a “very anti-gay component,” Rodríguez suffered beatings and discrimination on the streets of his working class neighborhood. He left the “entirely hostile environment” of that city at the age of 18.
While reading Foucault on an intercity train and struggling to come to terms with a traumatic adolescence, Rodríguez began formulating a personal philosophy that would lay the groundwork for a lifetime of activism.
“I promised myself I would not let anyone else be discriminated against and assaulted, I promised to defend the issue to the death,” Rodríguez tells me from FAGC’s modest offices in Gràcia, Barcelona.
Rodríguez and fellow activists were moved to set up what would later become the OCH following the murder of Sònia Rescalvo Zafra, a transgender woman who was beaten to death by neo-Nazis in Barcelona 1991. The OCH began as a FAGC initiative and later became an independent entity in 2008, chaired by Rodríguez. The organization is recognized as the driving force behind the controversial and pioneering anti-homophobia law — which enforces large fines and places the burden of proof on the defendant — that passed the Catalan Parliament last year.
Despite such efforts, LGBT related attacks are on the rise in Catalonia and Spain as a whole,
suggesting a dissonance between legal, administrative and social progress with regard to LGBT rights.
Referencing nationwide statistics for 2013, the Interior Ministry says the LGBT community is the minority most targeted by perpetrators of hate crimes. Forty percent of all hate crimes reported in 2013 were motivated by sexual orientation, whereas 37 percent that year were due to racial hatred. Contrast this with figures from England and Wales for 2013, where 84 percent of hate crimes were motivated by race and 10 percent sexual orientation, and numbers from the U.S. that same year where race and sexual orientation were the prime motivators in 49 percent and 20 percent respectively.
To be clear, there are no winners here (how would you like your country, more racist or more homophobic?), and comparisons between these countries must be heeded with a warning, as different criteria and definitions are employed in all three cases. Rodríguez himself has doubts over the official figures, as the OCH does not count certain victims and crimes — including exhibitionism and various sex crimes — used by the Interior Ministry in its own studies of LGBT related hate crimes.
While Rodríguez celebrates the passage of the anti-homophobia law as historic, he stresses that it runs the risk of being all but symbolic if there is not what he calls an “adequate diffusion” of its implementation on several levels. He says that many victims do not know that crimes committed against them fall under the protection of this law. Knowledge of laws, support networks and procedures appear essential to this issue. A survey of the LGBT community in Spain conducted in 2013 found that almost half of respondents had suffered some kind of homophobic abuse at one time, though only 18 percent had felt moved to report the event, with a third saying they thought such a report would prove useless.
A further concern for Rodríguez is that many departments and civil servants are unaware of the responsibilities the law requires of them.
“The law states that any public official in Catalonia has a duty to intervene in any case of discrimination and communicate it to the government,” Rodríguez said. “But what happens is that not everyone is aware of this law so it cannot be fully implemented.”
Rodríguez believes the law must be championed by an independent authority, to handle cases and get the word out there, an idea the government rejected.
He references a case in Girona, where a boy was told he ran “like a fag” by his gym teacher. During the ensuing investigation, it became apparent the school had not been informed that Catalonia had passed an anti-homophobia law. Rodríguez is certain this lack of communication between state-run institutions is the norm.
Rodríguez says that changing perspectives in the classroom is not as simple as slotting in a course on diversity into the curriculum.
“On school forms you had to fill out the name of your mother and father, there was no other option,” he explains. “Everything is spoken about in a certain language to reinforce this idea, in maths, science, all subjects — even a plug and socket are called ‘male and female.’”
For Rodríguez, living in a region where the legal framework is increasingly supportive of the LGBT community is a great source of pride. He has no plans to rein in the fight, however, while the standard model of binary gender identity remains deeply ingrained in Spanish society.
Additional reporting and photos by Elisa Centurion Arriola