For Queer Spaniards, the Stakes in This Week’s Elections Couldn’t Be Higher

For Queer Spaniards, the Stakes in This Week’s Elections Couldn’t Be Higher

For Queer Spaniards, the Stakes in This Week’s Elections Couldn’t Be Higher

Queer and trans Spaniards fear that a new right-wing government would roll back historic gains and usher in a wave of repression.

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Lucía Sobral first figured out that she was trans because of Twitter. Growing up, the Gran Canaria native struggled to interact with boys and feared taking off her shirt, but it was not until she discovered other trans people online that she was able to understand herself. At 18, she transitioned, a process supported by her family and friends, who started calling her Lucía.

“It was very respectful and fantastic,” Sobral, now a 20-year-old student of Maths and Physics at Universidad Complutense in Madrid, told me in an interview in Spanish. “I am happier this way.”

On March 2, Sobral became one of the first Spaniards to change her legally registered gender after the passage of the country’s new LGBTI Law, which de facto recognized people’s right to gender self-determination. The legislation abolished the need to undergo two years of hormone treatment and exhibit a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria in order to legally transition.

The law was more than two years in the making and caused heated conflict between the governing center-left Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), led by Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and its progressive coalition partner Unidas Podemos (“United We Can”). For Sobral, the drawn-out fight over the bill was “agonizing,” especially after prominent Socialist figures like former equality minister Carmen Calvo openly spoke against the law. Once Congress approved it in February, Sobral felt relieved and knew she wanted to alter her legal gender identity as soon as possible. “It was a long time of tug-of-war,” she said.

Around 9 am on Thursday, March 2, Sobral was waiting in line at Madrid’s Civil Registry with her proof of residency and birth certificate, ready to fill in the documents that would correct her ID. The law requires a waiting period of up to three months to ratify the decision, and Sobral was told to come back on May 18, when she was finally able to have her gender identity officially validated. “It is important that [the law] passed because it settles the issue of how trans people have to be treated,” Sobral said. “Had it not been approved, it would have been dramatic because it would have spread the message that trans rights are disposable.”

But Sobral and many other queer Spaniards are now waiting with bated breath to see whether the progress made under the current government is about to be rolled back.

After a resounding loss in the local and regional elections last May, Sánchez called a snap election for this Sunday, July 23, trying to cut short the right’s political momentum. For the center-right Popular Party (PP) and far-right Vox, the LGBTI Law became an easy way to score political gains at the expense of the trans community. Alberto Núñez-Feijoo, PP’s president, recently said that as a result of this measure, “it is much easier to legally change one’s gender than to get the driver’s license,” and has promised to abolish the law in its current form. Santiago Abascal, leader of Vox, depicted it as a “threat to women and children.”

A sense of fear looms over many members of the Spanish LGTBQI community. Last year, hate crimes related to sexual orientation and gender identity increased by almost 70 percent, and the homophobic group murder of Samuel Luiz, a 24-year nurse, in the city of A Coruña two years ago shocked the entire country. With the right-wing parties currently leading in the polls, many worry that this weekend’s elections could not only undo the gains that queer Spaniards—especially trans people—have made in recent years but set off a new wave of social and political repression. The stakes, in other words, are very, very high.

Spain’s previous national trans law was enacted in 2007, during the Socialist premiership of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The country’s comunidades autónomas (state governments) are in charge of managing health and educational systems, so after its approval in Congress, LGBTQI+ organizations focused on working to implement protection of trans rights at the state and local level, said Uge Sangil, president of the State Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Trans, Bisexuals, Intersexuals, and more (FELGTBI+), a leading queer rights group. (FELBGTI+ has advocated a vote for left parties in the upcoming elections.) As a result of activists’ efforts, several state governments, including those of Canarias and Catalonia, implemented trans-affirming legislation in the 15 years following the approval of the 2007 law.

At the national level, queer activists and NGOs were advocating for the depathologization of trans people. To ensure full recognition of the community’s human rights, they said, the central government had to eliminate the psychological and psychiatric treatment needed for a legal gender change—a goal that was finally achieved in this year’s LGBTI Law. “The great challenge we faced [was] achieving gender self-determination without tutelage, without doctors involved,” Sangil said in a phone interview in Spanish.

Self-determination, however, was not the only cause the community had to fight for. Activists like Mar Cambrollé, president of the Federation Trans Platform (Federación Plataforma Trans) and a participant in the first Spanish Pride March of 1977, also emphasize how the current LGBTI Law has advanced the protection of other rights. Cambrollé, who was involved in drafting the new law, highlighted the banning of conversion therapies and unnecessary surgeries on intersex children under the age of 12 as two of its most progressive protections. “It is a comprehensive and cross-cutting legislation, not just a name-changing measure,” Cambrollé said in an interview. “That is why this law serves as a model for other countries.”

Internationally, Spain’s LGBTI Law is at the forefront of human rights legislation, said Curro Peña, PhD, a consultant in human rights who works with organizations like the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA.) Revoking mandatory hormone treatment to change the legal gender aligns with international standards set by judicial bodies like the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and United Nations entities such as the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

But others have pushed their legislation even further, Peña said. Spain still does not formally recognize nonbinary people and gender-neutral legal markers, unlike countries like Iceland and Malta. According to sources from the Equality Ministry, led by Unidas Podemos minister Irene Montero, the draft bill included the option to leave the legal gender marker blank, but the Socialist Party opposed the idea. “Spain has approved a law that can be described as progressive, but it is not the most forward-thinking,” said Peña. “There has been a cautious approach, especially from a part of the government.”

For people like Txus García, a 48-year-old trans nonbinary man and LGBTQI+ activist, the lack of recognition of nonbinary gender identities limits human diversity, subjecting it to a system that excludes many gender-nonconforming individuals. “They are forcing me to binarize, to remain in the fold of being either A or B,” García told me. “If I want to…be perceived as a man, I have to dress and behave in a certain way: That is terrible and harmful.” According to a 2022 report by the Spanish Ministry of Equality, 80 percent of nonbinary people have suffered discrimination in family settings and 51 percent in sexual-affective relationships, and the lack of governmental recognition further invisibilizes their cause.

“Enbies” are not the only ones excluded from the LGBTI Law. Trans children under 12 are excluded from its protections. (Children from 12 to 14 can change their legal gender with court approval, and 14-to-16-year-olds can do so with parental consent; anyone over 16 can change their legal gender freely.) Alicia Arruti, a 16-year-old student and trans activist, was one of the first minors to legally change her gender under the new legislation, and despite being “euphoric” when she heard about the law’s approval, she criticizes the lack of protection for trans minors. Before the approval of the law, courts authorized some minors under 12, such as a child named Alejandro, to legally change their gender, an affirming approach cut short in February. “They decided that to avoid further controversies with the law but, in the end, it dismisses people under 12 years old,” Arruti said in a video interview in Galician.

Parents of trans children like Encarni Bonilla, who heads Chrysallis, an association of trans children and youth families, echo Arruti’s criticism. “Leaving out children under 12 has been a concern,” Bonilla said. “Until now, there have been more or less flexible criteria depending on the autonomous communities.”

Despite its shortcomings, though, Spain’s LGBTI Law has deeply changed the lives of many trans people. That is why there is so much concern about the potential triumph of the right in Sunday’s elections.

When Bruno Campos, a 22-year-old trans photographer, found out that Congress had approved it, he started running around his apartment in Torremolinos, Andalucía, screaming with joy. The upcoming election terrifies him.

“I had never seen such a tangible possibility that my rights could be wiped away with the stroke of a pen,” said Campos in a video interview in Spanish. “It is a reality already present in other countries. Who can assure me that on July 23 the far right will not win and two months later I will not have any rights in this country?”

The LGBTI law played a major role in the election campaign. In its 2023 platform, PP rejected “the most extreme positions on transsexuality,” and Núñez-Feijoo said he will abolish the current LGBTI Law if elected. Conservatives have repeatedly appealed several articles of the legislation before the Constitutional Court. Vox has also vowed to abolish the LGBTI Law in its latest platform, depicting gender self-determination as a “new fictional right” that “blurs the concepts of man and woman.” During the only broadcasted debate featuring several political groups present in Congress, Iván Espinosa de los Monteros, congressional speaker of Vox, said that Spaniards are worried that “maths have been replaced by gender ideology” and that, instead of dealing with the challenges faced by baby boomers’ retirement, the government “is concerned about the trans law.”

The left has underscored the threats a PP-Vox coalition government would pose for the queer community. In the speakers’ debate, Patxi López, PSOE’s congressional speaker, denounced the pacts of a “far-right alliance” that has already banned the screening of movies like Lightyear (which featured a kiss between two women) from a local summer festival in Cantabria. Additionally, during a debate in the Senate, Sánchez told Núñez-Feijoo that he “never imagined that recognizing rights of minorities like the trans community” would upset anyone; and in the only campaign debate between the two leaders, Sánchez said that “all the laws related to women and the LGBTI collective that is being threatened by Vox and their governments with PP have the imprint of PSOE.” Núñez-Feijoo responded that when he was president of Galicia, he “passed a law for the LGBTI collective in 2014,” and later added, “you talk about LGBTI flags, I have all the respect for those flags, but I also respect the flag of Spain, and you govern with parties that do not hang the Spanish flag in the institutions.”

Sumar (“Add Up”), the political successor of Unidas Podemos, wants to expand the protections of the current LGBTI law, and Yolanda Díaz, its leader, defended her party’s project, saying that the only thing Núñez-Feijoo has done is “include radicals in his governments, [those who] trample on women’s and LGBTI’s rights.” In a debate on equality policies organized this week, María de la Cabeza Ruiz Solás, a Vox congresswoman, called Elizabeth Duval, Sumar’s spokeswoman for feminism and LGBTI rights and a trans woman, “chronically ill” for the hormone treatment she receives, although she later clarified that being trans “is not an illness. The problem is that you have to take medication, which is negative for your health.” Andrea Fernández, PSOE’s equality spokeswoman, depicted Ruiz Solás’s comments as “Dante-esque,” and as a “violent discourse with the complicit tolerance of PP.”

Whoever wins on Sunday, queer Spaniards will have a fight on their hands. If Sánchez is returned to power, they will have to push his government to expand the protections of the existing LGBTI law. If the right takes over, they will have to defend the rights they have already won. Regardless of the outcome of the election, LGBTQI+ organizations, especially local ones like ALAS A Coruña, will continue to lead the way in the protection of the trans community, offering support and community for those in need of a chosen family. “We need to maintain the work we have been doing so far: educating, training, being on the streets, trying to reach all populations, traveling throughout the province, and providing quality services to our community,” said Ana G. Fernández, president of ALAS A Coruña.

And the fight against transphobia does not end at the election booth. “As a collective, country and society, I believe we should aspire to continue working on changing mindsets, and for those different perspectives to materialize in laws that protect the rights of trans people,” said Campos. “I am a fairly positive person.”

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