Toxic Debate Overshadows Spain’s Landmark Transgender Rights Bill

Jimena Gonzalez looked down at the Madrid city hall from the rooftop cafe above. It was Pride month, but no rainbow flags hung from the building that rules one of Europe’s most LGBTQ-friendly cities.

The absence of banners was all the more glaring because the Spanish government this week passed a draft bill that, when approved by congress, will finally allow transgender people to self-determine their gender. 

For people like Gonzalez, who started her gender hormone treatment last December, the moment is bittersweet. “Being in the spotlight for months has allowed us to tell our stories in a way that was impossible before,” she said. “But we’ve also become the target of absolutely brutal attacks.”

Behind a veneer of tolerance, Spain is deeply divided with culture wars raging on multiple fronts. Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez governs with a slender majority that depends on support from Catalan separatists. The euro’s fourth-biggest economy evolved into one of the most socially liberal societies after the end of a fascist dictatorship but strong Conservative and Catholic forces have created political tensions.

Toxic Debate Overshadows Spain’s Landmark Transgender Rights Bill

Those tensions are especially evident in Madrid, which this weekend holds its annual Pride march — one of Europe’s largest and most popular prior to the pandemic. And where the city hall, controlled by the center-right, is refusing to fly the rainbow flag for the second year in a row, citing a Supreme Court ruling that forbids hanging non-official banners from public buildings.

The draft law strengthening LGBTQ rights had initially caused division even within Spain’s coalition government, which includes the Socialist Party and far-left group Podemos. Still, its approval by cabinet adds to a long track record of progressive social policies, like becoming the third country in the world to legalize same sex marriage in 2005.

“This bill puts us at the forefront of recognizing the rights of LGBTI people, and especially of trans people in Europe,” Spanish Minister for Equality Irene Montero told journalists on Thursday. “This is especially important in a context in which some countries are questioning the rights of LGBTI and trans people to the extent that there are areas in Europe considered unsafe for them.”

Hungary’s parliament last month approved legislation banning content for minors deemed to “promote homosexuality.” In Poland, about a third of municipalities have declared themselves “free of LGBTQ ideology” to prevent pride parades and other events from going ahead. Last week, Czech president Milos Zeman labeled transgender people as “disgusting.”

European leaders struck back, with some even calling for Hungary to leave the European Union, and people familiar with the matter say the bloc is working on potential legal action against Poland.

In Spain, far-right Vox party spokesman Ivan Espinosa de los Monteros described this week’s draft law as “ridiculous, harmful and perverse,” using the sort of rhetoric that has helped create a climate in which attacks on LGBTQ people are now second highest after those motived by racism.

Toxic Debate Overshadows Spain’s Landmark Transgender Rights Bill

Under the new rules, people over the age of 16 will be able to change their gender and names without the need of a witness, hormone treatment or intervention from a doctor. Assaults on the LGBTQ community will be fined and punished while so-called conversion therapies aimed at trying to change a someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity will be banned.

Gonzalez, who’s a spokesperson for the far-left Mas Madrid party in the capital’s Chamberi district, says it’s a good start, but there’s more to be done.

People under the age of 14 can’t easily change their gender on the civil registry, non-binary identities aren’t recognized and refugees and asylum seekers have difficulties reflecting their gender identity in their applications.

For now, she’s steeling up for months of debate, until the bill becomes law. “We’ve been called pederasts, rapists and misogynists,” Gonzalez said. “We’ll be hearing very tough things about our existence and our identity.”

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