Gay rights are basic human rights. They are equal and non-discriminatory. Being aware of social issues such as discrimination, inequality and crime, today these rights are more important than ever. But for gay people to practice these rights, a legal recognition by government is essential. European countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have already allowed some form of gay union. LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender) Canadians have most of the same legal rights as non-LGBT citizens. There are also other democratic societies which have fully or partially achieved this transformation, like Spain. In 2005, the first major step was made but it is still a leading battlefield in the fight for the recognition of LGBT rights today.
In the history of Spain, to find their own place, LGBT groups had many obstacles. Funding was one of them. They were not as lucky as countries like the USA or Australia which funded and organized to support this movement. The second obstacle and the most fundamental one was the prominent impact of the Catholic Church on moral issues and policies.
Spain has a long gay cultural legacy in many fields from arts to literature, but the gay profile was imbedded in a conservative Catholic image for so many decades. It was after the 1990s that Spain initiated major changes to be the frontline of gay rights and social transformation with its new political structure. But it was 2005 when the Socialist Party, which was ruling the country at the time, laid the foundation of a new ‘diverse’ Spain when same-sex marriage became legal. It became the third nation in the world to enact the law for the same sex marriage. Besides the legalization of gay marriage, the party made major legal transformations to remove the strong influence of the Catholic Church on Spanish society. Easing divorce rules and softening abortion laws were among them. This change was highly progressive and radical, thus the reactions were equally strong.
As expected, the Catholic Church was the first to oppose. The reason was predictable. The law was perceived as a threat to Spanish society and believed to affect Spanish families adversely and even ruin or split them. The answer from the church’s side wasn’t tardy. ‘It was like unleashing a virus in society.’ one Bishop said.
Just as not appreciating gay marriage, the word ‘marriage’ was also found offensive. This time it was Mariano Rajoy, current Prime Minister of Spain, the leader of right-wing Popular Party. He made public his disapproval for the use of the word, ‘marriage’ placed next to ‘gay’ since ‘marriage’ is viewed as a sacrament between men and women in Catholic teaching. Just as the LGBT community was enjoying their victory, an anti-gay marriage stance once again became visible with the election of the right wing Popular Party in 2011. However this time with the absorption of the new law in society, it was irreversible. The LGBT community had already embraced their rights. Over 16,000 same-sex couples got married between 2005 and 2009. Moreover not all the Spanish people opposed the legislation of same sex marriage, or shared the same view with the Church either. In fact, a survey shows nearly half of Spain’s population no longer goes to Mass. Despite the Popular Party’s appeal against the law, the constitutional court upheld the law and gay marriage continues to be lawful in Spain.
On the legal basis, there are improvements providing the same rights for gay adults as straight people have. However, can the same be said on a social basis? Did Spanish people really accept the gay community and their rights without shame and fear? The LGBT community still has to overcome the fear of rejection by the family, society, the workplace. Gay people are still hiding because of who they love, how they look or who they are. Some have to face violence and inequality, and sometimes abusing and bullying. In fact today, this is the case of LGBT youths in Spain. Homophobia and bullying sadly happen in many areas of society and the effect can be destructive for young people. This is becoming a serious social problem and more needs to be done than said. Schools where young people should learn, grow and gain academic achievements, and more importantly feel supported, can also become something like torture. Today these education centers are not safe places for young LGBTs.
“I suffered bullying between the ages of 6 and 17. Those were the worst years of my life. Everyday, I was in an ongoing daily war,’’ laments Gustavo. His peer Carlos too went through the same experience. “Being harassed due to homophobia is double suffering. You see the hatred in their eyes, the humiliation in their words, you see the mentality. It hits you deep inside more.’’ These are the words from the interviews with LGBT youngsters who suffered homophobic bullying in their early lives. But today Gustavo and Arturo are not the only victims.
According to a survey conducted by The Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals, FELGTB, and the LGBT community of Madrid, COGAM, there is a high rate of bullying due to gender identity in Spanish schools. 36% of the of the teens LGBT talked to reported that they had been shoved by their classmates, 23% have said that they have been threatened, 5% have been beaten and 6% have been harassed or sexually assaulted. Due to a lack of research, the struggles of LGBT youngsters have not been easily avoidable until now. However, today the reality is coming out of the closet.
‘’At the time, there wasn’t any research highlighting the problem of homophobic bullying except the annual reports of the former Office of the Ombudsman for Children in the Community of Madrid. This gave us an incentive to find enough samples of young LGBT people and list their problems like; family rejection, segregation etc. None of the public and private institutions we requested gave any support. But the Internet helped,’’ explains Manuel Escalana, the coordinator of Teen Felgtb. In a few months, they received 1000 questionnaires and created a survey composed of 653 boys and girls in 129 villages of 44 provinces in Spain.
‘We aimed the questions at young people between 12 and 25 years old who regarded themselves as young LGBT, and asked about their experiences in school related to sexual orientation or gender identity. Our focus was the teens at schools because they spend most of their time there. In the end, the data we found was quite remarkable,’’ he says.
MORE THAN %40 OF LGBT YOUNGSTERS WHO SUFFERED FROM HOMOPHOBİC BULLYING CONSIDERED SUICIDE
The idea of suicide, for Gustavo, came out naturally as a way out to find his own ‘place’. ‘‘The sense of non-belonging…The school rejects you, even in religion you feel like a refugee. So it comes to conclusion you ask yourself: why am I here?’’
It is not different for Carlos either. ‘’I am constantly punished for being the person that I am. This makes me feel guilty for how I feel. Why am not I normal just like everyone else? Why is there no place for me?’’
Numbers are telling us that %40 of Lgbt youngsters who suffered from homophobic bullying considered suicide. This should be alarming. Although the research doesn’t have a representative character or wasn’t done with random samples, who can deny the true value of the experiences told by these young people who suffered bullying? Parents, teachers and most importantly state institutions should be aware of this social issue. Otherwise this ‘extremely high’ risk of suicide, or at least suicidal thoughts among victims may reach an irrevocable conclusion.
‘’A few years ago, a teacher knocked our door to request help coping with a situation regarding one of his former students. A student of his, gay, had just killed himself. Neither the family nor the school was able to acknowledge the issue. Perhaps, they tried to hide the failure which could, by some, be attributable to them. Perhaps also they were struggling with the realization that a teenager had died from not being able to open the way to his own way of being and feeling,‘’ says Ana Gómez, one of the directors of the Education Commission of COGAM.
As the survey of FELGTB, and COGAM shows that homophobia is a legitimate social concern, it also shows that schools are not actually safe spaces for LGBT youngsters. The education system on the other hand does not give any adequate answer to this problem either. In fact, 11% of victims have even been harassed by their teachers, and many of them are afraid to tell their parents. Who can they rely on?
Considering what these teens, and the people who have devoted their energy and time to protect the teens have to say about this issue, it is easy to conclude that more has to be done. A critical problem cited above is the absence of any official support network for educators and students who are increasingly faced with this damaging behavior. It is also easy to conclude that if resources are not devoted to finding a solution more teens will lose their childhoods, and potentially even their lives.
CHRISMHOM- Formation of a Gay Christian Church in Madrid
The Church’s influence and opinion is a strong impact on society and constitutions. Although this influence intended to be softened by laws, the mentality is still embedded in the culture. ‘Homosexuality’ is related to punishment or God’s hatred in the Bible and this gives the Church power to exclude LGBT. But what about gay people who are raised Catholics and are actually quite religious? Don’t they have the right to practice their own faith? Oscar, the creator of Crismhom, Gay Christian Community in Madrid says; ‘We are all sons and daughters of God and He loves us all.’
When I asked for an interview for the first time to Crismhom, Oscar got in touch with me. He was quite welcoming but cautious. Before he gave any confirmation, he sent me an email explaining the organization’s missions and rules. Filming is not allowed due to privacy concerns. They also do not permit journalists to participate in their celebrations to avoid any kind of interference. Before we set up a date, these were the last words of Oscar: ‘Hope that you don’t see it as the “weirdest” thing on the internet. We are not freaks. This is a serious project.’’
Crismhom, the Gay Christian community was established in a first flat of an apartment in Madrid’s gay district, Chueca in 2009. Initially, it was part of the COGAM (The Community of Lesbianas, Gays, Transexuales and Bisexuales of Madrid). But, some members like Oscar disagreed with COGAM’s changing opinion and split from them, creating their own independent organization under ‘Crismhom’.
‘’COGAM ceased Masses, prayers and celebrations in its organization. Well, I should say they were forbidden, because the word ‘gay’ and ‘Catholic’ were not appreciated together by the church. You can see this discrimination in their messages every day. From their view, gay people cannot be Catholics but me and my friends are. We are strong Catholics ’’. Their project was actually started seven years ago. The objective is to create a community for people who need a place to live their sexuality and Christian faith at the same time without any restriction. They are not an independent church or a sect but only a group of Christians belonging to different confessions who are above 30 looking for some kind of connection with their faith where they are warmly welcomed.
‘’Crismhom has now 100 members and 50 full members. It mostly consists of Catholics, but there are Protestants and Anglicans too. We, LGBTs, practice our faith in a communion without a church and a priest. That’s why our focus is on sexual orientation, gender identity and faith’’ says Oscar. The members of the communion occasionally come together in the basement of the flat to read from the Bible and sing. Some weekends they host guest speakers like gay activists, thinkers and people from other LGBT communities from all over the world.
For Oscar, with these activities, he wants to elevate the spirituality of the gay neighborhood. Thanks to Crishmom, many gay people are going back to their religious roots which they abandoned years ago to align with the exclusion of the Church. ‘‘I don’t know how I would have returned to religion if Crismhom never existed. Spiritually I have never felt so much complete.’’ says Manuel, 35 year old engineer, one of the members of the church.
When it comes to financing and paying the rent, full members of the communion take the initiative. But they are not walking alone in this mission according to Oscar. It was God that was with them throughout the whole process and gave them a hand. ‘’We have full members that afford the rent, organize weekend activities. They function as the commission of Crishmom. The heterosexual lady who owns the flat knows our mission and supports our project. Normally the rents here are around 6,000 Euro but she only asked for a small fee. We feel blessed and we believe God wanted us to start this project.’’
As opposed to the general anti-gay view, Crismhom members believe the church is God’s home and none of the Priests or Bishops have the right to exclude them from God’s home. In fact they believe homophobic mentality belongs to individuals and has nothing to do with the commands of the Holy book. ‘’Biblically, homosexuality is associated with anger and punishment. On the other hand, there are many publications that say the translations are not well done from their originals. God created us equally. Although we have now our own community, we still believe there should have been a room for us in the church’’ says Manuel.
Expanding the community with growing numbers of members is one thing and achieving a presence in society is another one. In this case, to carry off their revolution, visibility is indispensable for Chrismhom. Every year, on Gay Pride Day some full Crismhom members walk with their flag to give a voice to their communion and say ‘We are here!’. Most members don’t join these walks to keep their privacy. ‘Some members are high school teachers. They refuse to show appearance in gay prides. But at the same time we should show our face to society. So this cause crises every now and then’ Oscar says.
However, this crisis doesn’t go beyond a minor one. For the sake of visibility, they have also created their own platforms like the Rainbow Awards. Each year Chrismhom give these awards to the individuals or organizations that make contributions or fight for the normalization of Christians in LGBT community. Last year, Spanish newspaper El Pais received this award for their publication of ‘the wing of the gay church in Madrid,’ the story about Chrishmom. This year, the owner of the award is Digital Religion for giving a voice to gay Christian reality.
Chrishmom is fighting every day for full social acceptance and battling stereotypes. Their effort for visibility in the social arena is appreciable. But what’s more important is being recognized by higher authorities, which will play a key role in breaking down the social conservatism against homosexuals. Now, with the election of a new Pope, there is one question raised in the minds of their members: Will the new pope find middle ground for gay rights? Despite the Pope’s opposition to gay marriage, Chrishmom still has hope and wish he and other opinion leaders will recognize their struggle and help to integrate them into the fabric of the community. They hope that one day they can be simply perceived as ‘’normal.’’