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Portuguese attitudes towards homosexuality have traditionally been conservative and strongly influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Until quite recently most glbtq citizens chose to remain closeted, but in the last decade glbtq rights groups have made major legal and social advances.

In 2010, Portugal became the sixth European country to achieve marriage equality.

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Early Legal Codes

For much of its early history Portugal was a part of the same political entity as its neighbor on the Iberian Peninsula, Spain, and subject to the same laws. These included the Visigothic Code of 506 C. E., which imposed the death penalty for males convicted of sodomy. When Portugal became independent in 1128 it retained severe penalties for sodomy, including death, castration, banishment, and confiscation of property.

Under the legal codes promulgated by King Afonso IV in the fourteenth century individuals suspected of sodomy, unlike people suspected of breaking other laws, were forbidden from taking refuge in churches. In 1499 King Manuel specified that women taking part in same-sex sexual practices were also subject to punishment.

That such behavior was nevertheless occurring is made clear in medieval Portuguese troubadour poems, cantigas de escárnio e mal dizer (bawdy satirical "songs of mockery and scorn") and canções de amigo ("songs of the lover"), which contain references to same-sex attractions between both men and women, particularly members of the royal court, including the fourteenth-century king Pedro I.

The Inquisition

Homosexual conduct was not only penalized under Portuguese civil law but also under the rules of the Inquisition, which lasted from 1536 to 1821 in Portugal. Records of these proceedings are housed in the National Archives in Lisbon. Because the extant documentation is more extensive in Portugal than in other countries, it is possible to learn of same-sex sexual practices of the time, at least in the case of men.

Under the Inquisition investigations were generally initiated when one person denounced another. Cases involving the nefando pecado ("abominable sin") of sodomy accounted for only a small percentage of inquiries, the vast majority of which dealt with various forms of heresy and witchcraft.

Compared to other countries Portugal was considered relatively lenient in its treatment of people denounced for sodomy. Of the over five thousand people listed in the Cadernos de Nefando, the official lists of the accused, only 408 went to trial. Trial under the Inquisition generally guaranteed conviction, however. Thirty men were executed by burning, and hundreds of others had to march in auto da fé processions, after which they were tortured and/or exiled. Exceptions were often made for priests, a fairly large number of whom appear in the records. If convicted, they could be spared the public humiliation of the auto da fé and physical punishment and quietly sent into exile.

Not all of the men accused of sodomy were people who would identify as gay today. Some were impoverished men, usually young, trying to eke out a living in Lisbon by doing whatever jobs were available, including sex work. Others seem to have engaged in situational homosexuality. Since Portuguese families vigilantly guarded the virginity of unmarried women, some men had same-sex sexual encounters when they were young but no longer sought male partners after they married.

Inquisition records bring to light what Júlio Gomes describes, perhaps anachronistically, as "a rich and energetic gay subculture." They identify venues at which men who would now identify as gay could meet and also mention a drag dance group, Dança dos Fanchonos (fanchono being a slang term for a gay man), that provided entertainment in the early seventeenth century.

Also among the documents of the Inquisition are some of the earliest same-sex love letters known, a series of five written in 1664 by Francisco Correa Netto, a sacristan of the cathedral in Silves, to musical instrument-maker Manuel Viegas. Viegas, who was apparently attracted to both men and women, had jilted Correa Netto for a woman after a short affair and subsequently denounced him to the Inquisition. Fortunately, Correa Netto did not stand trial because the code of the Inquisition required that two persons denounce a suspect, and only Viegas came forward.

One point that emerges from the Inquisition records is that the passive partner in relations between men was particularly stigmatized. Accused men frequently admitted to other same-sex behaviors in the hope of avoiding a sodomy charge. This attitude is consistent with the machismo often encountered in Spanish and Latin American cultures.

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