Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Spain's Dark Past, Bright Future

The Advocate  March, 2005


Antonio Ruiz was imprisoned for being gay under a brutal Spanish regime. Now he's watching his country approve same-sex marriage rights.

In 1995 police stopped Antonio Ruiz in his barrio in the eastern coastal Spanish city of Valencia. Ruiz had forgotten his identification card, but he explained to the officials that he lived just around the corner. It seemed like an average checkpoint stop until the policeman ran a check on Ruiz's name.

The information came back; the officer turned to his partner and said, "Watch out, that one's a faggot." Ruiz was in shock. How had the police department known he was gay?.

It took a five-year legal battle to answer that question, but Ruiz finally secured his police file from the Spanish authorities. It contained detailed records on his private life, including the fact that he'd been sent to prison at age 17 for being a homosexual.

Ruiz was stunned, but his situation is not uncommon. As Spain readies to become the next country to approve legal marriage rights for same-sex couples, thousands of its GLBT residents continue to live with the emotional and physical scars they received during Gen. Francisco Franco's brutal four-decade dictatorship.

Perhaps as many as 5,000 of them were imprisoned in sexual reeducation centers under Franco's regime. Countless more were beaten, tortured, or forced into mental institutions where they received electroshock treatments. During the Spanish Civil War, Francoist troops murdered Spain's most famous poet and playwright, Federico García Lorca, for the double crime of being gay and an intellectual.

being gay and an intellectual. Franco died in 1975, but many gay prisoners were not released until 1979. It took the Spanish parliament until 2001 to address the matter of striking sentences for homosexuality from police files. In December 2004 the parliament announced it would give financial compensation to gays and others who were persecuted during the dictator's rule.

"The persecution of homosexuals under Franco was rooted in a dogmatic understanding of Catholicism," says Fernando Vallespín, president of the Center for Sociological Research in Madrid. "The Franco regime did not want to allow people to express themselves if they broke its conceptions of public morality. "

In 2005 most Spaniards are unaware of how gays were oppressed just a few decades ago. "It's not talked about now. We've forgotten all of it," says Vallespín. Gay pride festivals are common, and in big cities homosexuality is as open as it is in the United States or even more so. Polls have consistently shown over 60% of the Spanish population supporting full marriage rights for same-sex couples. "Our constitution guarantees the right to marriage," justice minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar has said. "We're going to extend that right to people who historically have been discriminated against: homosexuals."

Still, for survivors like Ruiz, 46, the wounds run deep. He holds hope for the gay-friendly future of Spain but also emphasizes the need to keep the past from disappearing. "Of course I am happy about the new freedoms in Spain," he says. "But we don't want to forget about the repression. We want to reclaim our dignity. The old police files, with their lists of homosexuals and discriminatory laws and punitive sentences, should be preserved and archived for the public. We can't forget."

Ruiz's nightmare began on a spring day in 1976 when he came out to his family. His father had died when he was 7, and Ruiz helped support the family, picking fruit in orchards while his mother worked as a cleaning woman.

Ruiz was shocked at his family's reaction. "It was terrible, very, very bad," he remembers. His mother, a devout Catholic, confided in her sister, who then told a family friend, a nun. The nun went straight to the police. The next day Ruiz was awakened at 6 A.M. by two plainclothes officers. With his family watching-they'd known about the raid ahead of time-he was taken to the station.

The police interrogated him, pressing him for information about other homosexuals. He had no lawyer nor even a family member present and refused to answer the interrogators' questions. He was threatened and beaten with a wet towel and then thrown into a windowless jail cell. The police woke him up every time he went to sleep and continued to press him with questions. "I had no idea if it was night or day," says Ruiz.

After three days he was taken before a judge. Although Franco had died the previous year, the effects of his authoritarian rule lingered: Ruiz was charged under an antigay law called the Danger to Society and Social Rehabilitation Act.

"Your lifestyle is unsuitable," Ruiz remembers the judge telling him. He was sentenced to a week in jail and a year of reform school.

Instead of reform school, however, Ruiz was taken to a cell, told to strip, hosed with cold water, and then sprayed with the insecticide DDT. The guards took his clothes, leaving him in the small cell naked and shivering. He was given a vaccination for smallpox, which sent him into a feverish and painful state, but the guards ignored his calls for a doctor.

After three days of this Ruiz still refused to inform, and he was placed with the general prison population. The first night there he was awakened when a guard opened the door of his cell and let three prisoners rape him. He still refused to inform. He was then taken by a squadron of Franco's special militia, the Civil Guard, to Carabanchel-at the time Spain's largest and most notorious prison, where gays were regularly raped and beaten.

"My world fell apart," says Ruiz. "I felt that if I got out of there alive, it would be a miracle." The threats and beatings continued.

Three months later, on June 5, 1976, Ruiz was freed. He found an aunt and uncle to live with, but he was branded a homosexual and thus barred from all but the lowliest jobs. It was years before he he found a regular job and began dating.

These days he is devoting his time to keeping alive the memory of what happened. He has started a nonprofit group for people who went through experiences like his. But many people are ashamed and want to forget the past, he says: "They don't want to talk about it. They don't want to have to remember what they went through."

All Material Copyright Samuel Lowenberg