Focus

Spain and Portugal: from tyrants to toleration

05.06.12 @ 09:53

  1. By Philip Ebels

BRUSSELS - On a map of Europe where green is gay-friendly and red is not, an olive-coloured peninsula in the west brings a little variety to an otherwise yellowish south.

  • The Vasco de Gama bridge in Portugal (Photo: F H Mira)

Both Spain and Portugal, in a little over one generation, have gone from being among the most repressive to the most egalitarian societies for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bi- and transexual people] people.

Under the fascist dictatorships of Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal, homosexuality was forbidden. Gay people were reportedly imprisoned in large numbers. But soon after both regimes collapsed in the mid-1970s, the new democracies embarked on a legal overhaul.

Today, Spain and Portugal are among a handful of countries in the world that allow same-sex couples to marry, according to a recent study by Ilga-Europe, an organisation for LGBT rights and the creator of the so-called rainbow map.

Both have enshrined in their constitutions the prohibition of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation - Spain also on the grounds of gender identity - and have adopted laws for the legal recognition of gender change.

"We are at the beginning of a new stage now," says Paulo Corte Real from Familias Arco Iris, an LGBT rights group in Portugal.

"A lot of progress has been made. We are now investing more in raising awareness."

In 2009, attitudes in Portugal toward LGBT people were still less positive than the EU average, according to the latest Eurobarometer survey, but improving fast. In Spain, they were above average.

Gabriel Aranda from FELGTB, a federation of rights groups in Spain, says that the adoption of the marriage law in his country in 2005 - the second in the world after the Netherlands in 2001 - created "a domino effect" in the hispanuc world. Mexico and Argentina have adopted similar laws "and now they are talking about it in Chile."

It is not a coincidence, experts say, that among the most gay-friendly countries today are former authoritarian regimes which had close ties to the Catholic church, a source of antipathy toward gay rights.

"Wherever you have the biggest oppression you have the biggest resistance," says Renato Sabbadini, secretary-general of Ilga, a global LGBT rights organisation.

"Regardless of all the appeals any bishop or cardinal would make, people remember the role of the church during the dictatorship," he adds. "People have not forgotten about that."

"There is definitely a feeling of reparation," says Corte Real from Portugal. "A feeling of making up for whatever happened in the past."

Boris Dittrich, LGBT chief at Human Rights Watch, agrees.

"People distance themselves more easily from the church, because of what happened,” he says. "Nevertheless, I must say that I admire the politicians who stood their ground. The church waged a strong lobby, threatening with excommunication and everything."

In Spain, however, the battle is not over yet. Aranda says he fears the new conservative government might try to overturn the same-sex marriage law by changing the composition of the country’s constitutional court. After seven years, the court still has to decide on the constitutionality of the law.

It is unclear when it will. "But we hope it will before it changes," says Aranda. "We are waiting."