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.
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 that the country’s gay rights could soon be put back to pre-2005 status. Painful experiences with the Church and the Popular Party have left them wary.
Oscar Escolano, a 31-year-old gay man who lives in Madrid, sums up the current moment.
“I’m scared there’s going to be a reversal of social rights under the Popular Party government,” he says. “I have friends who tell me that it’s not going to happen, but I’m still worried about it.”
Indeed, the Socialist mayor of a 4,000-person town called Jun announced earlier this month that he would offer fast-track marriages to gay couples in advance of the election. He received 52 requests, 41 more than the total number of same-sex marriages performed in all of 2010.
Mili Hernandez, the owner of Berkana, Spain’s first specialist gay and lesbian bookshop, located in central Madrid, says if rights are rescinded, there could be an angry response.
Read more: Noted bookseller pushes LGBT visibility
“I hope that we gays and lesbians would get back out onto the streets to tell the Popular Party: You can’t steal a civil right from someone. If [they reverse the law], there will be a big battle,” Hernandez says.
Once Mantero had made his decision public via a cover story in the Spanish magazine Zero entitled “I thank God for being gay,” he was suspended from his duties as a priest and eventually removed from the Church by Pope Benedict XVI.
Mantero, who now lives in the southern city of Seville and makes a living as a writer, says the Spanish Church was so upset at his case that it banned discussion of him in his local seminary. He adds that one bishop even asked Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to stop him from making public declarations about his sexuality — a request the politician refused.
Legal gay marriage and adoption was made possible when Zapatero’s Socialist Party swept into office in a surprise progressive victory in 2004.
Zapatero had promised to legalize gay marriage during his campaign and he delivered on that promise with the help of a well-organized LGBT activist community. The presence of a high-profile gay activist, Pedro Zerolo, in the Socialist Party, also helped ensure the bill was a priority for the new government. But the climate in Spain has changed once again.
Spaniards’ attitudes to social issues have been transformed over the last three decades, since the country made the transition from the right-wing dictatorship of Francisco Franco to modern democracy. Although more than 5,000 people were arrested because of their sexuality under Franco, polls now show that around three-quarters of Spaniards believe gays and lesbians should enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals. Madrid’s annual Gay Pride event has become not just a celebration for people from the Spanish capital, but a truly international fiesta, drawing visitors from around the world.
With such credentials, it’s tempting to see Spain as something akin to a gay paradise. But is that a fair appraisal?
“It’s true, we have a gay marriage law and society has changed a lot,” says Hernandez. “But there are still barriers that gays and lesbians have to overcome.”
The coming out of a handful of high-profile men like the former priest Mantero over the last decade or so has been a key factor in bringing gay issues into public consciousness., Another is Jose Maria Sanchez Silva, a senior army officer who came out in 2000, causing uproar in the ranks of the deeply conservative military. He also graced the cover the magazine Zero, with the headline “The first gay soldier.”
Silva says he endured four years of constant, aggressive harassment from fellow soldiers before transferring to the army reserves in 2004.
A fellow officer left a threatening note on his desk saying: “Homosexuality is worse than the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”
He keeps a low public profile but broke his silence in 2007 to write Zero to complain that it had put a Popular Party politician [Alberto Ruiz-Gallardon] on its cover.
“I didn’t come out of the closet in 2000 on the cover of Zero in order to then see you publish a self-congratulatory interview with Mr. Ruiz-Gallardon in mid-campaign,” he wrote.
While church attendance has been falling steadily in recent years, the broader influence of the Roman Catholic institution was apparent ahead of Congress’ approval of the same-sex marriage law in 2005. Bishops and Popular Party members from around the country led a series of protest marches against the reform, on the grounds that it “threatened the family.” Thousands of Spaniards poured onto the streets to back the clergy’s call and express outrage at a Socialist administration that was making social reforms the hallmark of its first years in power.
Mantero is pessimistic about the medium-term future for Spain’s gays, in great part because he expects the next government to pursue a repeal. He also believes the gay community itself has been too complacent in recent years, allowing, for example, the Madrid Gay Pride event to become what he calls “a money-making machine” rather than a vehicle to promote homosexual rights.
While the bookshop owner Hernandez disagrees on this point, she does have her own criticisms of Spain’s gay community.
Despite its many advances over the last decade in terms of visibility, legislation and changing attitudes, Hernandez believes certain social mores are holding the country back. In particular, many gays and lesbians, she says, are still terrified of coming out — particularly to their families. The family is still extremely important for many Spaniards, and its influence is considerable.
“The big problem now is for us gays and lesbians to accept the fact we are gays and lesbians with every right and not to hide away,” she says.
“We still haven’t overcome the fear of rejection by the family, society, the workplace. We’re still hiding, we’re still not able to face up to society as we are. If people age 40 or 50 aren’t capable of accepting the fact they are gay without shame and fear, we’re never going to change things.”