SEXUALITY IN SPAIN: IDA
By Aaron Pupo
The long and detailed history of Spain’s sexual culture is deeply tied to the practices and history of its main religion, Catholicism.
Catholicism allows only two sexual behaviors within its doctrine: marital procreative sex, and chastity. This strict understanding of sexual behavior permeates Spanish culture and accounts for the relative lack of interest in research into Spain’s sexual history until very recently, following the LGBT Rights Movements of the late 20th century.
This absence of research regarding nonnormative sexualities is a common theme all over the globe, but in Spain this absence was colored by the close link that existed between Catholicism and heterosexuality in Modern and Early Modern Spain.
This link, which classified same-sex sexual relations not only as socially deviant but also as religiously corrupt, resulted in an equal and opposite link between homosexuality and rebellious ideas. Anyone in Spain who was skeptical of the Church had reasons to reflect on homosexuality, since the church was so vehemently against it.
Male homosexuality (as is the case in most gay histories, female homosexuality was largely ignored, and little is known about its history) thus gained a sort of mystique, and this led to the development of complex, if closeted, queer communities and practices in Golden Age and Early Modern Spain.
History of the History
Knowledge regarding homosexuality and homosexual practices entered Spanish culture through educated artists, poets, and aristocrats who had access to and studied ancient histories, and were rebellious regarding the Catholic Church’s authority. Spanish poetry, for example, has a long history of homoerotic over and undertones, and often art became a covert way to explore these ideas.
Often, the homosexuality under discussion was mainly between adult men and young boys due to the heavy influence of the Ancient Greek practice of pederasty; the generally accepted romantic homosexual relationships between older and younger men.
In these cases, the adult male (the erastes) would partner with a younger male (the eromenos), usually in his teens. The older man would take the position of a romantic mentor, bringing the young man into manhood while also engaging in a homoerotic relationship. While a purely carnal, sexual relationship was frowned upon, and pederasty still involved sexual activity between the erastes and the eromenos, and took the form of a kind of erotic friendship and mentorship.
Arabic and Hebrew Texts also provided access to materials in which boy-love was presented openly and sometimes positively.
Golden Age and Modern Spain
Close friendship, non-sexual partnership, and even love between men was not understood as “homosexual” (a term developed only recently, in the 19th century) or as a cause for persecution in Early Modern Spain. We have no close equivalent for this kind of male-male relationship in contemporary Western culture. In fact, the view that deep friendship between men was nobler and more rewarding than deep friendship between men and women was widely held. This is not to say that their understanding of male friendship was more advanced; any progressive reading of this practice is tempered by the fact that it had a lot to do with sexism, and a disregard for the idea that women counted as whole beings that were equal to men. Under this paradigm, it was only logical that men would seek deep connections with their equals (each other) and not necessarily with their marital partners.
The Golden Age author Miguel de Cervantes actually suffered criticism from contemporaries like Lope de Vega for his mysterious love life. There are records of his being accused of “dirty” sexual practices in Algiers. Cervantes reportedly did not favor homosexuality, but his interest in intense, lifelong friendship between men is evident in his books.
There is also evidence to suggest that homosexual prostitution was a widely held practice in sixteenth century Spain, and usually went unreported to the authorities. A network of gambling houses and inns played host to famed writers of the time, like Cervantes, as well as married men and the rich. Still, at the time, public identification of homosexuality (at that point labeled as “a deviant sexual act”) led to execution. These practices followed soldiers and other travelers to the west indies.
One hypothesis in my research states that sexual freedom motivated a large number of emigrants to the New World.
Spain today is one of the most open countries in terms of its attitude towards the LGBT community, in part due to a liberal backlash following the end of the Franco regime in 1975—within only a year of his death, Spain saw legal action to decriminalize homosexual acts.
The general culture in Spain is one of discretion, with a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. There is simply not much desire within Spanish culture for people to live outwardly or publicly as homosexual. An example of this exists in the fact that there is no real Spanish translation for the concept of “coming out or “outing” someone.
Ironically, despite the right wing antisexual movement in the United States—for which Spain has no strong equivalent—the U.S. is still the center of the world’s gay culture movement.
This is not to say that a Pride movement does not exist; Madrid Pride, celebrated every year on the weekend after June 28th in Chueca, Madrid, is a massive festival and an example of a more out and proud part of the gay community there. But it is also an example of dialogue between America and Spain, a Vuelta.
As far as Ida is concerned, the main left over in the Americas from Spanish colonization regarding sexuality is a conservative view of it that is tied to the widespread adherence to Catholicism, which was spread during the conquest of the new world.
The epicenter of the current gay rights movement, and of the study of queer theory, begins historically in 1969 with the Stonewall riots, and spread subsequently throughout Europe and Latin America over the course of the following decades.
Spanish Writers on Gay and Lesbian Themes. A Bio-Critical Sourcebook, ed. David William Foster (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999), pp. 1-21.
Ardila, Ruben. “History of LGBT Issues and Psychology in Colombia.” Psychology of Sexualities Review, vol. 6, no. 1, Winter2015, pp.74-80.
Isabella Marie Garcia