Background: This is a historical overview of the history of lesbians in Mérida as I know it. The problem with as I know it is there likely is loads more available that I don’t know because I have limited time, and use secondary and tertiary sources. These are always evolving but it is the history as I know it now, and was compiled as part of the Extremadura history travel guide I am writing. The Extremadura general history is now up to 18 pages while this is five. Next up in terms of bigger histories for the region is Badajoz, and that’s followed by Cáceres. Hoping to finish the region by the end of March.
Early details about lesbian history in the city are lacking, with other cities like Badajoz, Cáceres and Llerena and appearing to play a larger role in understanding and being the center of lesbian life in Extremadura. Much of the subsequent lesbian history in the city is not an independent history but one twinned with gay men or with bisexual and transsexual women.
While lesbians were, like documented elsewhere in Spain and Extremadura specifically, likely always in Mérida, the documented history of lesbians in the city starts in the 1926 before disappearing and restarting in the 1990s.
1926 was the year that Margarita Xirgu, Federico García Lorca’s muse, visited Badajoz in 1926, visiting the city to participate in a performance. As she was in the area, she decided to also visit Mérida. Walking through the city, she stumbled upon the Roman theater and then dreamed of doing a performance in the open at that theater. She was not the first woman to have such a dream, with María Guerrero having already tried and failed to do much the same thing. Xirgu’s initial attempts were rebuffed. Her second attempt was ultimately successful as explained to the curator of the theater that she would not bring any sets or electricity to the site, using only what was there as a sign of respect for the site.
The premiere of Unamuno’s version of Seneca’s Medea at the theater took place on 18 June 1933, with Xirgu playing Medea i Borràs. The play was attended by a garrison from Badajoz, architecture students from Madrid, the President of the Republic, some of his ministers including the Minister of Public Instruction, the Mayor of Madrid and the Italian Ambassador. Following the performance, Margarita Xirgu and Enric Borràs were named adopted daughter and son of the city by the town hall. Xirgu’s efforts were successful, attracting an audience of 3,000 people and launching the Festival Internacional de Teatro Clásico de Mérida.
Margarita Xirgu was a circle of influential lesbians, known as the Círculo Sáfico de Madrid, who were highly active in during the dictatorship of Primo de Rivera and the Second Republic. While members came from several different parts of Spain and would engage in activities around Spain, Xirgu was the only one who spent notable time in Extremadura and in Mérida in particular. The preceding generation of lesbian artists, the hermandad lírica, who were based in Extremadura, were also based elsewhere and not affiliated with the city. By the end of Xirgu’s story in Spain, the country was in the Civil War and the Franco period disappeared most lesbian culture across the whole of Spain. By its end, lesbian history would no longer be a individual stories of women who happened to be lesbians, but collective stories of women who shared in common their same-sex attraction with that written documentation of a collective history finally emerging in the 1990s. At that point, there were few explicitly lesbian or gay places in the city as most lesbians and gays continued to be heavily closeted as a result of societal attitudes and fears of being out, losing their jobs and being rejected by their families. One of the few gay places, that was occasionally tolerant of lesbians, was the Athos Club. It was a place to meet other people like themselves while maintaining a certain degree of discretion.
Homosexual rights activism began to get underway in the whole of Extremadura by 1995, with Badajoz based De Par en Par being founded that year. Consejero de Bienestar Social de la Junta Guillermo Fernandez Vara became the first government representative to formally talk to the group, meeting with the group in his office in Mérida later that year.
It was around this same time that a collective lesbian history started that the town also saw a push towards civil unions and marriage equality, initially pushed by outsiders from Madrid and impacting the city as it was and is the regional capital. Elena de León as president of CRECUL and others from Partido Comunista de España (PCE), and Área de Libertad Afectivo-sexual de Izquierda Unida (ALEAS) presented draft legislation to the Congreso de Diputados and to regional legislature the Proposal for Legal Equality of Domestic Partners with the right to joint adoption, including the right to be foster parents in legislation that was presented in 1996 by the Coalición Izquierda Unida. They also presented draft legislation law on legal equality of de facto couples regardless of their sexual orientation. The Asamblea de Extremadura approved the Registro de Parejas de Hecho de Extremadura in 1998. It provided no real rights, with such benefits not coming until 2003 with the passage of ley 5/2003, de 20 de marzo, de Parejas de Hecho de la Comunidad Autónoma de Extremadura which established civil unions in the region. The first draft of the proposed Ley de Parejas de Hecho de Extremadura in 2001 was rejected by the gay and lesbian activist community because it did not allow the possibility of homosexual couples adopting. The draft did allow for same-sex couples to be temporary foster parents though. Activists were helped by the fact that PSOE governed in Extremadura uninterrupted from 1983 until 2011 despite the lack of a formally federated party in the region at the start of that period. Around the same time that civil union legislation finally passed in the Asamblea in 2003, PSOE Extremadura created an LGBT working group. Marriage equality would come to the whole of Spain on 3 July 2005. The first year that same-sex marriage was legal, Mérida’s Registro Civil performed two same-sex weddings, though there is no data to say the sex of the couples involved and historically, gay men across Spain have been more likely to marry than lesbians because of great financial freedom.
Two years later, in 1998, Fundación Triángulo, founded a year earlier in Cáceres, successfully lobbied the Asamblea de Extremadura to monitor the historical memory in the region, specifically in regard to maintaining historical files related to the Ley de Peligrosidad Social. This amended the historical memory law to specifically include those records, which were being destroyed in some other regions in Spain.
Lesbian activities in the city continued to be not done by lesbians but instead something that impacted lesbians being done by politicians. The Asamblea de Extremadura in 2006 performed the first institutional act by regional government in Spain to condemn homophobia and transphobia. This would then be repeated annually on 17 May, the día internacional contra la homofobia y la transfobia. This is in contrast to some regions where the act would be done in conjunction with Orgullo festivities. The I Pleno escolar contra el bulling por LGBTIfobia was celebrated by the Asamblea de Extremadura in 2016. The initiative was given an award by the European Parliament for its innovative nature.
Lesbian based activism in the city independent of men finally started in 2008. Extremadura Entiende was founded that in Mérida as an association for lesbians, transpeople and bisexual women in Extremadura to give LGBT women their own space. While being transwomen accepting and queer theory espousing, the organization has tended to be dominated by lesbians and had a hard time attracting transwomen to their ranks. They were part of Spanish fourth-wave feminism. Sisi Cáceres Rojo was the association’s president in 2019, having been first elected in 2015. Pilar Milanés Milanés was the president in 2020. At the time, most of the members were white and either lesbian or bisexual, with few transwomen members. They had been working to try to change that for a few years In 2019, the association was looking to expand and add a physical presence in Cáceres and eventually did so, while also closing its space in Merida. The group had engaged in programming in secondary schools to try to combat hatred against LGBT people. They had also become a member of FELGTB. The group had worked with Asamblea Feminista de Cáceres since at least 2015.
Lesbian activism in the city also became more visible in 2008. Silvia Tostado and Ana Paredes were coordinators in Foro Extremeño por la Diversidad Afectivo Sexual in 2008, and helped organize the Orgullo celebration in Badajoz, coordinating efforts in Cáceres and Mérida along the theme of lesbian visibility. In a press conference on 26 June 2008 in Mérida, the women talked about the gynecology protocols and need to address training for health professionals when dealing with lesbian women. They highlighted that there was a need to remove barriers to accessing assisted reproductive services in public health and advocated for legalizing the Ropa method in public health. They also advocated for improved abortion rights.
Extremadura Amable, a project by Fundación Triángulo Extremadura and Mérida based Turismo de Extremadura, began in 2010 to promote the region as an LGBT friendly tourist destination.
Lesbian activism and visibility in Mérida then went quiet in the city for a few years even as it increased in places like Badajoz, Caceres and Don Benito. This activism would re-emerge in 2015.
Fundación Triángulo and Extremadura Entiende held a press conference in June 2015 in Mérida to ask the government to develop a framework to fight LGBTphobia. The Ley 12/2015 de igualdad social de lesbianas, gais, bisexuales, transexuales, transgénero e intersexuales, y de políticas públicas contra la discriminación por orientación sexual e identidad de género en la Comunidad Autónoma de Extremadura was passed later that year by the Asamblea de Extremadura.
The annual caravana de mujeres, a movement started around 1990 intended to bring women to more rural parts of Spain to find male partners to help keep rural parts of Spain populated, was being criticized by the 2010s across Spain. In 2015, one such Caravan was scheduled to leave from Madrid on 18 April, taking 55 single women for the price of €50 including transport, lunch, dinner and a trip to a discoteca and at Hotel Romero de Mérida. The trip was criticized by a number of groups in Extremadura, including Instituto de la Mujer de Extremadura (IMEX), Asociación Malvaluna and Fundación Triángulo.
Orgullo 2015 Extremadura in Mérida had the motto “Por la igualdad real ya”. It was organized by Extremadura Entiende. The poster for the event featured Pedro Zerolo who had died not long before. Partido Popular’s municipal group in Mérida requested that a rainbow pedestrian crossing be removed in 2015. They cited security reasons for the need for its removal. The town hall had installed it with the approval of the recently invested PSOE led city government as part of Orgullo celebrations that year.
Extremadura Entiende organized Jornadas Estatales de Educación in Mérida in 2016. Instituto de la Mujer de Extremadura (IMEX) hosted an International Lesbian Visibility Day event in 2016. A presentation was given by Mujer de Extremadura director Elisa Barrientos and Extremadura Entiende president Sisi Cáceres Rojo ahead of a planned jornada associated with the day in Casar de Cáceres the following day. In 2017, at the request of Extremadura Entiende, Instituto de la Mujer de Extremadura starts institutionally celebrating International Lesbian Visibility Day in the region. Organizations like Podemos Mérida began to give more attention to Lesbian Visibility Day, created in 2008, on their social media accounts by 2016, tweeting and posting to Facebook about the need for more visibility for lesbians. These organizations would repeat their social media efforts on lesbian visibility day in 2017.
In mid-June 2017, the monument Los colores de Mérida was inaugurated in the city in Parque de las VII Sillas. A few days later, the monument was defaced in a homophobic attack that involved hammers and a radial saw. The attack was condemned by Extremadura Entiende and Fundación Triángulo Extremadura. Mérida Mayor Antonio R. Osuna called for a demonstration at the Plaza de la Diversidad to stop homophobia on 21 June 2017 in response to the attack.
At the end of 2017, Mérida hosted the VI Encuentro Estatal de Familias de Lesbianas, Gais, Bisexuales y Transexuales con hijas e hijos. The conference was organized by the Familias LGBTI group in Fundación Triángulo.
IMEX celebrated International Lesbian Visibility Day in 2018 on 26 April with participation by the Consejo Extremeño de Participación de las Mujeres in an event organized by Extremadura Entiende. IMEX viewed supporting the day as no different than support 8 de Marzo events or 25 de Noviembre events. The region was the first to celebrate the day via an act.
Under the slogan Transformando Extremadura, the first manifestación LGBTI was held in Extremadura in 2018 in Mérida. It had the highest turnout of any Orgullo celebration held in the region’s history. The following year, Merida hosted Orgullo festivities where there was only one event on the program specific to a class in the LGTB collective, and that was about or for transpeople. This was despite the fact that a predominantly lesbian group was one of the key organizers of the event. Orgullo was held as a demonstration for the second time in 2019 and had representatives from Plena inclusión Extremadura. Over 100 members from the group, representing people with intellectual disabilities, were part of Orgullo and were present at the joint reading of the Orgullo manifesto by Sara Alegre and Juan Pedro Sánchez in Plaza de España.
Red extremeña de Pueblos contra la homofobia y la transfobia celebreated their fifth anniversary with a meeting in Mérida in May 2019.
In May 2019, the Tribunal Económico Administrativo de Extremadura (TAE) accepted the appeal of lesbian mother in her ability to receive a maternity deduction as a worker after having been earlier denied because she was not the birth mother. She had appealed to the body after first being denied by the Delegación de la Agencia Tributaria in Mérida. The woman’s successful appeal was the first of its kind in the region, though similar successful appeals had previously happened in Catalonia, Andalucía and Valencia. Two other cases involving lesbian were being examined in Extremadura at the same time, all in Mérida, with one woman who had initially received the benefit being forced to repay it. Activists were happy about the outcome of the appeal because there were no exceptions in the law saying that the mother had to be the birthing mother to qualify. The legal requirements to apply were only that one needed to be woman, a worker and have a child under three years of age. The libro de familia makes no distinction as to who is the birthing mother and who is the other mother. One of the women affected by this decision was María Moruno. Her lawyers debated seeking damages from the tax agency for their discriminatory action.
The Junta de Extremadura spokesperson and consejera de Igualdad Isabel Gil Rosiña met with a delegation from in Mérida in February 2020 representing violence against lesbians, bisexual women and transwomen in the Colombian Caribbean, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua. The delegation included tax advisor of the Office for the Integration and Articulation of the Gender, Childhood and Adolescence Approach of Colombia, Elisabeth Chaverra, and with the director of the Caribbean organization Affirmative, Wilson Castaneda. The meeting was also attended by Fundación Triángulo President Silvia Tostado. The group discussed the results from a €389000 project funded by Agencia Extremeña de Cooperación Internacional al Desarrollo (AEXCID) named Enterezas that looked at violence against lesbians, bisexual and transwomen in Colombia, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua which had gotten underway in January 2019 and created two jobs in Extremadura.
Between 1 January and 1 May 2020, there were seven LGBTI-phobic attacks, most being homophobic attacks, reported to the Mérida based Oficina de Atención a Víctimas del Servicio Plural, of which only one was denounced to the police. Two of the cases involved a transwoman and a third involved a bisexual man. In some cases, people feared going to the police because they did not believe the police would take their complaint seriously or they feared that reporting an attack to the police would result in additional harassment, especially on social media. While attacks against lesbians have been reported in other cities, there is little historical reporting suggesting comparable attacks on lesbians in Mérida.
Lesbian Visibility Day continued to be referenced in 2020 and 2021 by various Mérida based organizations, including Agencia EFE Extremadura, Izquierda Unida Extremadura, Izquierda Unida Mérida and CCOO de Extremadura.