Holding hands in public

MADRID — In 1976, Antonio Ruiz was sent to prison. His “crime”: Being gay. A nun supposedly reported him to the authorities after his mother told her he was gay. Thirty-three years later, the state is set to pay him for that indignity.

In one and a half generations, Spain has gone from imprisoning homosexuals to seeing a priest and an army lieutenant colonel publicly come out of the closet. Gay and lesbian couples kiss in the streets. They seem to be ever-present in TV programs and fiction series. And, since 2005, they can get married and adopt children — military personnel included.

The concerns of conservatives have not been entirely allayed — they still argue that gay marriage results in the devaluation of marriage, though they no longer take to the streets in protest like they did four years ago.

But with the legal protection now afforded to gay couples, that disapproval matters less, and the prevalence of homosexuality in mainstream culture speaks to societal acceptance.

There are, as always, the flashy examples of this increased integration: An interview in a Spanish daily of a magistrate at Spain’s National Court talking openly about his husband; the reportedly million plus people — including entire families and straight retiree couples — who are drawn to the festive Madrid Gay Pride Parade.

But it goes beyond those obvious signs, gay couples say. Attitudes have changed, as has everyday life.

Emilio Menendez and Carlos Baturin's story encompasses both that style and substance. They were the first couple to get married under the new law, 29 years after they met in Madrid. Back then, Emilio lived with his mother but spent the nights at Carlos’.

Baturin recounted seeing a bus full of policemen arrive at a night club and arrest a few people on one occasion. He said he was not scared — his American citizenship protected him. As for Menendez, “I was 19 years old, and, at that age, you’re not afraid of many things,” he said.

“It wasn’t just that it was illegal, it was the environment, people in the streets. Gays had a complex. We were considered degenerates, criminals, marginalized. Anybody in the street would insult you: ‘Look, a queer!’ Gays were rejected by their families, who were ashamed of them,” said Baturin, a psychiatrist. “It was difficult to find someone who was not traumatized.”

Baturin said gays feel more self-confident after the approval of same-sex marriage. More gays have come out, he said, and same-sex couples walk comfortably holding hands. Menendez, a window artist for a major retail department store, described how some of his co-workers feel better about having gay sons. “People who had reservations before feel reassured now,” he said.

While homosexual weddings grew 11 percent last year (3,549 celebrations), heterosexual ones decreased by more than 4 percent (193,064), according to data provided by the National Institute of Statistics. More than 12,300 homosexual weddings have been held since the law came into effect.

“Apocalyptical predictions warning gay marriage would put an end to the traditional family have proven wrong,” said Antonio Poveda, president of FELGTB, the Spanish Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals, and Bisexuals.

HazteOir — which means “make yourself heard” — is a citizens’ movement that opposes gay marriage. Ignacio Arsuaga, its president, thinks the law equating marriage between a man and a woman with a same-sex marriage leaves matrimony unprotected. “Heterosexual marriages provide something very positive to society, while homosexual ones do not, because they cannot create life,” he explained.

Therein lies one of the remaining difficulties. Under the new law, gay and lesbian couples are allowed to adopt in Spain and the law affords protection to both parents. Lesbian couples can opt for artificial insemination, or adoption, if they want kids. Prior to the law, however, if something happened to the legal parent, the parent's partner had no legal rights regarding the child.

But problems arise in international adoptions, as many countries are reluctant to allow adoption of children by gay couples. And even in Spain, public opinion has not moved significantly on the question since the legislation was enacted.

Surveys show that about half of the population favors adoption of children by homosexual couples (compared with the two-thirds who support gay marriage), a figure that has not changed significantly since 2004.

But still, it's better than it was, said Jesus Santos, 37, a naval engineer who works for an American multinational and has a 7-year-old son with his husband, David.

Santos, who is the president of Galehi, an association of gay and lesbian families with children, thinks the law has empowered gays by making them more visible and creating "positive models" that go beyond stereotypes. Society no longer thinks of “crazy queens having children,” he said.

And compensation for those like Antonio Ruiz is imminent. Names of the laws that sent them to prison illustrate how Spain has changed since: "Law against the Lazy and Delinquent" and "Law of Dangerousness and Social Rehabilitation."

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