The abridged lesbian perspective history of Pride in Madrid

Over in the United States, the raid on the Stonewall Inn in New York City took place in the early hours of 28 June 1969. What followed was six days of riots and clashes with the police, largely led by gay men and lesbians, with some participation by transsexuals.[1]

            Pride marches began in the United States the following year, 28 June 1970 in New York City on the first anniversary of the Stonewall uprising as a way to “…commemorate the Christopher Street Uprisings of last summer in which thousands of homosexuals went to the streets to demonstrate against centuries of abuse….from government hostility to employment and housing discrimination, Mafia control of Gay bars, and anti-Homosexual laws”.[2]

            The march came about as a result NYU Student Homophile League lesbian activist Ellen Brody and Homophile Youth Movement’s Craig Rodwell putting together a proposal together with E.R.C.H.O. in November 1969 at their conference. The 13 homosexual rights organizations attending passed a resolution in support of this calling for a nationally annual demonstration, which they called Christopher Street Liberation Day. E.R.C.H.O. had already been holding annual marches on 4 July from 1965 to 1969 which they called Reminder Day Pickets. Without the involvement of Brody and Rodwell pushing for national, annual demonstrations, it is possible the Stonewall riots likely would have been forgotten or viewed as a historical artifact instead of a living thing in the way that similar riots involving other marginalized groups in the United States have been forgotten except for occasional mentions in history books and solemn ceremonies like the Chicago 1919 race riot.[3]

            Over in Spain when those events were occurring, Francisco Franco was still Spain’s leader was laying the groundwork for what would happen following is death and the transition to the country’s next phase. This included appointing Juan Carlos de Borbón the Príncipe de España on 22 July 1969, making him the heir apparent after first having sworn allegiance to Franco’s Movimiento Nacional. From that point, Juan Carlos became the apparent heir apparent, who served as the acting head of state when Franco was temporary incapacitated in 1974 and 1975. Franco resigned as Prime Minister in 1973 and named Navy Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco as his successor. This appointment was short lived as Carrero Blanco was assassinated by an ETA bomb on 29 December 1973. Then Madrid mayor and Minister of the Interior Carlos Arias Navarro was appointed to replace him, who then faced a series of crisis that seriously challenged the regime for the first time. Full controls of government were given to Juan Carlos on 30 October 1975. Franco died on 20 November 1975, setting into action the Spanish democratic transition, which lasted until around 1982 by which point Spain had a new constitution, a functional multiparty government, a military coup had been successfully put down and a faction of ETA had agreed to put down arms.

It is in the final years of Franco’s life that any sort of homosexual activism begins to take place. At the time, the word gay rarely ever appeared, let alone the word lesbian, because homosexuality was still viewed as representing a “social danger” to society. When there was any respectful discussion of gays and lesbians, the word homosexual was used instead. At the same time, the Franco regime had severely limited the ability of people to legally protest, or to even legally gather without state approval.

            Before Madrid had its first officially sanctioned and permitted pride march, militant lesbian feminists and some male homosexuals had marched a few times during the early 1970s. They did this in Madrid on Calle Preciados on 28 June in honor of the Stonewall uprising and Christopher Street Liberation Day, with the numbers of marchers ranging between fifty, sixty, seventy and eighty. Among the lesbians to attend these early marches during the dictatorship was Vito Virtudes. These marches attracted some media attention, but it was generally very sparse and not very positive. The participants took great risks to do so and homosexuality was a criminal offense and lesbians could find themselves sent off to correctional institutions. Many of these lesbians were at the bottom of society and had nowhere else to go, a situation that gay men did not face in the same way. The marches were mostly organized at the dark and underground lesbian bar, Berliner. Marginalization by society gave these women the courage and the ability to speak out as they had nothing else to lose. The Franco regime had done all it could to make these women invisible, first because of their sex and second because of their same-sex attraction. When they became visible, they received sex specific punishment, different than their gay male counterparts. Gay men were repressed using legislative and penitentiary tools while lesbians were repressed using cultural, religious, psychiatric and medical institutions to try to domesticate them.[4]

            Stonewall and the Christopher Street Liberation Day’s influence in Spain is in this period was not a result of specific American activists coming over from the United States to Spain to do activism or invitations from Americans to Spaniards to come to the United States and learn about activism that they could take back to their local communities. Rather, the influence of the Stonewall uprising was about creating a shared global history of the broader LGTB community. This shared history serves as a touchstone, a reference point and a moment from which others could draw inspiration. It also served to show that change can come from activism, that the community can grow, can out of the closet and change the social, cultural and political climate for members of the LGTB community.

Pride could literally come out of the closet, and there was the potentially to seek a permit to hold a march that had been previously unavailable to lesbians and gays who had faced state erasure and persecution because of Ley sobre peligrosidad y rehabilitación social. 

            These early Democratic Transition activists faced a series of challenges. Early media discussion in the very immediate post-Franco period still saw homosexuality as a medical or psychological issue. If the media viewed homosexuals as having any rights limited in their reporting as a result of the current laws, it was the basic human rights of gays and lesbians. The civil, social and political rights of homosexuals were not considered. The Spanish media also failed to make any distinction between sexual orientation and sexual politics. Lesbians were assimilated into reporting on feminism, and all feminists were suspected of being lesbians.  This climate created a situation where media coverage of early Pride events was limited and biased. More reliable sources are firsthand accounts, which are harder to come by. [5]

            The history of the dictatorship meant that gays and lesbians were not treated the same by the state, and each group faced sex specific persecution.  Early lesbian activists often focused more on state persecution of them as women before their persecution as homosexuals; the state tended to institutionalize women and use extra-judicial means to punish women for their same-sex attraction or hide prosecution of female homosexuality by charging lesbians for crimes like prostitution instead.  In contrast, gay men and to a different degree transsexuals were specifically and intentionally prosecuted using the 1970 Law of Dangerousness and Social Rehabilitation, even after Franco’s death. One of the early homosexual political demands in the transition period was to repeal the 1970 Law of Dangerousness and Social Rehabilitation, an effort largely driven by homosexual men which increased their visibility in the media.[6]

            In Madrid of the mid and late-1970s, homosexual rights activists were not congregated around any specific barrio; instead, they were dispersed across different parts of the city. Unlike Barcelona where homosexual rights activism had been going on underground for some time, both gays and lesbians in Madrid lacked a cohesive and unifying organizing body. Those that were around and ready to mobilize in the immediate post Franco period came from diverse backgrounds, including the lesbians who had marched in the time of Franco, communist militants, feminist militants who were willing to engage in double militancy despite pressure not to, and gay men and transsexuals who wanted the repeal of LPRS so they could go back to their bars and clubs without fear of criminal prosecution.

            Early Pride organizers in the city also needed to contend with a government that opposed their political demands while still lacking the legal right to march and self-organize.  It is unclear if Madrid’s lesbians marched in 1976, but what is clear is that both Barcelona and Madrid and had Pride marches in 1977 and that both marches were mixed, with lesbians and gays participating.  The major difference, and why Barcelona is counted has having the first Pride march in Spain, is the march in Barcelona took place a few days earlier and was permitted while the march in Madrid was not.  Lesbians who would had participated in past marches and would go on the become leading figures in the lesbian and homosexual rights movement took part in the 1977, 1978, 1979 and 1980 marches.  Many of these lesbians were, because of the nature of Francoist persecution, radical feminists. Permitting continued to be an issue in these early years, with the 1978 march permitted but the 1979 and 1980 marches not permitted.  The issue would then be resolved, and Pride in Madrid would be permitted every year until 2020 when it was cancelled because of the pandemic.

            The 1970 Ley sobre peligrosidad y rehabilitación social was officially amended on 26 December 1978 with the phrase “those who perform acts of homosexuality” being removed. The change was published in the BOE on 11 January 1979. This change was one of the biggest demands of primarily male homosexuals, transsexuals and transvestites at Pride to date, resulting in about half splitting off, going back to their bars and clubs as they did not see the need for further activism. What remained at Pride were a few male homosexuals and a large number of female ones, with the male led homosexual group convening Pride a few more times before the lesbians, namely Colectivo de Feministas Lesbianas de Madrid (CFLM), started convening Pride.

            These lesbians brought with them feminist demands, brought feminist and neighborhood women’s groups to Pride. This mirrored lesbian abandonment of mixed spaces in general in favor of feminist ones.  These lesbians also took Pride away from the center of Madrid and out to Vallecas where they thought it would be easier to secure a permit.  They sometimes brought in other co-conveners like those fighting the battle against AIDS, a group which wasn’t explicitly homosexual, but generally operated Pride as a radical feminist lesbian protest with participation rates between fifty and two hundred. Transsexuals did not attend Pride during most of the 1980s and 1990s, owing to a number of factors including lack of political will and political aims, because they preferred their clubs, because they disagreed with lesbians on issues like the legality of prostitution, and because the marches were radical feminist and generally trans-exclusionary as a result.

            The situation began to change by mid-1986, with CFLM organizing Pride with the newly founded centric homosexual rights organization, COGAM, in 1987.  The following year, gays and lesbians from around Spain started meeting on an annual basis to try to establish a common national theme and motto for Pride marches to better fight for gay and lesbian rights around the country.  These meetings, which continue today, would eventually be taken over by FELGT after its founding in the early 1990s.

            CFLM continued to convene Pride in the first few years of the 1990s, doing so alongside COGAM. As the decade progressed, CFLM disappeared from Pride and the city, with its militants joining an intermediary before finally fully integrating into a women’s section of COGAM. For its part, COGAM had lesbian members that came from outside traditional feminist circles during this period but the bulk of them were largely relegated to the background. COGAM’s role would begin to massively increase in the early 1990s.

            At the same time that gay men made the return to Pride, Chueca began to play an increasingly important role in homosexual life in the city as a result of a few gay and lesbian activists seeing the barrio as a potential place to start a community because of how cheap it was and how welcoming it was to misfits and outcasts. With marches now taking place in Centro near Sol and Gran Vía and Chueca having become established as a place for lesbian, gay and transsexual nightlife, people started slipping into Chueca after Pride marches where they flooded local bars and clubs. By the mid-1990s, businesspeople in Chueca started organizing festive events to coincide with the march. [7]

            The 1990s would bring a cultural shift to Pride events around Spain, as many started to become commercialized, an occurrence that further accelerated into the 2000s. This was not done without criticism, especially from lesbians and feminists who saw that nature of that commercialism meaning segments of the LGTB community like lesbians would be excluded because Pink Capitalism almost exclusively focused on gay men.

            Commercialization of Pride helped to further the rift between two major segments in Spain and Madrid’s lesbian communities. Some lesbians became even more autonomous as a political group in the 1990s; lesbian departure from Pride was accelerated as mainstream feminists left lesbians behind, wanting to explicitly focus on the needs and concerns of heterosexual women without the need to challenge problematic gender norms that lesbians found repressive. Some lesbians responded to the commercialization and increasingly male focused Pride by aligning themselves more closely with gay men, leaving some of their lesbian sisters in the cold politically and socially and setting the scene for queer feminism which would cause ruptures in lesbian circles starting in the 2000s. This re-alignment with gay men instead of feminists was the reactivation in part of the historical alliance dating back to the earliest part of the democratic transition; it was in part a result of changes in how the homosexual community had shifted its approach to the AIDS epidemic during the early 1990s.[8]

            The commercialization of Pride, the move towards the Anglo-Saxon Pride model, the intentional efforts to include transsexuals and the shift towards queer feminism by some lesbians, along with adopting a pro-sex, anti-prohibitionist viewpoint meant by the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was a difficult period for lesbian bolerra militants. These challenges were made even more difficult by the fact that state feminism also started to make the shift from traditional feminism to queer feminism, leaving a segment of lesbians feeling bereft of state support and institutional feminism to address their specific needs as women and homosexuals.

            The last major gay and lesbians activists who believed “Pride as protest” and did so within the context of Madrid’s Pride celebration were Lesbianas Sin Dudas (LSD) and La Radical Gai; both groups disappeared by the late 1990s, coinciding with the demise of intentional political activism absent political, cultural and commercial support.

            Pride underwent a monumental shift in 1995, akin to the legalization of homosexuality in December 1978, for what it did to participation.  COGAM decided moved the march away from the Stonewall date of 28 June to a weekend in order to try to increase participation by hosting it on a weekend in late June or early July, scheduling it for Saturday 24 June in 1995. COGAM also asked for a change in route, which the government accepted. This route with a starting point at Puerta de Alcalá and ending point at Puerta del Sol would be the route used each year until 2003. The route important because the streets representing symbolically important space in the city. For the first time, organizers made a point of trying to make all three members of the collective visible, gays, lesbians and transsexuals. Sound speakers and commercial sponsors were also introduced as part of the goal to expand the appeal of Pride beyond homosexual rights and feminist militants.  Participation sored compared to previous years and would continue to grow in the next decade.  By 1999, Pride had become carnival like.

            A new and different lesbian culture was also starting to spring up around Pride in the early and mid-2000s, almost completely historically separated from the culture even fifteen years prior. It saw some lesbians organizing drag king workshops and producing lesbian centric porn in Spain and around Pride. By 2006, these lesbians were fully integrated into Madrid and Spain’s Pink Market. Some lesbian drag kings were critical of the commercialization of Pride in the city so integrated into Madrid Critical Pride events in instead.

            Acceptance of homosexuality had become something that was less political risky by the early 2000s.  No longer did political parties and unions say they supported the fight for homosexual rights but then did little; instead, institutions, political parties, unions and other groups were beginning to put out their own statements in relation to Pride. At the same time, and while the fight for marriage was ongoing, the focus of Pride had shifted with many of these statements not referring to individual members but importing Anglo-Saxon culture and treating       LGTB as a unified collective and often only mentioning one group, trans, as individuals with specific political demands. By the mid- 2000s, homosexual demands for marriage were often taking place outside the Pride framework or alongside transsexual demands related to legal recognition or access to sex affirming surgeries.

            LGTB and institutional inclusion of transpeople in discussions around homosexual rights in the mid-2000s were coupled with the emergence of a third wave of activists that saw Pride  open up more to trans people and bisexuals.  This was exemplified in the 2005 Pride slogan, “¡Avanzamos! Ahora los/las transexuales”[9].

            By the late 2000s, there were some cracks in the LGBT community inside Spain that resulted in a number of people leaving Pride permanently as it no longer served a political or social purpose for them as gay men or lesbians. The overly commercial Madrid event had lost its authenticity as a place for making political demands and building gay and lesbian identities, and had instead become about queer consumerism, where identities were obtained through buying clothing, food and drink, through listening to music, and through travel. The queer identity had become aspirational phrases, mounted on keychains and other knickknacks. The consumerism meant for some gays and lesbians, their only perceived value inside this ecosystem was as a class of consumers. These cracks would not disappear, and would re-emerge in the late 2010s and early 2020s as an LGB separatist movement, or in more simply in lesbians and homosexuals more broadly failing to politically engage in relevant issues to their communities. The commercialization of Pride in Madrid would give rise to Alternative Pride and Critical Pride events in the city, organized by a variety of groups included Indignado, Toma el Orgullo and Orgullo Crítico in the period between 2008 and 2017.

            These internal divisions about the nature of Pride could also cause issues for people looking at Madrid Pride from the outside. The dual nature of protest and party found in Madrid created a tension between that is often difficult for outsiders to understand, especially as the media focus tended to more on the party aspect over the protest aspect. This confusion would continue into the 2020s.

            Madrid’s march gained international attention when it hosted EuroPride in 2007, and again in 2017 when it hosted World Pride.  Both events increased the commercialized nature of pride as organizers sought to give a good return on investment to corporate sponsors, government supporters and the hospitality industry. 

            Critical Pride, which started out as lesbian friendly in the late 2000s, would become increasingly hostile towards lesbians as time progressed, with one organizer by 2021 condemning homosexuals as being privileged, and using the word TERFs to insult lesbians and gays who were same-sex attracted.  This turn towards transfeminism on the part of Critical Pride organizers mirrored the 15-M and other anti-capitalist movements in the city that took place in the late 2000s and early 2010s.

            Lesbian visibility or the lack of it had become an issue that Pride organizers in Madrid and elsewhere in Spain still had not quite figured out how to address by the late 2000s. Organizers created a slogan and a motto dedicated to lesbians in 2008 as part of their efforts, but they worried deeply about offending other members of the collective like gay men and transsexuals, so they intentionally removed lesbian symbols to make it more palatable, sent men out to discuss lesbian issues with the government, and created a separate lesbian programming track through a third party company instead of integrating lesbian programming throughout, something the organizers did for gay men by putting male specific events front and center including AIDS and HIV awareness campaigns.

            Commercialized attempts to do a large slate of lesbian programming, including partying, clubs, musical acts, showings of movies, had started in the late 2000s in response to those efforts.  They had their boom year in 2013, with the biggest slate of programming before all but disappearing by 2015.  Meanwhile, sex clubs and other similar bars and adult venues ran events that were published in the official program.

            The COVID-19 pandemic brought Pride to a halt in 2020, the first year a march wasn’t held since 1971 and the first time a march was not permitted since 1980.  Everything moved online.  Pride celebrations that took place virtually in Madrid and elsewhere in Spain had a motto and theme that specifically made special reference to the rights of transwomen. It also grouped lesbians, bisexual women and transwomen together at a time when there was a huge, open visible split within the LGTB community as to whether or not this should be happening.  The only major benefit to this version of Pride was it allowed fertility companies to explicitly market themselves to a lesbian population in the context of Pride, but that only lasted for the confinement Pride before they disappeared from official programming. Post-pandemic Pride returned to its commercial nature, and Critical Pride events became even more intolerant and hostile towards lesbians.  The pattern that had started by the late 2000s was locked in, and does not appear like it will disappear any time soon.

[1] (Metcalf, 2020; Álvarez, 2020)

[2] (E.R.C.H.O., 1970)

[3] (Metcalf, 2020)

[4] (Carretero, 2014; Batlle Cardona, 2020; Medialdea, 2018)

[5] (Osborne, 2006)

[6] (Osborne, 2006)

[7] (Santaeulalia, 2011)

[8] (Villena Espinosa, 2020)

[9] English: We move forward! Now the transsexuals!

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