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social sciences

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Throughout its history, Spain has undergone a variety of transformations regarding the treatment of gay, lesbian, and people. From a particularly strong application of laws in the early modern period to a liberalization of sexual mores since the 1980s, Spanish society has displayed an ambivalent and complex relationship to sexual minorities. The recent accrual of rights by glbtq people in Spain signals a new and welcome development.

Early Hostility

Spain's medieval Visigothic code was among the first in Europe to criminalize homosexual behavior between men. It decreed castration for those found guilty of the offense. Mired in a conception of sexual sin as crime, sodomy laws in Spain targeted any practices deemed unnatural.

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Thus, not only male homosexual behavior, but also heterosexual anal sex and bestiality fell under the purview of sodomy laws. Lesbian sexuality was legally considered sodomy, and subject to prosecution, only when it involved the use of a phallic instrument.

By the sixteenth century, royal codes decreed death by burning for sodomites, a sentence considered fitting given the association of the crime with the fiery demise of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Because sodomy constituted a mixed crime, various jurisdictions punished it. We thus find municipal courts acting against it in Seville and Málaga, while the royal court serving the city of Madrid also prosecuted men for sodomy.

Chronicles of the time often attest to the severity and virulence with which authorities punished homosexual behavior, particularly between men. Seventy-one men were burned for sodomy in Seville between 1567 and 1616, according to a Jesuit chronicler. Travelers also reported public burnings for this crime in Madrid during the seventeenth century.

However, lest we construct the prosecution of sodomy as an unrelenting and virulent repression, some qualifying facts should be provided. In Aragon, where the Inquisition enjoyed special jurisdiction over sodomy, fewer than twelve percent of men tried suffered death at the stake. Moreover, no executions were conducted after the middle of the seventeenth century. Inquisitors did not wish to publicize the crime--and thus offend sensibilities--by creating a public spectacle.

By the eighteenth century, prosecution for sodomy thinned out, with only a few notorious cases meriting official attention. This decline in prosecutions for sodomy, seen throughout Europe, can be attributed to changing notions of civil society and the desire to prevent public knowledge of the sexual act.

The Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

By the nineteenth century, Spanish criminal codes simply omitted sodomy as a specific crime between consenting persons, unless conducted with a minor or involving the use of force. This momentous legal change persisted even through numerous revisions of the criminal code into the twentieth century.

Despite this apparent laxity however, strong intolerance toward glbtq people persisted, particularly at the hands of ultra-catholic nationalist groups. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), for example, the poet Federico García Lorca was executed by Nationalist forces for being gay, among other things.

With the advent of General Franco's dictatorship, sexual minorities suffered oppression at the hands of the state. Although sodomy was not re-criminalized, both the police and judges had at their disposal various legal tools by which they could concentrate their repression of glbtq people and their activities.

Laws forbidding the publication of information dangerous to the public good, the congregation of persons contrary to public morality, and actions that resulted in public scandal were used to intimidate, harass, and arrest gay men and lesbians, as well as transgendered persons.

Penal camps for homosexuals were established in Madrid in the 1960s. The "Law of Social Hazard" provided for a three-year prison sentence for those accused of homosexual activities.

The Advent of Democracy

Only after the death of Franco and the advent of democracy did the situation for sexual minorities improve in Spain. In the 1980s Spain witnessed a sudden liberalization of sexual mores and the explosive growth of a gay and lesbian community, particularly in urban centers.

Today, cities such as Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia have thriving gay communities, replete with the same opportunities and activities available in their North American counterparts. A number of gay and lesbian artists, writers, and filmmakers have flourished in Spain's new liberal climate.

Among the most prominent gay and lesbian organizations are Colectivo de Gays y Lesbianas de Madrid, Coordinadora Gay-Lesbiana, and Casal Lambda.

Gay pride marches and rallies are held annually in such cities as Madrid and Barcelona, and Barcelona hosts an international gay and lesbian film festival.

The Persistence of Mediterranean Homosexuality

Spanish gay communities, however, have grown in the midst of sexual systems that privilege hyper-masculinity and penetrative sexuality. Thus, in the early 1980s, many gay men reflected the amorous behavior exhibited for centuries in Mediterranean societies. Mediterranean homosexuality is characterized by a sharp dichotomy between active and passive partners, with only the passive partner in sexual relations ascribed a homosexual identity and thus stigmatized.

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Top: Spain and neighboring countries in 2004 (Canary Islands not shown).
Above: A sculpture of renowned writer Federico García Lorca in Madrid.

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