Deep thuds of electronic music emanated from an abandoned building in eastern Madrid as a line of people flowed into the structure. Lifeless by day, the building awoke at night as lights oscillated from boarded windows, the sounds of footsteps filling a quiet neighborhood. The late October air brought goosebumps to my skin only eased by the warmth escaping the open doorway, graffitied eyes loomed over the entrance.
Patri Rodriguez sat at a small table collecting euros upon entrance. I’d met her the month prior through a mentor of mine and immediately liked her as she shared anecdotes of past relationships with women and coming out to her Venezuelan parents. “Any amount will do, amor,” she said with a grin on her face, her bleached hair encircling round cheeks and almond colored eyes. I handed her the coins in my pocket, an amount equivalent to four U.S. dollars.
After two gentle besos and a warm smile from Rodriguez I entered the space with a friend from my university. I’d moved to Madrid to spend six months studying, temporarily leaving the warmth of California, the state I was born and raised in.
The building was broken into a series of rooms, one hosting a makeshift bar where beers were sold for one euro, another with a set of booths where people applied bright glitter to each other’s faces. The back of the space boasted a rickety stage where DJs played sets as drag queens were passed above people’s heads throwing feathers into drinks and blowing kisses to the crowd. Each room had new forms of expression, the barriers of gendered and sexual expectations shifted within a limitless spectrum.
With purple sparkles decorating my eyes I moved amidst the sea of people, watching as lovers and friends experienced the night with one another, dancing passionately to the deep house that shook the deteriorating walls. Diverse faces surrounded me with no gender, age, sexuality, or race setting the standard of who was welcome. As if we were all one being, intermeshing into an identity that was accepting and fluid. I felt safe in the space, seen, and heard, as I shared laughter and sweat. I momentarily shed emotional walls that I’d built to protect myself from a world that wasn’t always accepting of queer.
In the months prior to the event I’d frequented many gay bars and clubs, but never felt the freedom like I felt in the abandoned building. Where gay spaces valued bodies, muscularity and masculinity, the queer spaces had other values, those focussed on acceptance of diverse identities.
It was through these experiences and interactions I learned that the queer community of Madrid is vastly different than the gay community, in not only who is welcome, but most evidently in their pursuit of making change throughout the city.
A week after the warehouse party, I sat down with Patri Rodriguez to learn more about the queer communities in Madrid. Rodriguez welcomed me into her office in the archive at La Neomudejár, an art gallery in the south of the city that focuses on representing queer artists. Her desk was lined with aged magazines covered in naked cartoon men as the sound of a small fan filled the room, dust whirling from its blades.
“We feel the need to make spaces where everyone is welcome, no matter what gender you identify with or who you sleep with,” said Rodriguez, “that everybody feels a part of something bigger.” Their party in the abandoned building was one of many efforts in doing so, efforts rooted in queer people not feeling accepted in mainstream LGBT spaces. And, although Madrid boasts an array of these spaces, they are most heavily concentrated in the neighborhood of Chueca, a neighborhood fixated on representing the male, gay body, often excluding outsiders.
“It’s hard to explain without saying I hate Chueca,” said Rodriguez, “to segregate in an already segregated community, I find it a bit twisted.” She described her experiences of the neighborhood, of entering bars and feeling unwelcome, of even being turned away by bouncers for just being a woman. She described her friends being harassed and assaulted, despite being a part of the LGBTQ community themselves.
But the neighborhood of Chueca has a troubled history, one where even gay men were once violently excluded from its streets.
Chueca claimed itself as the gay and lesbian neighborhood in the late 1980’s after the death of Spanish Dictator Franciso Franco, a ruler that conflated Catholicism with the right to violently criminalize the LGBT community.
Under Franco, generations saw over 5,000 people convicted in the 1960’s and 70’s through anti-LGBT laws. Violence plagued the community, as anyone who was outed as homosexual risked the loss of their job and families, as well as physical assault, sexual assault, and even death. The neighborhood of Chueca was born from the fingertips of this violence against gay and lesbian people.
Homosexual people utilized the space to create a world of secrecy, one where they could exist even with concealed identities. In the streets they created a series of codes to express homosexuality, from prolonged eye contact with one another, or words such as “entiendes” or “do you understand me.” Although never free from violence, the neighborhood became a space for existence.
After Franco’s death, the country began shedding layers of imposed religious policies. La Movida, a counterculture movement of the 1980’s, promoted these gradual changes through emphasizing self expression in the pleasures of the night. The people of Madrid awoke with their newfound freedom, cheap drugs, and a blooming nightlife, one that grew for the communities of Chueca.
Homosexual people reconceptualized the neighborhood by opening businesses, hosting parties and events, and created organizing spaces that all catered to their identity. The communities of Chueca forged a new existence, one that now rests upon exclusivity.
Today for people like Rodriguez, a bisexual woman, Chueca is not a safe space nor one that feels representative of the the lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer identities, but instead only for gay identities.
Before coming to Spain, I never viewed my identity as a gay male as one of privilege. Growing up in a rural mountain community outside of Yosemite National Park, I grew accustomed to slurs and negative inquisitions as the makeup for my own identity. I got on antidepressants at the age of eleven when I thought that death would be better than the reality I was living in. I felt shamed in being gay and as if life would never be comfortable. My discomfort would turn to wishes of escape, to be in a location where I felt seen and heard, where I felt pride in identity.
Moving away from home provided the first steps of acceptance. My internalized homophobia would melt after long pulls of cheap whiskey and hookups with strangers in the top bunk of my dorm room bed. Through these men I was introduced to a queer community and quickly took to learning of stories as a way of navigating my own. I learned of how they came out, how their families navigated homosexuality, how their friendships changed. Through their experiences I slowly took footsteps in growing comfortable with my own journey as a queer person as I listened to the parts of me that craved acceptance for years.
At 19 years old I fell in love with a man older than me, who opened doors to both pain and happiness. I found comfort in his fingertips, in gentle eyes that reflected my own, soft hues of green and gentle browns, skin turned golden from the central coast sun. In time I grew dependent on this figure, losing track of parts of myself that needed to be explored. In leaving his love, and moving to Madrid, I was rechallenged in my solitude. To look for value outside of the confines of another, to find the value within myself.
My search for value has been a complex journey. In the community of Chueca the value was placed in front of me like a gift waiting to be opened, a gift handed out selectively. But this gift was fixated on the physicality of body, given to me because of the ways I looked. I saw it through the neighborhood, how I carried value in the eyes of Chueca’s residents, in the eyes of other gay men.
I saw the value in the attentive actions of bartenders and bouncers, in the questions asked in stores lined with rainbow flags, in free beers and desserts and WhatsApp numbers given over cash registers. I saw it in eye contact as I moved amongst the brick laid streets, in the words yelled, and in footsteps that followed close behind. In Chueca I knew I was seen and heard, a world so vastly different from the one I was brought up in where being unseen equated to safety.
The neighborhood of Chueca was built for people like me, for young, able bodied, gay men.
In the evenings I found myself exploring. Apartment buildings stood tall, lined with dormant plants and rainbow flags that flew gently in the night breeze, color against monochromatic walls. Event posters lined the streets advertising parties with live performances of muscular dancers wearing nothing but leather harnesses around their chests. Promoters shout outside of bars as they worked to entice male patrons with drink deals. There are signs that read “Naked: Men Only” as heat evaded the opening of doors, pop music filling the street momentarily.
The windows of BoyBerry, a gay cruising and fetish bar, displayed assortments of rainbow colored lingerie, and different sex toys: large dildos, handcuffs, types of flavored lube. The space is catered to the sexual, gay body as shirtless men mixed drinks behind the bar and soft core porn plays on screens around the room. Plastic curtains lead you to dark rooms lined with glory holes that smelled of poppers and sweat. A world built on gay sexual satisfaction..
Common themes appear in these spaces, characteristics of masculinity, whiteness, and muscularity, the copy and pasting of men seeking value in their identity, seeking the exploration of sexuality.
In another bar down the street I’m told to “just enjoy this.” The space is full of only one woman and sixteen middle aged men, eight of which had the same haircut, almost all wore muscle tees. I asked a bartender where I could find more diverse spaces, in search of the freedom I’d found in the abandoned building, his response is another beer.
I felt vulnerable in these spaces as I’m watched, analyzed, assessed. In a bar called THICK a man grabbed me and followed, tried to kiss me until I had to push him away. Another assumed that giving him a cigarette was consent to put his hands into my pants. Yet these interactions are normalized, and I’ve grown accustomed to non-consensual touch, both in Madrid, and California, where the value of myself felt diminished to the sexual pursuit of my body. I became a business, a transaction of sorts.
It was in these moments that I grew confused with Chueca, confused with gay identity. Growing up I craved to be accepted, seen, and heard. In my life spent in hiding I imagined what it would feel like to be comfortably visible, to decorate my hands in nail polish and my eyes in glitter, to kiss men in the dark and forge connections that explore all facets of being.
It’s as I’m granted these experiences that I’m also stripped of them. I’m accepted on particular terms that fixate on my body and the sexual pursuit over it. I grew weary of eyesight on the street, of the hands of men in clubs, in free drinks and conversations over bar tops. I feared my body being overstepped.
Yet even in discomfort, I continued to enter these spaces. My need to feel value prevailed. I continued to learn about men, their touch, their taste, their experiences. Lips that tasted of cheap beer and cigarettes, moments of bliss on warm dance floors. These moments served as reminders of the importance of having spaces where our bodies can be expressive. Spaces that sexual energy can be exchanged. As gay men our sex is a part of our existence, engrained in our community as it was once all we had, clandestine moments of pleasure in a homophobic world.
Through Chueca I was shown the complexity of the gay identity, a world that is necessary as we seek safety, but one plagued by harmful behavior. As gay men have forged our survival we have lost the ability to value our own bodies in the ways needed. Lost our ability to value the bodies of others that exist outside of our own cravings. Creating a world that is exclusive to the touch.
For Chueca, this world has enabled a business to be created, one that profits from exclusivity and sexual exploration. The very foundations of the neighborhood are negated in this process, one that was built on creating safe spaces for all queer folks but now serves very few.
Through the profiting off of the gay identity a process of “pink capitalism” is spread, one that values monetary success from the male body over inclusivity.
“What I consider pink capitalism is the economic profit from the LGBT cause,” Rodriguez said, “It’s another business, it’s a job.” These businesses show face in bars decorated with men and colorful drinks, in hair salons and clothing stores, in gyms and local markets. These businesses have grown to be catered to the consumption of the gay identity. However, not even all gay bodies are valued.
As described by Dr. Jon Snyder, Professor of Spanish Cultural Studies teaching at Boston University, Madrid, there is an “obsession with body cultivation.” For Chueca, the fixation existed on those that are white, affluent, able bodied, and muscular.
“[They’re] creating a normative sense of bodies that becomes an ideal that the gay community should work towards,” Snyder said, “but it’s also only achievable to those with an expandable income to have access to those services.” The gay body thus becomes an exclusive business, one that outsiders, including other LGBTQ folks, often struggle to exist within.
This exclusivity is seen most heavily in annual pride celebrations, an event that has become a business in the city, attracting over two million people annually. Through the consumption of pride critiques have arisen as the political character that forged its origin has been lost.
The political character of pride was rooted in resisting oppressive homophobic structures which damaged the lives of many LGBTQ folks. These struggles showed face most heavily in the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York. The riots were led by transgender activists such as Marsha P. Johnson and marked the boiling point for resistance. These protests created a new space for LGBTQ experiences to be validated and were a force behind the gay liberation movement, one that is often overshadowed today.
“I bet a vast majority of people participating in pride have no idea what the history is, whether it’s Stonewall or here in Spain,” said Snyder, “the business of pride is contributing to a sense of forgetting.”
Even in my own experiences I’ve forgotten. Every year as I make my way up the California coast to San Francisco, a weekend of dancing and drinking, I’ve allowed myself to forget. As we decorate the streets in rainbow flags and allow companies to sell merchandise decorated in our identities, we are forgetting of how companies only care for us when it entails profit. As we allow the police force to join in our parades, squad cars with rainbow stickers and a new sense of allyship, we are forgetting of the years they oppressed and murdered our people. In forgetting we lose the power behind pride, forgetting of the fights that are still to be had for not only our community, but for others as well.
As the history of pride is lost, many queer folks in Madrid have taken to creating their own celebrations that encompass the origins of struggle, including Patricia Rodriguez
“Pride really isn’t our pride anymore,” said Rodriguez, “so we decided we needed to reclaim some things, and we needed to do it publicly, we needed to do it in the streets.” The resistance of Rodriguez, and of others who felt that Pride was not representative of their experiences, helped forge the “critical pride,” one that celebrated the history of the gay liberation movement, while not settling for profit.
They created a series of talks and events, began hosting conferences and workshops, hosted parties, all of which were vocal in their disagreement with how pride was functioning. Their events were inclusive, of not only the LGBTQ community, but also of others living in the margins such as undocumented folks, low income folks, immigrants, and the elderly. Their fight became one of multifaceted views and voices, never settling.
“That is not what you’ll find in Chueca,” said Rodriguez, “as it’s all based in the need for our people to have a place of commitment to resistance.”
Out of their resistance a new wave of consciousness has swept the city, one rooted in not settling for pink capitalism.
I met with Javier Ollero in a small arts cafe in Lavapies, another of the eight barrios in Madrid. Car horns bounced amongst smooth red walls as he waited patiently at a table, steam dancing from a cappuccino. His eyes were welcoming, blue and reflective as we exchanged two small besos on the cheeks, a thinning hairline and a warm scarf draped around his broad shoulders.
It was January of 2020 and the last time I walked these streets was over a year ago. After interviewing Rodriguez I became an intern in the gallery, spending hours reading over decades of LGBTQ publications, unraveling the complexities of identity. I moved back to the United States but my curiosity persisted in understanding both the gay and queer communities of Madrid leading me to come back on a fellowship with the University of California, Santa Barbara.
The air felt the same as I’d left it, crisp and cool, requiring layers of jackets and long drags of American Spirits to keep warm. I moved amongst the city, from location to interview, nightclub to bar, digging deeper into the resistance of queer communities.
“For me, the difference between the LGBT community and the queer community, is not that we are different,” said Ollero, “it’s the political consciousness of identity that’s different.”
He continued, “We try to find our own way to define queerness, for example in our case we say “TransMariBiBollo, it is our kind of sexual battle.” Trans serves as a representation of transgender folks, Mari to actively combat the word maricón or “faggot” in the English language, bi for those deviating from heterosexuality, and bollo for women. Conceptually, the word is complex to define in the English language, but for the Spanish, it serves essential in maintaining a sense of queer identity that deviates from English speaking countries.
For the TransMariBiBollo community, organizing efforts stood at the forefront of their attention. Alongside Patricia Rodriguez, Ollero was involved with Marika de Madrid (MMM) one of Madrid’s leading queer organizations. MMM works towards educating the city on queerness through conventions, workshops, and nightlife events.
The work of Ollero and MMM advocated not only for the LGBTQ community, but also for others facing disparities, a common theme behind queer organizing.
“One of the basic things is that it’s not about being gay,” said Ollero, “It’s about all the intersectionalities that unify us and connect us with Trans people, and Black and Latin people, with immigrants, elderly people, with differently abled people.” Ollero referred to a consciousness of intersectionality, a term coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, he referred to one’s ability to see outside of their own perspective as a queer individual, to look towards our own identities that tie us with others in the margins.
Those behind MMM have worked towards forging connections with communities of Madrid that expand outside of the LGBTQ community, including the low income community. “In November we had two weeks of activities, from conferences to workshops to concerts,” said Ollero, all of which were free to the public.
In finding locations for these events, MMM often avoided institutions or locations that charged for their services. Instead, the organization turned to squatted locations. Abandoned factories and apartment buildings were quickly transformed to become social centers for organizing efforts. These locations also provided housing for those in need.
En Cornable, a building located in Lavapies, was one of MMM’s most successful squatting efforts, lasting over three years.
“It was an amazing location,” Ollero described to me, “because everything happened there, all of the movements, feminist movements, LGBT, immigrant, etc.” The location had designated rooms for those needing shelter, all you had to do was ask and you could stay.
In understanding the work of MMM, and their efforts towards providing safe spaces for not only the LGBTQ community but also outsiders, a stark disparity is created between the functioning of Chueca and queer organizers. As Chueca has grown and expanded, gentrifying the community through raising rents and growing businesses catered towards affluent gay men, the queer community has worked in the opposite direction.
“There is rage,” Ollero tells me, a rage even I begin to feel.
That rage is rooted with the gay community’s ability to embrace what we’ve been given, without understanding that the fight is not over for LGBTQ rights. While gay men in Spain have the rights to marry and adopt children, to maintain work, and to more comfortably be accepted in Spanish culture, others do not.
In gay mens’ ability to conform, the struggle is erased for those who have not attained their rights. These rights reach deep within the LGBTQ cause, for example in the lives of transgender folks that stood strong at the forefront of the gay liberation movement, who today are being murdered for authentically living their lives. These rights expand outside of LGBTQ community, to the lives of undocumented folks seeking refuge in countries such as Spain and the United States, into the homes of low income folks who face housing disparities, into the lives of Black folks who continue to be gunned down by the hands of “law” enforcement.
We say their names, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd. As the news headlines come in almost weekly, another life taken, I’m reminded of why we never settle. Why as a queer person, as a gay male, there is never a moment to settle as others living in the margins live under the constant threat of violence. For people of color, for Black folks, for undocumented folks, for low-income folks, for transgender folks, for women, there exists rage amongst struggle.
Rage is a reminder of what queerness means to me, to not be silent, to not exclude, and to not settle. Silence and conformity is a privilege. As I write, my rage turns to words, forging articles and thoughts with the hopes of sparking conversation.
As my rage was transformed into writing, Ollero’s rage was transformed into his need to care for others, rage moved to a genuine concern of how to build a sense of safety for his community.
“We have to care for one another,” said Ollero with a gentle smile on his face, “That’s a characteristic for me, as identifying as a queer person, trying to build up a care network.”
For Ollero his need to care for others was shown most expressively through teaching dance classes for the queer community. A professional dancer and interpreter, having studied dance and theatre in Madrid, Andalusia, and the University of Miguel Hernández in Altea, his work is expansive and breathtaking, pushing the norms of gender and sexuality on stage. The ability to give back these skills of dancing, as a form of self care for others, was something Ollero took great pride in.
In November of 2019 Ollero guided a free, eight hour dance workshop. His eyes lit up as he described the event to me, a room full of queer folks moving, sweating, existing in a room as they worked to understand one another.
“Self care through dance is my speciality,” said Ollero, “and we were trying to build up some kind of awareness of how we care for each other through dance.”
Our ability to dance is one of our greatest forms of connection, the smooth, rhythmic movement of electronic beats, the intermeshing of bodies, sweat, and identity. In Ollero’s words I’m brought to the dance floors, to the connection that was forged in footsteps, in the movement of our hips and hands, in the eye contact as we navigated our presence amidst music.
It was in these moments that I understood why activists like Ollero and Rodriguez spoke out about their experiences as queer people in Madrid. It’s not because they wish for Chueca or the gay identity to not exist. Instead it’s rooted in a genuine concern for the divide that has arisen. For the community of Chueca to act as though the fight for equality is over.
The silence from the gay community overlooks the struggle that continues to take place. For many queer folks and activists, there is no time for silence, our struggles and our history runs too deep to not share our stories.
There are reasons we enact our rage and there are reasons we are able to dance. Queer folks do both.