Friday, 20 September 2013

Hispanic Europe

Where else could I start looking at the lgbt heritage of the Hispanic world than in Spain and Portugal. In this little I prefer to use the word Iberia for the area rather than Hispania, the Roman provincial name, because the latter name puts one country in the mind more than the other and both have made significant contributions around the world.

There is very little definitive references in historical records to show if there was any kind of homosexual culture or activity in pre-Roman times in Iberia, so the best place to start would be to look at the most famous Iberian in the Roman Empire – the emperor himself, Hadrian.

There is some disagreement among some historians as to Hadrian’s actual birthplace. Some say he was actually born in Rome, but the most widely held belief is that he was born in what is now Santiponce near Seville. His parents were both Iberian-born. Either way, he spent much of his childhood there.

The last decade or so has seen a resurgence of interest in Hadrian, and a big part of this has been an acknowledgement of his sexuality. Historians no longer skirt around the issue of his relationship with Antinous. Hadrian was held in such high esteem after his death that the many statues of Antinous that Hadrian erected have survived to this day. You can’t say that about the lovers of many other emperors.

When the Roman empire became Christian, Christian doctrine affected attitudes to all sexual activity and sexual roles in society. In 305 the Synod of Elvira in Granada declared that communion would be refused to all pederasts, men who had sex with boys and young teenagers, implying that pederasty was more acceptable than sodomy to which physical punishments applied. Today it’s the pederasts, or paedophiles, who are punished in Europe.

In 410 the Visigoths attacked Rome and it’s empire (in the west) finally crumbled. The Visigoths were Arian by religion, a sect of Christianity that had been condemned as heresy. Iberia and southeasten France became a Visigoth kingdom. During this era punishment for sodomy was enshrined in several laws, punishment which varied from castration to exile, or even death by fire.

I has been suggested that it was the severity of the Visigoth punishment that made it hard, too puritanical, for Iberians to handle. As a result, some historians say, Iberians were more receptive to invasion from Islamic north Africa just to rid themselves of the Visigoths. Even though the Koran of Islam prohibits homosexuality the African Muslims didn’t always enforce it. The influence of Islamic Africa on Iberia will be dealt with in more detail in my next Hispanic Heritage article.

There are another culture in Iberia before the Muslims arrived – the Jews. As in most of Europe Jews were often seen as a bad influence on society and were blamed for many atrocities that were obvious lies, like child sacrifice and ritual blood-letting. In the introduction to “Spanish Writers on Gay and Lesbian Themes” (1999) David Eisenberg writes: “Homosexuality was honoured among Andalusian Jews to a degree scarcely conceivable today…” The poetry of some influential scholar-rabbis contains many examples of male love. Perhaps, as with the Muslim empire and the Romans, it was the geographical remoteness of Iberia, on the edge of the known world, far from the regions of  Roman, Arab and Jewish cultural origin, which helped to distance the Iberians from the threat of official punishment.

The expulsion of the Jews from Iberia came at the same time as the Spanish monarchs were sending Columbus off in search of the Indies. It was also the time of the Spanish Inquisition. While there are many records of men being executed for sodomy, it should be emphasised that it was NOT the Catholic Church that was responsible, not directly. Death sentences were legislated by civil authorities not the church. The Catholic Church had the death penalty for heretics, and anyone found guilty of sodomy by the local town court could, in their eyes, be guilty of heresy also.

Several Spanish kings of the medieval period are often stated as being gay – two kings of Castille being referred to the most, Juan II (1405-1454) and his son Enrique IV (1425-1474).

Catholic influence across Iberia reinforce the Christian ideal of male brotherhood, of how close friendship between men was a higher ideal than between a  man and woman. The church adopted a rite form the Greek Orthodox church which was the same as the marriage ceremony – wedded brotherhood, you could say. Although it isn’t certain, it is likely that the marriage recorded between Pedro Diaz and Muño Vandilaz on 16th April 1061 in northern Spain was wedded brotherhood.

The death penalty for sodomy introduced by civic authorities persisted through to the 20th century. Very few medieval lgbt Iberians are readily identifiable, at least few who were not executed. Literature was the only outlet for poets and writers who may have been homosexual, and there is a continuity of homoerotic and sexual literature through all of Iberian history. Some homophile centres developed in Toledo and Seville, for instance, and those men who wanted sex with other men could always travel into Spanish North Africa.

In 1822 the death penalty in Spain was removed. With the spread of ideas across Europe during that century the influence of Magnus Hirschfeld’s Scientific-Humanitarian Committee helped pave the way for the Independent Teaching Institute in Spain, which opened its Residencia de Estudiantes in Madrid in 1915. Famous lgbt residents included Federico García Lorca.

The Second Republic in Spain, created in 1931, saw an explosion of lgbt writings and activity. This liberalisation was halted when General Franco came to power after the Spanish Civil War. Homosexuality was made illegal and vigorously enforced with thousands of gay men being imprisoned. Likewise, in Portugal homosexuality became illegal under the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar.

This didn’t stop the development of an underground lgbt culture in places now virtually synonymous with gay Sapin – Sitges, Ibiza and Barcelona. After Salazar’s and Franco’s deaths in the 1960s and 1970s their laws against homosexuality were repealed and a new wave of liberalism grew across Iberia. It is surprising how quickly this liberalisation took hold in these very Catholic countries. Perhaps the biggest leaps for lgbt rights was the legislation of same-sex marriages in 2005 (Spain) and 2010 (Portugal), and transgender rights to register their preferred gender in 2006 (Spain) and 2010 (Portugal).

From the days of the Roman Empire to today Spain and Portugal have had an underlying acceptance of homosexuality that was greater than most of Europe, even through eras of persecution from various regimes who tried to stamp it out. The present lgbt community across Iberia has a vibrancy and, indeed, the passion, which characterises Iberian culture itself.

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