Civil Marriages in Spain

I am going to talk briefly about the most significant legal advance in the area of gay and lesbian rights in Spain: the inaccurately named ‘homosexual marriage law’.  Although popularly called this, in reality there is no marriage law for homosexuals, and there certainly isn’t a law for same-sex partners, as I have seen written somewhere else. The actual name for this law is the ‘Modification of the Civil Code regarding Marriage’ and what it does is simply modify the Civil Code, by extending the existing marriage laws to include same-sex partners, so that in Spain there is absolutely no legal distinction between gay, lesbian and heterosexual citizens. This means the same laws, the same institutions, and the same treatment for everyone by the state.

In this sense, it is one of the most advanced laws in the world, as it signifies total equality with no exclusions. It does not even exclude international adoption of children, as happened in Holland. This means that even though it is probable that some countries, China for example, or Romania, will want to break adoption agreements with Spain as a result of the modification of the Civil Code, the government decided to take the risk. The Spanish Government has decided that equality for all citizens is more important than to guarantee (for heterosexual couples) the possibility of international adoption. We can look for new countries to adopt from, such as Brazil or South Africa.

At present, many people look at Spain and ask themselves how we have been able to achieve this. How is it possible that Catholic, southern European Spain has achieved something which many European countries have been fighting for many more years than we have?  There are two reasons: the first is that I think that the activists have done a good job; the second does not really depend on us.

Regarding the second reason, which does not depend exclusively on us, we can say that the idea which the rest of Europe has of Spain seems very strange to us.  It is a false idea, a frozen image of a country which came out of a dictatorship 25 years ago. We must remember that in 1931 Spain was the most socially advanced country in Europe, with a constitution which guaranteed rights which some European countries only have now. Afterwards, the war against fascism, won in the rest of Europe, was lost in Spain and we suffered 40 years of dictatorship. When the dictatorship ended however, Spain was determined to reach the same levels as the rest of Europe, and did so very quickly. My country is largely unknown, and the image which outsiders have of it is distorted. For example, although it is commonly thought that religion is highly important and that we are often compared with Italy in this respect, surveys show that Spain is probably the most secular country in Europe and that religion plays little part in daily life.

And regarding homosexual marriages, the last survey showed that this law was supported by 68% of the population. Which goes to show – this is the real revolution, not just the law, but the fact that the majority of Spaniards support it. These surveys are linked to the work which we have been carrying out at the FELGT. The strategy has been thought out and planned for years, and has the following fundamental themes:

Political unity: all groups and associations are united by one organisation which serves as a political mouthpiece for unitary demands – the FELGT. In order to do this we all had to make compromises, as there were (and still are) a selection of groups with very different ideologies, different ways of working, etc. However, we have managed to concentrate on the things which unite us over those which divide us. We consist of groups from a variety of towns and cities, groups dedicated to AIDS, lesbian groups, groups of businesspeople and even sporting groups. We have many differences, but we focus on the things which unite us, and legal equality, above all, was a common objective for all of us. This was very important because we needed to speak to the politicians with one voice. If there are many different voices, politicians will always listen to the most moderate ones and will ignore those which they consider too radical. If there is a group which is in favour of the same-sex partnership law, the parties will choose it as a representative. No political party will risk a radical proposal if a more moderate one exists. For this reason, we commit ourselves to only one argument.

The same message send: with one simple theme – equality. Legal equality was represented by the marriage law. We had a political maxim: always ask for the maximum. If one asks for the maximum, there is always the opportunity to get the minimum or the average, but in the meantime, society will hear the word ‘marriage’. For the FELGT, any law which is different to those which apply to the rest of the population is discriminatory, be that good or bad. Because of this, we do not enter into debates on whether matrimony is a patriarchal or bourgeois institution, which from our point of view is misguided. We have chosen legal equality as our main objective and we have refused second rate laws. How will society accept that the objective is to be equal if we are accepting different laws?

When we voiced our demands, the most conservative sectors of society were immediately ready to concede a lot. A law for same-sex partners, for example, which would include everything except the right to be called a marriage. But we always said – and this is something which differentiates us from other countries – that for us, this fight was not strictly a question of rights. Rights are important – they radically change people’s lives – but our fight was much more than a fight to achieve rights to inheritances, pensions, etc. We believe that, in a given moment, this fight was won ideologically, not materially; since public opinion in Europe increasingly considers it unacceptable that one group of citizens should be denied rights which the rest may enjoy. We behaved as if the battle were already won, as if we were going to win anyway and would have to go even further. It became a kind of slogan; our rights as citizens, a fight for equality, and above all for dignity. A law which singles us out as different is not good enough – we prefer nothing at all.

Because of this, we stopped talking about gay and lesbian rights, and moved on to a new ideology of equality, human and citizens’ rights. We didn’t speak so much of marriage as of full citizens’ rights, and we built our argument around this. At the same time, it was an argument about dignity. It is, simply, the base on which democratic society is built. It is an argument which is directed much more towards basic democracy than to gay and lesbian rights.

Finally, the name had to be debated. They said that it was only a symbolic change, but if by symbolic they meant ‘unimportant’ why did so many of them take to the streets in one of the biggest demonstrations in a long time? If this was so unimportant, why were they so agitated? True, it was a symbolic change, but sometimes symbolic things are the most important ones. The battle for rights could have been won, but that for equality lost. Sometimes one can achieve the same rights but still be unequal.

What we were fighting for was legitimacy, nothing more and nothing less. This is what we were fighting for – and what they made very clear was that they were not as worried about our rights as about the use of the terms ‘family’ and ‘marriage’,  and who has the right to use them. Something other than marriage (even with the same rights) would have been harmful to us as it would have reinforced the myth that marriage is superior, and as a result, that heterosexuality is superior to homosexuality, meaning that society prefers the former. Spain has passed a law which makes homosexuality as legitimate as heterosexuality, equally as useful to society, and deserving the same protection.

We were working for long term results; we did not want quick gradual changes, and paradoxically, thanks to this, things have moved along rapidly. Evidently, this is not the solution for all groups in all countries, but we knew that gradual changes would delay the final result. We only spoke of marriage; we even refused to discuss the same-sex partnership law. We must be one of the few associations in the world which did not accept a same-sex partnership law when Aznar’s government offered it.

In addition to this, we think that politically speaking, marriage is easy to add to the political agenda – legislatively speaking, it is simple. The public understand, and the politicians understand. It is complicated to achieve, but very simple to explain. It is enough to speak about dignity and equality – everyone understands this.

Our method also consisted in working to change the traditional relationship of distrust towards political parties which social movements tend to have. This mistrust is justified, as political parties have a strong tendency to absorb associations; to pull them into their orbit of influence, and then to manipulate them. We chose to do the opposite – put our people inside the parties. We knew that in order to change the laws, we needed the politicians, and our strategy was to lobby from within the parties. Politicians are the ones who change the laws, and we have people – our people, members of the FELGT – in all the parties. Naturally, it is very difficult to organise a situation in which conservatives and left-wingers with very different social visions work side by side, but we made it possible by focussing on a legal objective which we all shared, that of marriage. In this way we have been able to work together from within the political parties with the result that our militants have been able to change their agendas. On the other hand, we have not allowed members of the parties to infiltrate our organisation bringing partisan proposals.

In order to do this, we had to put our internal ideological differences aside, and I am not only referring to political differences, but also to our own agendas. Should we accentuate or play down our differences? Should we be essentialists or constructionists, identitists, egalitarians, or communitarians?  Should we consider ourselves an ethnic minority or as if we were blue eyed? This was a success for the FELGT in both our political and ideological agendas: we decided to leave all other debates for later, and concentrate on the equality issue – much more comprehensible for everyone. The public and the politicians are not interested in whether we are communitarians, essentialists, biologicists or identitists. Within the FELGT, we could be all of these things but this is not the issue. Double militancy is possible. Because of this, we establish clear political, not ideological objectives, on which we can all agree. Important concessions have had to be made, but we have come to an amicable agreement. In other countries where this step has not been taken, these somewhat sterile ideological debates continue. We have been pragmatic, but at the same time we have dreamt of flying high… and we have flown. 

Club Commenwealth 7 de enero de 2008. San Francisco




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