Remembering a pioneer of Spanish gay rights

Spain mourned the death this week of Pedro Zerolo, a politician and activist who was instrumental in the creation of monumental marriage equality laws that helped make Spain a pioneer in gay rights.

Remembering a pioneer of Spanish gay rights
Socialist, politician and LGBT activist Pedro Zerolo died on Tuesday. Photo: Juanjo Zanabria Masaveu / Wikimedia Commons.

After a more than year-long battle with pancreatic cancer, activist Pedro Zerolo died on Tuesday at the age of 55.

Colleagues have since started an online petition to change the name of Plaza Vázquez de Mella in Madrid to be named after Zerolo. 

Members of the Spanish LGBT community led the tributes but it was clear he had won respect across all political factions. Friends and admirers from around the world expressed sadness and grief over his passing, describing Zerolo as a “fighter” and an “example to all”.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was among the first to pay tribute, wrriting on Twitter: “We have just found out about the death of Pedro Zerolo. This is a very difficult moment for his family, his friends and his colleagues. My condolences.” 

Zerolo was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1960 after his father was exiled by Spain's fascist dictator General Francisco Franco but he later moved to Spain to study law in Tenerife and then Madrid.

In the capital city, he started to become more involved in the LGBT community, working as a legal consultant for the Gay Collective of Madrid (COGAM) and later becoming the organization's president in 1993.

Eventually he was named president of what is now called the National Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals (FELGTB) and in 2004 joined the board of directors for the International Lesbian and Gay Association.

He also became elected to the Federal Executive Committee of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE) in 2004.

“If there was something that Pedro taught us, throughout the years that we were lucky to have him as our president and throughout all his work and commitment with FELGTB and PSOE, it is not to give up,” wrote COGAM following the news of his death.

“You have to keep fighting and believe that change, as difficult as it may seem, is possible. The last months of his life were a new example of his determination to fight and to overcome.”

Fighting for marriage equality

Starting in 2001, Zerolo began working on negotiations with government officials on amendments to the Spanish Civil Code regarding the definition of marriage.

Given his legal background, Zerolo worked on changing all mentions of “husband and wife” to “spouses”, as well as “mother and father” to “parents”. 

In 2005, the Socialist administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed laws allowing same-sex marriage as well as adoption rights for same-sex couples, making Spain the first country to grant full equality in marriage for both gay and straight couples.

That same year, Zerolo married his partner Jesús Santos.

After passing marriage equality, Zerolo worked on legislation to expand the rights of transgender individuals as well.

In the years since Zerolo's activism, Spain has now become known as one of the most progressive countries for gay rights in Europe, and has been previously ranked the most gay-friendly nation in the world.

Zerolo announced he had pancreatic cancer in January 2014, but he continued to stay in the public eye.

In his last interview with newspaper El Pais, he spoke openly about his feelings toward the sickness.

“I am ill, you know that,” he said. “Illness has taught me that you reap what you sow. I have been surprised at all the sympathy I’ve been getting from strangers.

“I think that, in order to beat this, you cannot be afraid. Fear is defeated through calm, by being calm with yourself. Without fear, you feel that life is on your side.”

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How a rainbow ghost stole the show on the first day of Spain’s new parliament

The swearing in of Spain's newly elected politicans was marked by cheering and jeering between Catalan separatists and the new far-right politicians. But it was a rainbow ghost that stole the show.

How a rainbow ghost stole the show on the first day of Spain’s new parliament
VOX leader Santiago Abascal (C) behind MPs wearing t-shirts depicting the LGBT colors during the plenary session of the lower house of parliament. Photo: AFP

A lot happened on the first day of parliament in Spain when newly elected lawmakers arrived in Spain’s lower chamber to take their seats and be sworn in.

Not least, five Catalan separatist leaders, currently in jail and on trial for their role in Catalonia’s failed bid for independence, swore to respect the Spanish constitution – the same constitution they are accused of having violated with their independence push — even as they vowed to remain faithful to the separatist cause.

But it was an icon of a little laughing rainbow ghost that stole the show.

The story behind the icon that was emblazoned on the T-shirts of two Socialist deputies as they strolled into Congress to take their seats on Tuesday is a modern fable, an epic example of how a bigoted attempt to stem gay activism actually fuelled it – and all thanks to twitter.

The symbol of a laughing ghost in the rainbow colours first appeared in a now infamous tweet by far right political party VOX on the morning of election day with the slogan: Let the battle commence.

The tweet pictured Aragorn – from Lord of The Rings – preparing to do battle with those issues that, in the philosophy of VOX, threaten Spain; immigration, feminists, abortion, Islam, Catalan nationalism, communists, left-wing media, and of course, the LGBT community.  

And it chose to depict that community with a grinning, smiley-eyed ghost shape sporting rainbow colours.

Several things happened after that tweet. Firstly Viggo Mortenssen, the actor who played Aragorn in the film version of the J.R.R. Tolkien and who is based in Madrid, slammed the party over its use of his most famous role to promote their far-right ideas.

And instantly a new star was born: Gaypser.

The icon quickly took on a life of its own, with the LGTB community taking it to their hearts and making it their own – dubbing it Gaysper after Casper the Friendly Ghost.

Gayser even made the difficult leap from the twittersphere into high politics when the icon appeared emblazoned on the chests of two Socialists MPs as they strolled in to take their seats on Tuesday.

Photographers snapped the moment the icon came face to face with its creator – or at least the leader of the party that made it famous – Santiago Abascal of Vox, the party which enters Spain’s parliament for the first time after winning 24 seats.

It was a gift for twitter jokers.