Spain’s gay marriage ruling through the eyes of a seasoned campaigner
The country’s Constitutional Court has approved a 2005 same-sex marriage law. But as gay rights campaigner Mili Hernández explains, Spanish society moved on long before its politicians and courts.
By Guy Hedgecoe
Several conclusions could be drawn from the recent ruling by Spain’s Constitutional Court to reject a seven-year-old appeal against the country’s same-sex marriage law of 2005.
Perhaps the most obvious is that the Spanish justice system is slow. For many Spaniards, especially the more than 20,000 gay couples who have got married under the legislation, this was an eagerly awaited ruling. Some even feared they would be “de-married” if the appeal, lodged by the Partido Popular (PP), was upheld. Given the importance of this case, a seven-year delay was both baffling and inexcusable.
But also, this ruling reflected how Spain has changed over the last decade. For most Spaniards, rolling back the gay marriage law is neither necessary nor desirable, an attitude reflected by the eight-votes-to-three ruling in the court (although senior figures in the Catholic Church are among those who have attacked the decision). Even the PP has understood this change, albeit belatedly. It has distanced itself from the appeal it filed rather in the same way that it distanced itself from its appeal against the Catalan statute reform, in both cases because it feared being seen as intolerant and extremist.
This would explain why the PP has seemed to soften its position against gay marriage since presenting the appeal. In the last couple of years, Mariano Rajoy and his party have insisted their objection to the reform lies in its wording, rather than its spirit. In fact, some figures within the party itself have voiced their own opposition to the party’s position.
Many married gays expected the Constitutional Court to reject the PP’s appeal. But they are still relieved at the decision. Mili Hernández owns what was Spain’s first gay bookshop, in Madrid’s Chueca district, and she has been a front-line campaigner for gay and lesbian rights throughout democracy.
“I’m pleased that all this has come to an end,” she told Iberosphere. “But I was already sure of the result. Society just didn’t support the appeal.”
Hernández’s own story reflects the development of gay rights in Spain over the last three decades.
As a young woman who was struggling to understand her sexuality, she left Spain in the early eighties and went to live in New York and then London. She returned to Madrid in the early nineties, and was encouraged by how much it had changed after a decade of democratic government. She then founded the bookshop Berkana.
Hernández has since become one of the country’s most prominent gay figures. Her bookshop led to the founding of a gay and lesbian publishing house, Egales. She has also been a spokesperson for Madrid’s main gay collective and also deeply involved in the capital’s Gay Pride event. Married since 2005, four years ago Tiempo magazine listed her as one of Spain’s 20 most influential homosexual figures.
But it wasn’t until 2010 that Hernández arrived in the public consciousness for many Spaniards, due to a chance encounter with Queen Sofía at the Madrid book fair. Shortly beforehand, a book about the queen had cited her making apparently homophobic comments in which she attacked the Gay Pride event and the same-sex marriage law.
As the monarch, apparently unwittingly, stopped at the Berkana gay literature stall, Hernández took the opportunity to upbraid the queen and present her with a gift in the form of a history of gay culture in Spain called De Sodoma a Chueca (from Sodom to Chueca).
Hernández now laughs about such incidents, but she is deadly earnest about the importance of her community’s campaign for rights over the years. The PP’s appeal, she says, was a “disgrace”.
“As a Spaniard, I would have died of shame if the court had ruled against the law,” she says.
The court’s decision does indeed bring to an end a long and strange chapter in Spanish politics and social rights. But though Hernández warns that homophobia –institutionalised and otherwise – is still common in Spain, she says the main battle was won before the recent ruling.
“Our greatest victory, the most important thing, has been to explain to Spanish society who we gays and lesbians are,” she says.
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