Fighting for the right to be different

Three generations of Spain’s LGBT community talk about the difficulties of coming out

During the 1980s and earlier, most gays and lesbians in Spain lied either to themselves or others about their sexual orientation. Some men became priests while many – both men and women – got married and had children. Some lived the lie until they died and others emerged from the closet in middle or old age.

Federico Armenteros (l) and Paco Tomás.
Federico Armenteros (l) and Paco Tomás.Claudio Álvarez (EL PAÍS)

Things have changed since then, and the younger generation does not have to deal with marginalization on anything like the same scale. EL PAÍS talked to three men from three generations. Their experiences are different, but they share the same goal: they want gays and lesbians of all ages to be proud to be different.

“My mother reported me to the police because I had escaped from home and because I was a ‘fag’,” recalls Federico Armenteros. That was in 1977 and he was 17 years old. He could have been prosecuted under the Vagrancy Act.

I will always, always be in favor of Gay Pride, but it can’t just be about business Paco Tomás

Forty years later, Federico helps elderly homosexuals. Rejected by their families, many feel they have to conceal their sexual orientation to be admitted to nursing homes. Others have reached old age and have never admitted who they really are.

Federico understands them because he also spent years in the closet. He became a priest. Then he left the Church, married and had a daughter. After that, he went into therapy. One day his daughter asked if he was gay. And he had the courage to admit that he was.

“The effect of the Vagrancy Act was that police weren’t necessary because you policed yourself,” he explains. “You repressed yourself.”

Paco Tomás nods his head in agreement. He was born eight years later. By then it was society that did the policing since the link between homosexuality and delinquency had been incorporated into the collective psyche.

Negative attitudes are very difficult to sweep aside because they have been around for centuries Paco Tomás

“Negative attitudes are very difficult to sweep aside because they have been around for centuries,” he says. “The idea that you had to watch out, that sexuality could be a bad thing and you could be led down the wrong path – it was something that was drummed into people. And it had nothing to do with any ideology.”

Paco broke out of the closet with an ax. Like Jack Nicholson, he jokes, because he knew it would be tough. A writer and scriptwriter, he now directs Wisteria Lane, the only LGTB program on national Spanish radio. He uses the show to promote the kind of role models he missed out on when he was young. “If I hadn’t seen [Socialist politician and activist] Pedro Zerolo or The Law of Desire by Pedro Almodóvar, or read books by [Eduardo] Mendicutti, I would never have had the courage,” he explains.

The younger generation has grown up with a different idea of homosexuality. Born in 1991, Javier Calvo acted on television, playing a gay character, which he says changed his life ­– and the lives of others like him. “Every day I got messages from people telling me that, thanks to my character, they had had the courage to come out of the closet.”

According to Federico, it wasn’t that there were no role models in his day, it was rather that the models were targets for hatred and ridicule. “In movies we were always portrayed as crazy,” he says. “I was never referred to as gay. I was called a fag. So that’s how I refer to myself. You have to turn it into something empowering.”

Federico is a social worker and his current goal is to set up an LGTB nursing home for senior citizens. “There are still people among the elderly who haven’t come out of the closet and can't come out because their self-esteem is so low. They think they have no rights,” he says.

Federico is a social worker and his current goal is to set up an LGTB nursing home for senior citizens

Meanwhile, Paco feels a debt of gratitude toward this group. “There wasn’t much they could do,” he says. “What can you do if you’re threatened with jail? But we have to thank them for everything, for what they lived through and what they witnessed. We have to listen to them.”

This is not something that always happens. In fact, Federico believes that, in general, they feel overlooked. “They have never been invited to participate,” he says. “The home of the LGTB community was not always [the Madrid neighborhood of] Chueca, it was Chamberí. That’s where all the elderly are now. They don’t like Gay Pride because they feel resentful and because Chueca wiped out their history. Of course, Chueca only wants the young and beautiful.”

According to Paco, it’s a matter of social justice – or the lack of it. “I understand their resentment,” he says. “When they were young and beautiful, the whole world was against them and they couldn’t enjoy it. Now they feel as though they have been robbed of their chance.”

Both Federico and Paco criticize the shifting parameters of diversity in Gay Pride. “Within a collective that struggles for diversity, they shouldn’t then discriminate against people who have small biceps or who are elderly or lesbian,” he says.

Both men believe room should be made for everyone and that the World Pride Madrid party shouldn’t eclipse the purpose of the event, which Federico believes has become too commercial. “It has to be commercial,” he says, “but there also has to be room for human and social values. The organizations coming up now have concrete goals that don’t include solidarity.”

Paco agrees. “I will always, always be in favor of Gay Pride, but it can’t just be about business. We need education and debate because without it Gay Pride is like a funfair. We shouldn’t forget the struggle it emerged from, and the suffering that brought it about,” he says.

“The pain, the pain,” says Federico who, for a moment, forgets to smile.

Pain, fear and recognition are three words that come up again and again. But diversity is the LGBT watchword. “It’s something that unites all the generations,” says Paco. “It doesn’t matter if you are 20, 50 or 70. When you realize you’re different, you want to be allowed to be different. And to be able to live with other people.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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