Second Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War (1931 – 1939)

Preface: I am in the process of trying to rewrite the preface historical material for the travel guides, and split it into a separate book. At that point, I want to then go back and do a much better job at doing the travel guide part and history of some of the specific parts of Madrid/Spain as per the original intent of the website. The history part just got overwhelming and hugely disorganized. Doing this requires combing a 189 page document with a 169 page document with a fair bit of overlapping text and information between them. This will be a work in progress, with that work in progress posted as blog posts. 189 pages is now down 144 pages. This section is particularly depressing, but likely not depressing enough as there isn’t enough documentary evidence on the lives of everyday lesbians that we get starting in the 1970s.

Second Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War (1931 – 1939)

The Second Spanish Republic formally came into existence via proclamation on 14 April 1931 after the military dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera was overthrown on 28 January 1930, and the  Pact of San Sebastián signed on 17 August 1930 allowed a transition from monarchy to democracy.  Municipal elections took place two days before the proclamation, with Republican forces sweeping into office across the country and forcing the Rey Alfonso XIII into exile on 14 April. The rest of the year would include the writing of constitution and elections in December of 1931.

The Second Republic created an opening for Spanish women, with laws changing to give women more rights, including the right to run for political office, to vote and to get a divorce.  Despite these legal and political liberalizations, Spanish society remained deeply patriarchal and deeply misogynistic.  Equality under the law did not mean equality across society, especially with extreme opposition from Spain’s fascist elements who saw such liberalizations as an attack on the very fabric of the nation.

The Second Republic represented theoretically a transgressive era for Spanish lesbians.  For the first time, feminists could be public across society in their beliefs and women, including lesbians, were more willing to assert their sexual freedom.  In practice, this proved to be less true.  Unlike other European countries of the same period including Germany, no effort was made by the government or civic organizations to combat homophobia.  Culturally, many still also considered homosexuality and lesbianism to be a disease that needed to be combatted.  Lesbians were also at risk of gender violence, sexual assault and rape as men still sought to impose gender norms on women across society.

An open lesbian culture began to develop for the first time in Spanish history during the early days of the Second Republic.  Though smaller and more associated with feminism, this nascent culture sat alongside a similar culture that was emerging for gay men.  It included its share of romantic intrigues. María de Maeztu had an intense interest in Victoria Ocampo and was jealous of Victoria Kent’s closeness to her in the early 1930s.

The Second Republic period saw the emergence for the first time of a number of lesbian writers and a lesbian literary scene, representing an important transition from earlier periods where depictions of lesbian life were almost uniformly written by men or women in monastic life.  These writers included Carmen Conde, Victorina Durán, Margarita Xirgu, Ana María Sagi, Irene Polo and Lucía Sánchez Saornil.  Polo and Durán were the only ones who were relatively public with their sexuality during this time though. Sánchez Saornil wrote sapphic poetry, but often in highly coded ways so she could find a publisher to sell her work to. Some of this lesbian literary production included homoerotic literature, with much of it linked to leftist writings and its often associated feminist and free love movements.

Residencia de Señoritas continued to play an important role in nurturing Spanish female feminists and lesbians.  In 1931, its lesbians residents included María de Maeztu, Victoria Kent and Victoria Ocampo, allowing these women to have a safe and unique space to discuss their radical beliefs.  These included prison reform, for which Kent would later go to become the first woman General Director of Prisons in Spain and the highest woman office holder in the country, and the concept of free love.

Despite all these changes in culture and society at the time, many lesbians could not be out of the closet and being called a lesbian was still considered a grave insult.  The accusation of being a homosexual had become weaponized politically, for both men and women.

On 13 April 1931, the Penal Code of 1928, with its problematic 601, 613 and 616 articles, was done away with as the Second Republic formally came into being, reintroducing the Penal Code of 1870 as the new law of the land as the new law of the land in 1932.  This one made no mention of sodomy or homosexuality as an aggravating offense, except in the case of men serving in the army.  The changes were largely a result of reforms pushed through by Congreso de Diputados Radical Socialist Party member Victoria Kent and PSOE member Luis Jiménez de Asúa.  While homosexuality and sodomy were no longer criminal or civil offenses, other changes pushed by Jiménez de Asúa would prove problematic for Spanish homosexuals.  This included the introduction of estado peligroso into Spanish criminal law for the first time.  This legal concept allowed the state to proactively intervene to prevent dangerous situations from occurring in the future. Homosexuals also had to fear the legal concept of defensa social, which allowed state intervention in private non-criminal behavior if such behavior was considered dangerous and something from which society needed protecting.

The Ley de Vagos y Maleantes formally removed homosexuality as a crime from the books in 1933, except among members of the military.  Beggars, ruffians, pimps and prostitutes were still considered criminals.  The law was passed 4 August 1933, being approved unanimously in the PSOE and Communist dominated Congreso de Diputados.

While there was an improved legal situation for homosexuals under the law by 1934, it was not comparable to the improvement of rights that women afforded under the law, both civil and criminal.  It would not bring major legal advances like adoption by same-sex couples or marriage equality.  Still, these small advances represented a big step forward for Spain in this period.

Lucía Sánchez Saornil worked for a telephone company from 1916 to 1931. She was fired from her job in 1931 as a result of her union activities. Her job, working at a telephone company, was one of the three jobs that endowed women, and lesbians in particular, with a certain level of freedom; the other two were nobility and teaching.

Puñal de claveles is a novella by Carmen de Burgos first published in 1931 in Madrid. The story is an optimistic one paying homage to the author’s native Andalucía. It would be the inspiration, along with a crime that took place in 1928, for another famous homosexual’s work, Federico García Lorca’s Bodas de sangre. Unlike Burgos’ work, his story is depressing. The book then disappeared from publishing history for a very long time, as de Burgos, like other lesbian authors, was written out of history in Francoist Spain.

Later that year, Carmen de Burgos wrote Quiero vivir mi vida. The book borrowed heavily from the ideas of medicalization of lesbianism espoused by Doctor Gregorio Marañón. The main character, Isabel, is an intersexed lesbian with interests in what were then considered manly pursuits including hunting and fishing and a dislike of feminine pursuits such as playing with dolls, sewing and activities in the home. de Burgos’s own lesbianism did not prevent her from depicting lesbians in a damaging light to the broader public in her own writing.

Catalan stage actress Margarita Xirgu was well known within the theater community for being an out lesbian in the Second Republic period, and was connected to Spain’s most famous gay man Federico García Lorca, appearing in several of his plays including Yerma, Blood Wedding, and Doña Rosita.  Right-wing supporters attended the 1934 Madrid premiere of Lorca’s play Yerma in which Xirgu starred.  Sitting in the upper gallery, they repeatedly interrupted the show to accuse her of being a lesbian and queer.  Sensing the emerging political danger, she left Spain in January 1936 for a tour of the Americas. She would never return to Spain, as shortly thereafter the Spanish Civil War started. Initially, she planned to travel with poet and playwright Federico García Lorca but he decided to stay in Spain and accompany her later. Instead, she was accompanied by fellow Catalan lesbian and journalist Irene Polo.

The lesbian themed movie Muchachas de uniforme [1]was released in 1931, and enjoyed by members of the Círculo Sáfico by 1934 when it debuted in Madrid. The German film was directed by Leontine Sagan based on a book by Christa Winsloe. It introduced lesbianism to the masses in Spain as it was likely the first lesbian themed movie in the world. Victorina Durán, a regular movie goer, saw the movie and noted it in her writings.

Círculo Sáfico de Madrid held regular meetings. The hidden nature of the meetings and the group allowed for inner transformation of its members, and a safe place where they could explore these feelings. For some members, this also meant their ideologies, identities and inclinations also changed.

Since a meeting of lesbians was viewed as taboo, actual meetings of the group worked through an open secret of when and where they met. By operating in this way, they were able to gain support from both men and women in Madrid society. For this reason, the group did not have a permanent location. Instead, they met at various places in Madrid and in Paris. One meeting place was the Bar Dublin; another was Café Roma; a third was the salon of the Teatro Español. Others included the El Ateneo and the Café Granja El Henar. Because meetings were often at cafes, part of other social gatherings or in private homes, it put many of the members into literary environments and events exploring new artistic movements. This sometimes put them at conflict with men who did not appreciate these women encroaching on their intellectual spaces. Only El Ateneo and Café Granja El Henar explicitly allowed women into these intellectual circles; the rest barred women so they had to sneak in. It also meant that a lot of meetings in Madrid were required to be at private houses. Gabriela Mistral hosted a meeting in 1935. Unlike men, they did hold formal tertulias as their network was more informal. Women in the group found freedom for their activities behind closed doors. Meetings often took place twice a week, with Thursday evenings being a fixed date but where the location would often change.

Setting up and inviting people to a meeting is discussed in Acropolis. Women were invited to join after others established an intimate bond with them to such a degree that it was safe for them to inquire about their sexual identity. Some were identified for potential membership because of their bad reputation, which often could be code for being a lesbian.

Members of the group sometimes met in Paris, gathering at Rue Monsieur Le Prince in the city and visiting places like the Casino de Paris and Folies Bergère. Paris was an ideal location as many were keen to travel, to get out of what they saw was a culturally backward country. France, and Paris specifically, allowed them to escape the oppressive conservative environment that was Madrid. Members attending Paris meetings included Margarita Ruiz de Lihory y Resino and Victorina Durán. One meeting took place in 1924. It was in Paris that Spanish lesbians would also come into contact with other lesbians and feminists like Djuna Barnes, Natalie Clifford Barney, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Janet Flanner and Sylvia Beach; they would bring these ideas back to Madrid and other organizations they belonged to in the city. They were often held on an annual basis.

In 1935, at the age of 25, Irene Polo wrote a series of six articles titled Postals d’Eivissa from Ibiza in the Canary Islands for the Catalan language newspaper L’Instant that earned her national acclaim.

Agustina González López was born in 1891 in Placeta de Cauchiles, Granada. A writer, avant-garde artist, Spanish politician and lesbian, she studied astronomy and medicine at Real Colegio de Santo Domingo.  To more fully participate in Spanish society, she sometimes dressed as a man.  Around 1916, she became acquainted with the poet Federico García Lorca and would later serve as a major inspiration for La zapatera prodigiosa and other works by Lorca. In the same period, she also declared herself a feminist and a Catholic, claiming she dressed like a man because it was one way for women to express their freedom. She later went on to create the political party Partido Entero-humanista, running for office in 1933.  Following the coup by Francoist forces in 1936, Gonzalez was imprisoned in Viznar, Granada where she was eventually shot alongside two other women.  Her last act was considered blasphemous, looking heavenwards and asking for mercy from the stars.  Three years after her death, Francoist courts ruled López was a freemason and leftist sympathizer, and required her family pay the state 8,000 pesetas in compensation for her crime.

The Spanish Civil War started on 17 July 1936 after the Unión Militar Española launched a coup d’état in North African Melilla and other cities in Spain.  The military instigators believed they would have a swift victory, but failed to take into account a number of factors such as the Second Republic retaining control of the Spanish Navy, the ability of anarchists and sindicalists to organize, working class sentiment, and the people’s willingness to take to the streets to support their democratically elected government.  Consequently, the war would drag on until 1 April 1939.

Lesbian experiences during the Spanish Civil War have largely been lost, as lesbian history in this period has generally been coupled alongside that that of heterosexual women without any context to explain differences in experiences.  For lesbians in large Republican controlled cities, their experiences were often marginally better than in rural areas controlled by either side or in fascist controlled areas.  Homosexuals in general behind fascists lines were forced into hiding, especially if they were out about their sexuality, as local authorities often tried to hunt them down.  For lesbians, and women in general, the best method to protect oneself behind fascist lines was to comply with hegemonic conservative Spanish gender norms.

At the start of the Civil War, a number of famous lesbians were in Madrid, and would remain so for its initial period. Among them was Elena Fortún, alone as her husband had gone to Barcelona to enlist and her son was based in Albacete. The publishing of her stories had been interrupted by the war, but Fortún continued to publish as the war got further underway. Soon this proved untenable as she witnessed the horrors of war on both children and animals, writing articles in support of people aiding in their general welfare. A number of notable lesbians made their way to Barcelona and became involved with Mujeres Libres. Among them were Consuelo Berges, Rosa Chacel and Carmen Conde.

In the early days of the Spanish Civil War, there did not appear to be any plans by Francoists to mass incarcerate or execute homosexuals.  Only later, as the war proceeded did these efforts appear to become semi-regularized as fascist forces intentionally made explicit connections between homosexuals and the left.  Because of their much greater visibility and because lesbians could much more easily pass as heterosexuals, the brunt of this persecution happened to male homosexuals.

Valencia briefly served as the capital of Republican Spain during the Civil War starting around 1936 and 1937. As a result, a number of lesbians from other parts of the country made their way to the city for their own safety.

One of the earliest cities to be taken by Francoist forces was Huelva, captured on 29 July 1936, with full control of the province taking place by September 1936.  The city would soon be home to one of the most repressive and brutal prison for gay men and lesbian women during the Civil War, Prisión Provincial de Huelva.  Both men and women were tortured and harshly punished.  A few women identified as lesbians and sent to Prisión Provincial de Huelva were not lesbians, but mistaken as such because they had defined gendered social conventions around what it meant to be a woman in that period.  Despite the violence going on around them, most lesbians and other women did not perpetuate this cycle while behind bars.

Because their sexual orientation marked them as different, lesbians could be particularly vulnerable in prisons, where they often became blackmail targets for prison guards.  Women in general, and often lesbians in particular, were also rarely classified as political prisoners; instead they were treated as non-political criminals.  In some of these situations, both male and female guards would take advantage of lesbian women to force them to have sex with them or to rape them. Non-consensual sex was always a problem in the general, non-political prisoner population.  These problems would continue into the Franco period.

Mujeres Libres was a feminist anarchist women’s organization founded in 1936 by Lucía Sánchez Saornil, Mercedes Comaposada, and Amparo Poch y Gascón after these women had been repeatedly locked out of the major, male dominated anarchist organizations of the day including Confederación Nacional del Trabajo (CNT). Lesbian Lucía Sánchez Saornil had been active in the broader activist movement since 1919 when she had begun publishing articles both on anarchism and in works of fictions exploring lesbian themes as part of the Utraist literary movement.  Deeply critical of many of her feminist contemporaries, during the Second Republic, she accused them of supporting the existing patriarchal structures.  Sánchez Saornil brought her ideas to the Mujeres Libres, which, while well known internationally for its opposition to prostitution, also was at the vanguard of advocating for women’s sexual freedom domestically, both in terms of sexual activities and in terms of freeing them from restrictive gender norms, issues which were particularly acute for Spanish lesbians in the Second Spanish Republic and in the Spanish Civil War. Sánchez Saornil also played an important role in trying to change the conversation about what it meant to be a woman, by trying to change the narrative that being a woman meant being a mother; this ideological position stemmed less from her anarchist thinking and more from her own experiences as a lesbian.

Agustina González López was executed in a ravine in Viznar in early October 1936 along with two other women. The reason for her execution was rumored to be because she was alleged to be a lesbian or whore. Her body was never identified and no one made an effort to claim it.

Victoria Kent was involved in the early part of the Spanish Civil War efforts on behalf of the Republican government, working to procure supplies for the military in Guadarrama.  Later, she assisted in efforts to get Republican refugee children out of the country, and was subsequently appointed First Secretary at the Republican Embassy in Paris in recognition of her efforts.

In the final days of the Spanish Civil War, Barcelona briefly became the capital of Republican Spain during a period when the Republican government was barely functioning and had lost almost all of its territory. As Republicans and their allies were squeezed out of the rest of Spain, a number of lesbians made their way to the city in their efforts to transit out of the country if they had not been able to do so earlier during the war via Valencia.

Franco’s forces managed to pull off a quick campaign in Catalonia in early 1939 that saw them take Tarragona on 15 January, Barcelona on 26 January and Girona on 2 February.  As a result of these victories, the governments of the United Kingdom and France gave official recognition to the Franco regime.  Several parts of Republican Spain continued to hold out, including Madrid, which finally fell on 31 March.  The following day, Franco went on national radio to announce that the last of the Republican forces had surrendered.


[1] English title: Girls in Uniform.
German title: Mädchen in Uniform.

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