HATE CRIMES

Brutal assault in Barcelona raises concerns about growing homophobia

LGBTQ+ groups are reporting a rise in attacks as the far right makes new inroads in a polarized society

A demonstration against homophobia in Barcelona on June 5.
A demonstration against homophobia in Barcelona on June 5.Enric Fontcuberta / EFE

It’s just a few minutes past 10pm on May 29, a Saturday. The scene is Somorrostro beach in the Barceloneta neighborhood of Barcelona, where nightlife venues remain closed due to Covid-19 but the cosmopolitan vibe lives on. Two homosexual couples and a heterosexual couple meet and strike up a conversation as they sit in a circle on the sand. They laugh, drink and chat. Four individuals suddenly approach. “You fucking faggots!” shouts one of them. Another spits at one of the young men. “I’ll cut the throat of anyone who raises an eyebrow!” yells a third.

The threats are followed by a relentless series of punches and kicks. One of the attackers pushes the heterosexual couple aside so they can focus on the four gay men. Israel (not his real name) is knocked to the ground. He tries to get up, but receives a brutal kick in the mouth that leaves him semi-conscious on the sand. His jaw is broken and he has lost several teeth. The other three victims were luckier; despite their injuries, they did not require medical treatment.

The aggression in Somorrostro is one of the most serious attacks against members of the LGBTQ+ community in Barcelona in recent memory. There were two other incidents on the same day, though there is no connection between them. On the morning of June 5, a protest was held in the center of the Catalan capital against any act of hatred against the LGBTQ+ community. “We aren’t familiar with violence such as that of last Saturday in Somorrostro. It is a very serious crime that produced very serious injuries,” said Eugeni Rodríguez, president of Barcelona’s Observatory Against Homophobia (OCH).

We are living in an age when hatred is being cultivated by the far right and that message is being taken up by many young people with disastrous results
Manu Peinado, director of Plataforma LGBTIcat

The last assault of an equally savage nature took place in January 2019 when some youths beat up Diego Martos inside the Urquinaona metro station to screams of “You’re not a man, you’re a faggot!” Martos required six stitches and fled the city as soon as he had recovered.

Barcelona has become a place where homophobic attacks are no longer exceptional, and are even on the rise.

Manu Peinado, president of Plataforma LGBTIcat, an umbrella group in Catalonia, says that the growth of the far right in Europe has led to an increase in violence, and that Catalonia is no exception. “We are living in an age when hatred is being cultivated by the far right and that message is being taken up by many young people with disastrous results,” he says. Marc Serra, the city councilor in charge of citizens’ rights, explains that the rise in reports is also due to the fact that nowadays assaults on the community are recorded, something that did not happen a decade ago. “We have an intervention protocol for this type of crime,” he says. “The Prosecutor’s Office acts and the Mossos d’Esquadra [the Catalan police force] investigate. This makes the crimes more visible and more commonly reported than in other places where such incidents would be classified as a simple fight, without any appreciation of the homophobic angle.”

The latest report on hate crimes in Spain published by the Interior Ministry is from 2019. The document states that 278 such offenses committed on the basis of “sexual orientation and gender identity” were “reported and registered” throughout Spain that year. In 2019, the Barcelona Observatory Against Homophobia was aware of 160 homophobic acts throughout Catalonia, while in 2020 there were 189.

Map showing the number of homophobic assaults registered in Catalonia so far this year during a protest in Barcelona on June 5, 2021.
Map showing the number of homophobic assaults registered in Catalonia so far this year during a protest in Barcelona on June 5, 2021.Enric Fontcuberta / EFE

“The most common incidents involve teenagers who go out on weekends, run into a gay couple and insult them; neighborhood communities that make life impossible for a resident just because of their sexual orientation; bad practices in the workplace; and insults on social media, which are the great garbage dump of hatred,” says Rodríguez. So far in 2021, 80 LGBTQ+ individuals in Catalonia have been subjected to hate crimes in 77 registered incidents. As in previous years, only between 16% and 20% of these cases on average will result in a crime report, and very few will end in a conviction.

While there is no national observatory against homophobia, Madrid set up its own in 2016. Its director, Rubén López, says that in the Spanish capital there are between 270 and 300 incidents of this type every year. “What worries me about Barcelona is that there is evidence of a level of aggression there that we only experienced here when the Madrid observatory was first set up,” he says. “I think the community has a lot of visibility there, as is the case in Paris and Berlin, and that puts them in the crosshairs of those behind the violence.”

López notes that most of the attackers are under 35 years of age, both in Madrid and in Barcelona, and that they are people who have grown up at a time of equal rights in Spain. “I think the problem is that they see a homosexual and associate them with a left-wing political position,” he says. “With the rise of the far right, society is very polarized and that puts us in a compromised situation.”

Cristian Carrer is a social psychologist and technical coordinator at the OCH in Barcelona. He was one of the first people to assist the victims of the Somorrostro attack. “Israel is the one who has suffered the most serious consequences,” he says. “He is unable to go over what happened to him because he continually re-victimizes himself. He was assaulted because of his sexual orientation; they have destroyed his mouth. This week alone he has spent more than €500 on dentist bills, money he does not have. They have screwed up his life just for being gay.”

The injured man is of Colombian origin and lives with his partner in the outlying town of Terrassa. He is out of work and still does not know how he is going to finish paying for the reconstruction of his mouth. “Most victims suffer from post-traumatic stress,” adds Carrer. “Any noise, any person who doesn’t look familiar makes them edgy. They have difficulty sleeping; they think about what happened to them 24 hours a day. They avoid certain places and try to hide their sexual orientation for safety reasons.”

Nobody has identified the attackers. They did not use weapons, although one of them kept putting his hand in his pocket as though to take out a knife. One of the attackers lost a bag that is now in the hands of the Catalan police. “They are between 25 and 35 years old. They don’t follow far-right esthetics. The victims say they would be able to identify them. After the attack, they calmly walked away. The other groups who were present did nothing. Even when the victims came up to ask for help, one group told them to stay away because they didn’t want any trouble,” says the psychologist.

Rodríguez says that Spain needs to strengthen its policies against homophobia as the number of assaults and insults that go unreported is extremely high. “We have accepted that we can be insulted, harassed and discriminated against,” he says. “In Spain, if they call you a ‘fucking faggot’ it is not criminally punishable. Our community needs to be sure that our safety is guaranteed and that we can allow ourselves visibility on the street.”

The other two homophobic attacks that took place on May 29 in Barcelona are now in the hands of the regional police. One concerned a young man who was assaulted in the morning in the neighborhood of Gràcia simply because his attacker objected to his sexual orientation; the other involved a young man who was punched in the nose for the same reason that afternoon near the Auditori de Barcelona. These were unconnected incidents perpetrated by different assailants and did not require medical intervention. “The attackers need to know that there will be no impunity in this city for those who exercise hatred and intolerance,” says the councilor Marc Serra.

English version by Heather Galloway.

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