Spain's latest export: Gay-friendliness?

MADRID, Spain — Guys in drag steal a kiss while gals locked in embrace land a playful smack on a nearby derriere.

Such colorful scenes along a main thoroughfare of Spain’s capital city helped garner votes in November to make Madrid’s Gay Pride celebration the best annual gay event in the world, according to a popular gay travel website.

But the international crowd of more than 1 million people partying all weekend long is drawn by more than a fiesta. Following landmark legislation in 2005 that allowed for marriage and adoption among same-sex couples, foreigners are settling into Spain to enjoy the rights they can't at home.

“People on the outside look very conservative but on the inside, socially, they’re not,” said Clare Warburton, an Englishwoman living here with her Spanish partner. “I mean they are open. That’s why you can get married here because people in their hearts, they’re socially liberal.”

Clare first met Myriam in the United States. Both are graphic designers, and the couple felt comfortable living in San Francisco and later New York until they decided to have a child. Artificial insemination allowed Myriam to give birth to their daughter Olivia.

“We knew that the next step after that was for me to adopt her, and this was something that we just couldn’t do in New York at all,” recalled Clare. “We registered as domestic partners which meant she’d get my health care but nothing else. So yeah, we needed to ensure that legally she would be my daughter as well.”

Clare and Myriam settled in an apartment near Myriam’s family in Madrid. The couple marked their first year in Spain by parading in the Gay Pride event with other same-sex couples and their children.

“It’s just a whole different idea,” said Clare. “I mean you can raise a family here, you can have all the rights that straight couples have, and I think that’s really why I came.”

But all the rights do not amount to all the freedom, according to LGBT groups in Spain. They report an increase in the number of assaults.

“The existence of a law that legalizes these people and makes them more visible results in more assaults,” explained Miguel Angel Gonzalez Medino, president of COGAM, the Lesbian, Gay, Transgender & Bisexual Collective of Madrid.

Confronting discrimination at work and in schools tops the agenda. Machismo is another common complaint in countries with Latin roots.

Pablo Salzani is an Italian who moved from Milan to Barcelona for a job in finance. He said he will only work for English and American companies where the results are what counts.

“Spain puts on a good show, but there is homophobia and machismo,” he said.

Rodrigo Araneda is president of ACATHI, an association aimed at immigration integration that he helped found shortly after he emigrated from Chile in 2002.

“The level of social freedom we have in Barcelona isn’t felt in Italy,” observed Araneda. “The fear of firebombs at discos just shouldn’t be happening in a civilized nation, a European leader.”

News of a firebomb attack in Rome last summer convinced Salzani he will not return to Italy any time soon.

“I’m amazed at what’s happening in my country. I wouldn’t feel comfortable there,” said Salzani. He prefers Spain. “I want to be in a country that is modern, not archaic.”

Spain has made a quantum leap from the celebration of its first Gay Pride act in Madrid a little over two decades ago. The couple hundred participants of that first event in 1977 took faith in a budding democracy to claim equal treatment in a country where only a few years before the Catholic Nationalism preached by General Franco’s dictatorship saw them put behind bars.

About three in four Spaniards now support LGTB rights, according to Alejandro Alder, the head of international relations for the State Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals. It’s enough for Spain to gain notoriety as a predominantly friendly place. Alder adds that his group and others from Spain have met with lawmakers in Latin American countries like Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, where affinity with Spain is paving the way for equality.

“Spain today is exporting rights,” Alder said. “We need to be proud of it.”