MADRID – Ana Silva has spent four years running diversity workshops in schools, but this was the first time one of her classes had ever turned violent.
She was working in a school alongside a trans volunteer, discussing issues around gender identity, sexuality and confronting gender stereotypes with 16- and 17-year-olds, when things suddenly became heated.
“They knew that we were both coming ahead of time,” she told VICE World News. “[The teenagers] were lifting their desks up and down, banging them against the floor. Then they started to approach us – they told us we should die.”
That this incident took place in Madrid, supposedly one of the world’s most gay-friendly cities and which plays host to one of Europe’s biggest Pride parades, makes it even more shocking.
What’s happening in Spain’s capital is being driven by the influence of the far-right political party Vox, part of the same broad phenomenon that has seen right-wing Christian groups funding attempts to promote conservative agendas in Europe, in which the targeting health, relationships, diversity and sex education programmes is becoming increasingly normalised. In the last few months, we’ve seen how groups have been part of cancelling sex education content in the UK and getting Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay Bill” signed, which bans schools from discussing issues such as sexual orientation and gender identities.
Silva works as a therapist in Madrid but in what little spare time she has she volunteers with a local LGBTQ rights NGO called COGAM. As COVID-related restrictions in the city have eased, Silva said she had witnessed the emergence of hateful rhetoric she’d never witnessed in schools before.
In another class in Madrid this year, Silva couldn’t deliver her workshop to the students because the teacher present kept interrupting it with questions about trans identities. “She then left the class to bring in a colleague, the school nurse, who was Opus Dei,” said Silva. Opus Dei is a Catholic institution whose laypeople in Spain commonly hold positions of power across schools, universities, hospitals and even politics. “And they both kept asking questions. I couldn’t run the workshop.”
Silva said this has been happening since this academic year began, and believes that there are two reasons behind changing attitudes towards these types of lessons in schools. One is that Vox, Spain’s biggest far-right party, has enjoyed a growth in power in Madrid since 2021. Although the centre-right PP (Partido Popular) won last year’s regional elections, it fell short of an absolute majority, and while Vox did not join any coalition it does sometimes prop up the ruling party to help form a comfortably majority right-wing voting bloc.
Prior to the election in May 2021, Vox committed to a set of demands in Madrid from the ultraconservative Catholic campaign group Hazte Oír that included commitments to blocking abortion and euthanasia access, as well as repealing regional laws protecting the LGBTQ community against discrimination.
Vox supporters march in Madrid in November last year. Photo: Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images
Targeting comprehensive relationships, family and sex education programmes as part of this agenda is nothing new to groups like Hazte Oír; its sister organisation CitizenGo has spent the last month targeting it in the UK, and in the US Florida has just signed the so-called “Don’t Say Gay’ bill” restricting teaching young people about sexuality and gender.
The second reason Silva believes things are getting worse is because students and teachers alike have just spent a whole pandemic shut indoors on the internet, consuming hate speech associated with this kind of campaigning. In Madrid, Vox has strenuously targeted such programmes. Back in 2019, Vox tried to request information about the workshops that COGAM delivered in Madrid, including the names of those involved. European data privacy laws prevented them from ever finding out, though some volunteers like Silva voluntarily identified themselves.
Last year, the president of Madrid’s regional government, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, denied Vox’s request for a “pin parental”, a kind of parental veto giving parents permission to withdraw their children from classes with content on sexual and gender identity. Vox politicians succeeded with bringing this veto into schools in Murcia in southeastern Spain, but in Madrid, Díaz Ayuso resisted – she explained at the time that there hadn’t been a single formal complaint filed to the Department of Education about the contents of classes.
But she doesn’t always challenge Vox on their attempts to repeal or change laws. In December, Vox tried and failed to abolish Madrid’s relatively new laws on gender identity and anti-discrimination, as well as a law guaranteeing people protection from the state against LGBTphobia, establishing a regulatory framework to protect the community from abuse. The parties on the left voted against Vox’s proposal, but Díaz Ayuso’s PP party abstained, and added she would be open to altering them in the future.
Carla Antonelli, who became the first trans person to serve in a Spanish legislature when they were elected to the Madrid Assembly in 2011, is not surprised that Vox is targeting LGBTQ inclusion, but is surprised the PP are appearing to look the other way. “Vox have been saying this from the beginning – they are against LGBT rights, trans people, they don’t believe in gender violence,” she said. “But the PP are living with them here in Madrid. I don’t know how to distinguish here between the far right and the PP.”
In April, Vox tried to raise what in Spain is called a PNL, a non-binding proposal, that urged the authorities to take measures to “stop the LGBT indoctrination in classrooms” because of “a need to respect how young people develop their identity and personality” as well as “the right of parents to supervise the kind of education their children receive.”
“Indoctrination?” asked Silva, the therapist who runs LGBTQ workshops. “We are not saying anything that isn’t what human rights uphold, and what the law tells us to talk about. If stopping bullying and breaking gender stereotypes is indoctrination, then yes, we indoctrinate!”
Sara Guilló Sáez, who runs COGAM’s educational activities, told VICE World News over a video call that she can also see growing hate and aggression towards the LGBTQ community in the data that her organisation collects; the as-yet-unpublished annual survey data that is set to come out in September suggests that the picture in Madrid is getting worse than in previous years. “The pandemic had a role, and we also need to remember that during this time, young gay people had fewer safe spaces.”
Santi Rivero, a representative of the socialist party PSOE in the Madrid Assembly, can see a change spanning decades. “Madrid has been carrying out these workshops in schools about sexual diversity since the 90s, and nothing significant ever happened,” he said. “But since Vox achieved more representation and were more vocal in the media and online, they are producing cases in which some parents – these are isolated cases – do not want their children to receive these workshops. And these workshops are so important because they give children who possibly have had a homophobic education the chance to learn first-hand the reality that LGBT people face, and teach them not to discriminate anyone but to respect them.”
He added: “I am enormously worried. Since the PP have allowed Vox to let them govern, they have paralysed the policies that were in place for the LGBT community. They’ve stopped the investigations that were happening into places that practiced conversion therapy. Also, in Madrid, we have an LGBT law and another trans law that are some of the most advanced in Spain, but they’ve not developed because of the lack of political will. The politicians are not meeting with LGBT organisations.”
Madrid is not the only city in Spain where Vox enjoys a degree of legislative power in a confidence and supply agreement, in which the largest party or coalition does not hold an absolute majority and relies on smaller parties like Vox to function. Vox is in a similar position in Murcia and Andalusia, and have just formed a coalition government in Castile and Leon with the PP – their first formal power-share in the country.
In a few weeks, Madrid will host its famous Pride parade, the first to be free of COVID-19 restrictions in years. “It will be huge,” said Antonelli, conscious that this time around, Madrid’s LGBTQ community may feel like they are fighting for more than usual.
“Public representatives…when hate speech comes out of their mouths, of course it has an effect on the people,” she said. “Yes, there is a rise in aggression, in hate.”
Last year, she said, she witnessed something she never thought she would see in Chueca, Madrid’s gay neighbourhood: “We had a group of Neo-Nazis march through Chueca saying: ‘Gays, get our of our neighbourhood.’
“In the heart of Chueca, this would never have happened, were it not for a far right party in power saying these things.”