More than four decades after Spain lifted laws that made homosexuality illegal and 16 years after becoming a pioneer in the introduction of same-sex marriage, a surge in hate crimes has instilled fear in its LGBT community.
The issue has been pushed to the fore by the brutal killing in July of a 24-year-old man, Samuel Luiz, who died in hospital after being attacked by a mob outside a nightclub in the northwestern city of A Coruña.
The interior ministry has since reported that hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation increased by 43 per cent during the first half of this year, compared to 2020. (Although crime rates were low overall last year, due to the pandemic, hate crime rates dipped relatively little).
“You now think twice about holding your partner’s hand when you are in certain streets or public spaces,” says Ronny de la Cruz, a spokesman for the Madrid-based organisation COGAM, which promotes LGBT rights. “Not long ago you didn’t even worry about that.”
A demonstration against homophobia is scheduled for Saturday in Madrid. Another was held on Wednesday. “I didn’t come out of the closet in order to get put in a coffin,” read one of the protester’s banners.
The leftist coalition government has responded by creating a commission charged with drawing up a strategy to counter hate crime. After its first meeting on Friday, it agreed to take steps to battle the problem within the country’s police forces.
Describing his Socialist Party as “a wall against intolerance”, prime minister Pedro Sánchez tweeted: “This government is working for a diverse and free country.”
The Socialists have been closely associated with LGBT rights. When in government in 2005, they pushed through a law allowing same-sex couples to marry and adopt children, becoming only the third country in the world to do so after the Netherlands and Belgium.
Under Sánchez, a new Bill has been prepared, named after the late Socialist gay rights activist Pedro Zerolo. Now awaiting its passage through Congress, the Bill seeks to protect Spaniards from different types of discrimination in a range of areas.
However, while there has been widespread condemnation of attacks such as that on Samuel Luiz, the issue has generated a bitter political debate.
Parties on the left have accused the far-right Vox of implicitly encouraging hate crimes with its Islamophobic rhetoric and demands for subsidies to be withdrawn from LGBT and feminist groups.
Speaking about the wave of homophobic attacks, interior minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska, who was Spain’s first openly gay senior judge, warned that Vox “is on the limit of what is appropriate according to our democratic norms”.
The Socialists’ junior coalition partner, Podemos, has been more strident in blaming Vox. Accompanying a compilation of comments by the far-right party’s politicians on Twitter, including that so-called gay conversion therapy should be allowed and that heterosexual couples should have priority over same-sex couples in adopting, Podemos stated: “Hate speech creates hate crime.”
Vox has responded by accusing the left of exploiting the hate crimes assaults for political benefit. It also threatened legal action against its accusers, targeting “everyone from the most anonymous Twitter user to the political activist dressed up as a famous journalist”.
The news this week that a gay man had told police he had been set upon by a gang in central Madrid and tortured with a knife amplified the polemic and prompted the organising of Wednesday’s demonstration. However, things took a bizarre turn when the alleged victim admitted that he had been lying and that the injuries had been inflicted with his consent.
Although the protest went ahead, the revelation was a setback for those campaigning and it emboldened Vox, whose leader, Santiago Abascal, described it as "a crude lie fed by the government and its media lackeys".
Yet the possible causes of the recent upsurge in hate crime continue to be a talking point. A Vox claim that the phenomenon is linked to the arrival of undocumented immigrants has been discredited by government statistics showing that typical assailants in these cases tend to be Spanish.
Ronny de la Cruz of COGAM says that homophobia has become more noticeable since the end of last year. He believes the pandemic has been a contributing factor, fomenting radicalisation of young men who have been spending large amounts of time at home on the internet.
In addition, he points to the echo-chamber effect of social media, and its tendency to amplify the views of like-minded individuals.
However, he also blames more traditional media in Spain on the right, which he says have “normalised” political messages identifying the LGBT community as problematic.
“It’s not the case that they’re saying ‘Let’s go out on the street and kill homosexuals’,” he says. “But what they are saying is that we are a privileged group and legislation affecting us should be lifted and so on. That all has an effect.”