Dear America: Some advice from a country where gay marriage has been legal for a decade

2015: #Lovewon.
2015: #Lovewon.
Image: Reuters
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In the summer of 2005, the socialist Spanish government legalized gay marriage in Spain. My overwhelmingly Catholic country, with a legacy of a 40-year-old fascist dictatorship that even banned divorce, surprisingly became the third European Union member to authorize same-sex unions.

Gay rights activists kiss outside Spain's parliament in Madrid June 30, 2005. Spain legalised same-sex marriages on Thursday, becoming only the fourth country to do so after Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands and overriding fierce opposition from the Catholic Church. REUTERS/Susana Vera SV/CCK - RTRFYO0
Gay rights activists kiss outside Spain’s parliament in 2005.
Image: Reuters/Susana Vera

Ten years and around 28,000 couples married later, a whole generation of LGBT people has grown up. We have developed our sexual and family choices in an environment where we are as free to marry as we are to eschew marriage as an old-fashioned and cheesy option.

As many in the US celebrated last week’s Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage across the country, I counted myself lucky to have lived with this freedom for a decade.

Here’s some of what that decade has taught us in Spain’s LGBT community, and some takeaways for our US counterparts:

Equality is a daily, unfinished fight

No sooner had same-sex unions arrived arrived in Spain, as attacks to those newly acquired rights came from various directions. The Popular Party, the Spanish conservative party, gave permission to its members not to marry gay couples, arguing conscientious objection. It also filed a claim that the law was unconstitutional, which was not resolved until 2012 when the Constitutional Court reaffirmed the law.

Today, the Spanish Roman Catholic Church keeps calling for demonstrations to defend what it calls “the traditional family” while untiringly denouncing gay marriage as a sign of a crisis in Spanish society. Its claim is that these unions should have a name that is not “marriage.”

These people don't approve
They don’t approve.
Image: Reuters / Susana Vera

Likewise, in the US, people and organizations in some states have already started looking for loopholes to get in the way of gay unions.

The focus should be on helping the next generations

We also soon found out that the law does not mean that younger generations are free from the homophobic behaviors and offensive comments that we grew up with.

In Spain, half of young gay people between 15 and 25 years report having suffered bullying in school (link in Spanish). And 43 percent of them have considered suicide, with 17 percent of them saying they have tried to hurt themselves. To teenagers facing discrimination, the knowledge that they can legally marry later may offer little comfort—the law makes it no easier for them to come out.

Coming out is just as tough for young LGBT Americans. According to a Pew Research report, 43 percent of LGBT people were older than 20 when they first came out to a friend or family member.

First gay wedding of an elected official from the conservative party in 2006
The first gay wedding of an elected official from the conservative party, in 2006.
Image: AP/Paul White

Law can help change ingrained attitudes—up to a point

Spanish attitudes to LGBT issues have significantly changed over the decade that gay marriage has been legal. The percentage of people in Spain who support gay marriage increased seven points after the law, reaching a 75 percent in 2005.

And a 2013 Pew Research survey that asked if society should accept homosexuality found that 88 percent of Spaniards answered “yes”—compared with only 60 percent of Americans who replied the same.

It remains to be seen whether American attitudes will undergo a similar evolution. In Spain, policy clearly moved faster than societal attitudes, whereas in the US it has taken a while for the law to recognize an increasingly accepted reality.

Still, the mindsets of older people remain hard to change, on both sides of the Atlantic. Among my young Spanish friends who live openly, many are still to scared to come out to older members of their families.

Likewise, a Gallup survey found out that Americans over 65 are more likely to oppose gay marriage. And, as my colleague Meredith Bennett-Smith wrote not so long ago: That is not “a demographic that can be dismissed.”

“These are our aunts and uncles, our mentors, and our teachers,” she said. “It’s also a generation that remembers an era when homosexuality was still something best kept to oneself.”

A woman walks past participants at a gay pride in Bilbao
A woman walks past participants at a gay pride in Bilbao.
Image: Reuters/Vincent West

Legal equality does not mean societal equality

LGBT discrimination takes many forms. In Spain, 60 percent of gay, transgender or bisexual reported to have experienced some form of discrimination in the workplace. (In the US, 21 percent of LGBT adults have suffer the same.)

And some marginalized groups have fewer changes in their treatment. Undocumented immigrants, gypsies and other ethnic minorities, older gay people, and residents of rural areas are more likely to experience discrimination, to live in poverty or to suffer violence due to their sexual orientation. Lesbian women are particularly vulnerable.

“It is time to stop thinking about same-sex marriage, and to make a way for other demands and needs,” said LGBT activist Lucas Platero in a recent article, (in Spanish), adding that those “may not be the concerns of the elite LGBT groups, but those of ordinary people.”

In recent years, a faction within the Spanish LGBT activist community called Critic Pride has arisen. This group argues that the original cause has been commodified by brands that sponsor parades, and that the rights of marginalized groups have been neglected or ignored. “A pride that makes dykes and the precarious realities of trans and migrants invisible cannot represent us,” said this year’s manifiesto (in Spanish).

In the US, some are already pointing out the next issues the LGBT agenda needs to address, particularly in underserved communities: violence, employment discrimination, poverty, and access to healthcare.

So, America: Now is the time to celebrate. But get back to work as soon as you can.

Transgender discrimination is still a problem
Transgender discrimination remains a problem.
Image: AP/Emilio Morenatti