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Spain's prolonged road to freedom.

"Los Invisibles": A History of Male Homosexuality in Spain, 1850-1940

by Richard Cleminson and Francisco Vasquez Garcia

University of Wales Press 311 pages, $85.

IN THE 19TH CENTURY, historians broadly agree, huge changes occurred in West European cultures and beyond in the discussion, recognition, and treatment--legal, political, and medical--of male homosexuality. Strict followers of the tenets of Michel Foucault--if fewer and less adamant of late--argue that prior to the articulation of modern notions of homosexuality (one which used contemporary terms such as "the homosexual," for instance), neither "homosexuality" nor "the [male] homosexual" can be said to have existed. True, there may have been "sodomites," but these were as different in kind as the word is distinct in its etymology, significance, and spelling.

Even Foucault skeptics like me can accept that seismic differences existed between the sense of the sexual--including the homosexual--that existed across Europe when Queen Victoria came to power in 1837 and when she died in 1901. The vicissitudes of change, however uniformly comprehensive in scale, were radically different in kind across the continent's many diverse countries and cultures. I'd say that no country has received as much critical attention to date with respect to the status of the male homosexual in the 19th century as France (about half a dozen important monographs in the last five years alone). Great Britain, Germany, and the Netherlands are obvious runners-up. Meanwhile, other candidates for attention--Russia and Italy, say--await their turn. Spanish culture, similarly, has given rise to only a very limited academic response to date, though some former colonies, such as Argentina and Cuba, have seen scholarly work on the history of homosexuality. Much of this material, however, has not been available to English readers.

Hence the timeliness of "Los Invisibles". Cleminson and Vasquez Garcia's study makes clear that, even though the neighboring French 19th-century society and culture developed a highly pronounced and articulated "world of homosexuality" (if often pejoratively), France's neighbor to the southwest took a very different route, with different emphases, opportunities, articulations, and prohibitions concerning men loving men. The broader social and political foundations of the Spanish state explain much of this. Iberian culture was historically steeped both in clericalism and (at least tacit) fidelity to the Roman Catholic Church. By contrast, at least since the Enlightenment-inspired French Revolution, the Frenchman's ambivalence, skepticism, and even indifference to religion was well established. Spain also lacked much of the French sense of citizenship, political entitlement, and economic or social individualism. Its governmental politics had mostly been a sequence of shabby hegemonies imposed from abroad by Hapsburg and Bourbon rulers, as well as by Napoleon.

The biggest consequence of these twin forces for conservatism--church and state--was delay. From about 1860, a number of complex and important discrepancies slowly opened up in many northern European countries between religious, legal, and medical attitudes toward homosexuality. In Spain, however, these developments--which led, logically, to petitions for tolerance and eventually legal change--were destined to be a 20th-century phenomenon. Even then, any sense of social thaw only occurred during the brief years of the doomed Republic of the 1930's. The first statute against male-male sexual offenses in Spain--the earliest evidence, that is, of the legal articulation of gay sexual misdemeanor--had reached the books only a few years earlier, in the 1928 Penal Code. Compare that to the absence of proscription in France following the "Napoleonic Code" or the Labouchere Amendment in the U.K., dating from 1885.

More than anywhere else, the emergence of the figure of the male homosexual in Spain coincided with the pan-European fin de siecle phenomenon of the urban aesthete or dandy. Figures resembling Oscar Wilde commonly graced the streets of Madrid well into the mid-20th century. An 1894 art directory indicating how tradesmen were to be represented in painting included, improbably enough, just such a figure among its professions, noting: "There are certain men who are effeminate and certain women who are mannish and who have extremely marked characteristics; a true disgrace for both sexes."

The small number of cultural texts concerning homosexuality also appeared rather later than in other European cultures. They are compellingly introduced in "Los Invisibles"--though all remain otherwise inaccessible to non-Spanish speakers. One longs to read, for instance, Alfonso Hernandez-Cata's 1929 novel El Angel de Sodoma. The second edition of this doom-laden plea for sympathy featured supportive commentaries encouraging tolerance by the distinguished physician, historian, philosopher, and critic Gregorio Maranon, who compared homosexuality to diabetes. This may seem reminiscent of how Radclyffe Hall had Havelock Ellis write the preface for The Well of Loneliness (1928) as if to authenticate her representation of "the third sex." Hall's invocation of the "third sex" idea, however forlorn, was built on a century's growing awareness of male and female homosexuality in British society. This awareness in turn had been heavily informed by the familiarity of many readers with its appearance in French literature starting in the 1830's. Hall stood up in court to defend her book, however unsuccessfully. Nothing at all, by contrast, was ever known of Hernandez-Cata, and the 1929 reprint of his novel had to be published in Valparaiso, Chile, following the introduction of the Spanish Penal Code.

Maranon attributed sexual character to gland secretions, themselves capable of dysfunction, giving rise to the "intersexual" figures of both anatomical sexes. He has the best claim of anyone for offering a distinctive Spanish approach to the etiology of homosexuality, but his biological, as opposed to psychological, explanations--notably his focus on the testicles as repositories of human sex, gender, and sexual functionality (incipient in men and women)--are now understandably little more than historical curiosities.

Still, Maranon was at least willing to take the bull by the cojones--and in some unusual directions. His "Notes Towards a Biology of Don Juan," for instance, identified the culturally iconic womanizer as "hypervirile." This was not a compliment but connoted someone effeminate in behavior, however inclined towards heterosexuality. Maranon interpreted Don Juan as representative of the false spirit of Spain's past, "hypererotic" and debased by a "cult of sex." Don Juan's lack of a solid work ethic went hand-in-hand with his attention to his appearance, his relentless wooing of women, and his inappropriate social passivity (witness his tendency to wait for women to approach him). That Don Juan's gender-inappropriate behavior had much in common with the traits considered characteristic of homosexual men is a point that Maranon pretty much confirmed in 1940, admitting that his Don Juan was "an effeminate man, almost a homosexual."

With respect to the treatment of inveterate homosexuals, Maranon was, for his time, extreme in his liberalism. The invert's sexual aim, he argued, had been "twisted" through no fault of his own; he was "as responsible for his abnormality as the diabetic is for his blood sugar." Still, Maranon thought the phenomenon avoidable and argued that society should act against homosexuality's unhealthy proliferation. Like many Spanish thinkers, he believed in a sexual continuum spanning hetero-, bi- and homosexuality that seems, at first, almost Kinsey-like. In his case, though, the notion originated in scriptural ideas concerning temptation and appetite rather than in science's desire to classify the pathologies of inversion.

Decadent Spanish novelist Ramon del Valle-Inclan had anticipated Maranon's conclusions in the four novellas published as Sonatas (1902-05), one of very few literary sources even to touch on the phenomenon before the 1920's. These decadent handbooks were dedicated to depicting the many pleasures of a libertine, the Marquis of Bradomin. In Valle-Inclan's second volume, Summer, two boys--one white, one mulatto--are shown embracing one another. They bid the Marquis to join them, but he insists that this "satanic" pleasure will always remain foreign to him. By contrast, allusions to comely and seductive androgynous boys (and girls) figured prominently in the French inspiration for Sonatas, Joris-Karl Huysmans' 1884 novel A Rebours ("Against Nature").

Maranon's position was at its best merely tolerant. He was not persuaded at all by Andre Gide's argument in Corydon (translated in the late 1920's) as to the naturalness of a masculine, assertive homosexuality directed--as it had been, Gide argued, in ancient Greece--toward ephebes. Writing a hostile preface to Gide's work in France, Maranon even argued that, had he been writing in his homeland, seat of the Inquisition, he might have wanted to "burn the book, with an effigy of the author, in the fires that purify everything." Boys were not to be touched.

Theories of mind were influential much later in Spain than throughout the rest of Europe. Even when they did become significant in the 1930's, they were an eclectic bunch of ideas, articulated by figures of only local renown, forgotten today. Freud was known but never held much sway--astonishing for the country that, more than any other, produced surrealism in the visual arts, with its emphasis on dreams.

"Queerness" was capable of being used loosely as a metaphor for unmanliness. The Spanish word "maricon" had a semantic imprecision similar to "queer" in English. Thus we might translate Angel Maria Segovia's novel Los Maricones (1885) as The Queers. However, Segovia's term "maricones" signified weak, indecisive, or effeminate politicians; homosexuality was not implied. "Serious, manly, daring, true lovers of the patria and of freedom" are contrasted with their decadent, exploitative, idle counterparts as politicians, one of whom is as "capricious and inconstant as a flirtatious woman." Other characters are likewise feminized. As Segovia's hero Pablo Pelaez argues, "What could be a better description [than "maricon"]? If the natural qualities of men are uprightness, daringness, and intrepidness, the properties of the maricon are enervation, shamelessness, a manipulative nature and pride. Their tendency towards feminine habits is always manifest in whatever position they hold. If they rule they are despotic. If they obey they are timid." Cleminson and Vasquez Garcia make the useful point that the secrecy and duplicity of these "maricones" were stereotypically ascribed by Spaniards to Jews as well.

A couple of overlooked works of fiction point away from the general opprobrium toward homosexuality. The Uruguayan diplomat Augusto D'Halmar's novel Pasion y Muerte del Cura Deusto (1924) was about the uncertain--and evidently subtly delineated--love between a priest and a choirboy of Gypsy origins and extraordinary beauty. Alvaro Retana's A Sodoma en tren botijo, a fictional account of the gay underworld of 1930's Madrid, is full of gay slang and period detail. Indeed, much of this novel would not have been out of place in accounts of the "Molly" subculture of London some 150 years earlier--including fake birth ceremonies and the like. In 1933, Alberto Nin Frias' Homosexualismo creador offered Spanish readers the first history of male-male homosexuality in various ancient and modern cultures, focusing on the usual suspects. The Iberian peninsula was excluded altogether!

As Proust documented with respect to France, an unlikely and inappropriate mix of members of different classes of men marked the homosexual subculture of this age--and commercial exchange was rarely far away. Maranon went so far as to suggest that same-sex sexuality was virtually innate to the Spanish aristocrat (a further instance of finding it "elsewhere"), what with his love of travel, use of foreign languages, distinctive dress, and so on. Madrid threw up an unmistakable, real-life example of the dandyish aristocratic pursuer of men. One Antonio de Hoyos y Vinent habitually visited the Cafe Levante, where, according to one source, "low-life youngsters and men of high society would pass in search of perverse emotions." His aide in seeking out suitable partners for trysts--especially bullfighters--was one Luisito Pomes, a "beautiful boy ... of delicate facial features like a young lady without whom the deaf aristocrat was incapable of making his conquests."

Again, Spanish cultural tropes appear broadly to echo French ones, but at a thirty-year remove or so. The reference to Hoyos is from 1912--a generation after Wilde's fall. By this time, the French Belle Epoque was in its death throes and the first volume of Proust's dissection of it was in press. Intriguingly, in his 1985 autobiography My Last Breath, filmmaker Luis Bunuel (born 1900) remembered being tipped by Hoyos on a tram. He describes him as one of four "official" pederasts in Madrid; they agreed to meet the next day (but Bunuel didn't show).

Barcelonan low life, then as now, gravitated towards the Barrio Xines and included its fair share of male prostitutes and rough but gay-friendly bars. The capital saw the publication of La Mala Vida en Madrid. A few years later, the dynamically expanding Catalan city had its own La mala vida en Barcelona (1912). Its author, Bembo, pegged the number of inverts--or "Uranians," his preferred term, adopted from the English--at between six and thirty thousand. In certain ways, Bembo's unsensational study was remarkable and may reveal the sympathies of its author: the book insisted that most gay men did not hook up easily and that "there is a large number of homosexual couples who are not even noticed ... and who, it would seem, live happily and do not disturb anyone." Still, blackmail and crime were rife in both cities, leading to the legal documents that, paradoxically, constitute a chief resource for studying this subculture.

What Spain otherwise lacked, however--except for a small number of rather marginal novellas, diligently unearthed here--was any writer prepared to document this early gay subculture to any degree, even critically or discreetly (as did happen with London, Paris and Berlin especially). It's not so much that there was no Proust, then; concerning this topic, there was no Balzac, no Flaubert, and certainly no proselytizer like Andre Gide or Oscar Wilde in his way. Even Leopoldo Alas' poisonous novelistic assault on decadent values, La Regencia (1884), which featured the homosexual character Celedonio, was conspicuously set in a fictional Asturian town, "Vetusta," far from the main centers of culture and power.

The brief interlude of the Republic in the 1930's promised a liberalization in social affairs. Franco's victory put a stop to any such ideas for the next forty years. After all this time, the late 70's and 80's brought radical rebellion and cultural creativity (la movida Madrilena) of which gay liberation formed only a part. The Republic had its gay martyrs--including Federico Garcia Lorca, the Granadan poet. Conversely, la movida had its gay heroes, such as Pedro Almodovar. The ingenuity of Almodovar's early films underscores how the emergence of a democratic Spain had taken so long that its young artists made their imprint upon a cultural tabula rasa. They began the process of rewriting the rules from scratch, a process that the present administration in Spain--consistently Europe's most liberal--continues to do, much to the displeasure of the Vatican.

Whether the onset of American-style mores and opportunities--in Madrid's Chueca and Barcelona's "Gaixample" especially--marks the logical endpoint of the history Cleminson and Garcia sketch is certainly a debatable point. To some, such as Juan Goytisolo--Spain's most important gay writer, and a long-term exile--the modernization of many aspects of Spanish culture amounts to a cleansing of the country's Moorish legacy, among other things.

Still, as both cities now constitute the most dynamic gay centers in Europe after London and Berlin, many Spanish gay men seem happy with the rather bourgeois present day. In any case, such arguments lie beyond the scope of "Los Invisibles", a highly useful resource for all historians of urban male homosexuality and for lovers of Spain. For the missing years, Hispanophone readers may consult Alberto Mira's De Sodoma a Chueca: Una historia cultural de la homosexualidad en Espana en el siglo XX (2004), which I suspect won't be in English any time soon. Conversely, and poignantly, it seems that every American gay novel is now set to appear in a Spanish edition.

Richard Canning is the editor of Between Men: Best New Gay Fiction and Vital Signs: Essential AIDS Fiction (both Carroll & Graf) and author of a new "brief life" of Oscar Wilde (Hesperus Press).
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Author:Canning, Richard
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUSP
Date:Mar 1, 2008
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