Spanish Lessons: How Did Spain, a Country with a Long Catholic Tradition, Manage to Implement Marriage Equality? A Year after Same-Sex Weddings Became Legal, an On-the-Ground Analysis of How It Happened-And What Americans Can Learn

Article excerpt

Last fall a Catholic priest invited me to my very first same-sex wedding. I was thrilled. The wedding was between an Episcopal deacon and his long-term boyfriend. The rites were Christian with the priest presiding. Sound unorthodox? What if I told you the priest was openly gay? And sexually active? And that he identifies as a bear?

[??]Hola y bienvenidos! to gay Spain, where the citizens have been struggling to reconcile their country's Christian underpinnings with a liberal attitude toward gay rights ever since same-sex marriage became legal over a year ago. On June 30, 2005, you were probably as surprised as I was when the Spanish government under President Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a Socialist, granted equal marriage rights to gays. After all, the country has a long Roman Catholic tradition, with 80% of its people at least nominally a Friend of Benedict, and homosexuality itself became legal only in 1978. And hello, Spanish Inquisition, anyone?

Yet somehow Spain beat the United States to the altar and allowed all its citizens to marry--which as of late 2006 included more than 4,000 gay couples. Nowadays marriage equality has dropped from the headlines (two thirds of voters supported it anyway). In the capital city of Madrid, one in 10 marriages are between members of the same sex. The city's mayor, a member of the right-wing People's Party, even performed the nuptials of one of his gay deputies.

Confusing? I certainly thought so. So in September I did what any young gay journalist with a temporary lease (and no romantic prospects) would do: I moved to Spain to figure it out.

On the surface Spain is exactly the country you expect it to be. The people have a strong cultural bond with Catholicism, and their festivals explode with as much color and vigor as ever. During Holy Week, men still parade down the streets in brilliantly colored robes and those tall slightly creepy fabric hoods. On feast days, spectacularly bejeweled icons of the Virgin

Mary are carried through the streets, and in Europe, Spain's celebrations before Lent are surpassed only by Italy's. During the Christmas season, as I am writing this story, Madrid's wide boulevards have turned into festivals of lights, mangers, and crushes of humanity.

But I learned that underneath this facade lies a much more complicated relationship between religion, politics, and society. All the color and ceremony is what some call "Catholicism of rhythm." That is, people celebrate because they always have, not out of a religious obligation. Since marriage between members of the same sex was legalized, Pope Benedict XVI has railed repeatedly against the Spanish government. Same-sex "pseudomarriage," based on "a love that is weak," is the "greatest threat ever" that the church has faced, he has said on various occasions. But his remarks fall largely on deaf ears. Spaniards remember all too well what happened the last time they allowed the Catholic Church to order them around.

Explaining how a mostly Christian nation was one of the first to bring gays into the family fold, many Spaniards gave me a history lesson about dictator Francisco Franco. He died over 30 years ago, but he remains a powerful, if silent, influence on the country today.

Spain festered under France, a fascist and friend to Hitler, for 36 years. After the brutal Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, he pulled the country together by force and intimidation. He called his system of government "National Catholicism" and repressed any behavior or actions that he and the church deemed aberrant, including a free press, sexual freedom, abortion, and divorce. It was a time of great difficulty for all but the most conservative citizens, and many injustices were inflicted on the helpless populace as the church stood by, aloof.

Then when Franco died in 1975 and King Juan Carlos ascended to power, transforming the country into a democracy, the writers of Spain's constitution went to great lengths to keep the church out. …