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From the streets of New York City to the townships of South Africa, the LGBT rights movement and its opposition are engaged in an unprecedented international battle. GlobalPost presents an ongoing series of reports from key locations at this pivotal time in history, telling highly personal, often overlooked stories from the fight.

Gay couples kiss in protest as Pope Benedit XVI travels to La Sagrada Familia Basilica on November 7, 2010 in Barcelona, Spain. (David Ramos/AFP/Getty Images)

Spain’s gays proud of advances but fear backlash

With conservatives poised to retake the national government, LGBTs ready to defend hard-won rights.

MADRID — Jose Mantero served as a Roman Catholic priest in rural Spain for 16 years before doing something he says no priest in the world ever had: He came out.

Mantero, now 49, took the step in 2002 after feeling increasing anger at what he saw as the Church’s hostility toward homosexuality. He says the key moment in his decision came when he was giving confession to a gay man.

“He was feeling so tormented, that I said to him: ‘Look at my face — do you see a monster?’” says Mantero. “He replied: ‘Not at all, father.’ So I said: ‘I’m gay, like you. You’re not a monster.’ That was the moment when I really came out of the closet.”

Today, there are few countries with a more complex and surprising gay profile than Spain, which for so many decades was shrouded in a conservative Catholic ethos. This gay cultural legacy spans from the acclaimed Spanish Civil War-era poet Federico Garcia Lorca to contemporary filmmaker Pedro Almodovar. Spain’s status as a nation at the frontline of gay rights was cemented in 2005 when a progressive political wave made it only the third country in the world to allow same-sex marriage with legislation that also allowed gay couples to adopt children.

But one of the world’s most Catholic countries is now gripped by a conservative backlash — driven in part by economic crisis — that activists fear could reverse the gains made by Spain’s LGBT community. To conservatives, a reemergence of the Popular Party and its anti-gay marriage stance reflects a yearning in Spain to counter the incumbent Socialist Party’s assault on the largely conservative values of Spanish society.

“We still haven’t overcome the fear of rejection by the family, society, the workplace. We’re still hiding.”
~Mili Hernandez, founder of Berkana

What is irreversible, however, is the extent to which gay marriage has been embraced by the gay community in Spain. Between 2005 and the end of 2009, just over 16,000 same-sex couples got married, part of a community putting down deeper roots in contested ground.

But many Spanish gays have grave concerns about the country’s political situation, which could hold the makings of a big and fateful battle.

The opposition Popular Party, which has close links to the Church, is widely tipped to win the 2011 general elections, scheduled for
November 20. The party opposed the gay marriage law from the start, filing an appeal against it on technical grounds. The outcome of that appeal is still being awaited as the Spanish judicial system runs its notoriously slow course.

“The euphoria of same-sex marriage that we saw in 2005 has been followed by harassment by the Church and its secular arm, which is the Popular Party,” says Mantero, who is not married.

Members of the Popular Party have said that even if the courts uphold the marriage law, the party will consider attempting to reverse the legislation. A current 15-point lead over the Socialists ahead of the election suggests the Popular Party will get the opportunity, though it is uncertain that party leaders will take it.

“I will listen to the [decision of the] court, but I don’t like the fact that there is gay marriage and I don’t think it is constitutional,” Popular Party leader Mariano Rajoy told El País newspaper. “What I don’t like is the word ‘marriage.’”

The line that Rajoy is cutting here is a familiar one to many Catholics. He is recognizing that in Catholic teaching, “marriage” is viewed as a sacrament between a man and a woman. And therefore a more conservative Catholic view seeks to straddle a line between providing equal rights to all through “civil unions,” but avoid the use of the word “marriage” for gay couples.

Political analyst Fernando Vallespin of Madrid’s Autonoma University says it would be a major political misstep for the party to attack gay marriage.

“The Popular Party knows that it’s unrealistic to reverse the gay marriage law,” he says, adding that the party will have to reach an understanding with the Church if it doesn’t attempt to do so.

“It is going to have enough problems in the economic and social sphere — and probably social unrest, so they can’t open new fronts and go back and question what happened two legislatures before.”

Although Spain’s embattled economy will be a greater priority for whichever party is in power, many gays are concerned

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