How gay stylists play a key role during Holy Week in southern Spain

Working with rich fabrics, fine lace and flowers, gay stylists have long played a key role in dressing the Virgin Mary figures carried through the streets of southern Spain during Holy Week. But their participation comes at a price: silence about their sexual orientation.

How gay stylists play a key role during Holy Week in southern Spain
Dancer and performer Carlos Carvento, dressed in mourning and wearing a traditional 'mantilla' poses in Córdoba. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

It’s a compromise that is making them increasingly uncomfortable.

“Seville’s Holy Week is a contemporary festival dating back to the end of the 19th century and the gay community has been involved since the very beginning,” says Rafael Cáceres, an anthropology expert at Pablo Olavide University in the southern city of Seville.

The Andalusian capital is a hive of activity ahead of Holy Week, which starts on Palm Sunday – April 10th – and culminates on Easter Day when Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Many thousands throng the streets to watch life-sized models of the Virgin Mary and Christ carried through the streets by different brotherhoods and religious associations.

The figures are painstakingly dressed and adorned by volunteers at religious associations.

“There are florists, embroidery specialists, jewellers, stylists” who work together on the virgin figures and “almost all of them are gay”, says Pedro Pablo Pérez Ochavo of Seville’s Ichtys [email protected] LGBT+H which lobbies for equality within the Catholic Church.

‘A path to integration’

With their role in the brotherhoods, gay men can find “a way to fit in”, a space in which “their artistic work and persona is valued”, said Carlos Carvento, a 26-year-old dancer and drag queen from Córdoba.

“Acceptance is based on that: a person can be a virgin dresser and gay but he wouldn’t say it. As long as his public life is reasonably discreet so it doesn’t tarnish the brotherhood,” explains Cáceres, the anthropologist.

“The Church’s attitude is pretty laissez-faire as long as there’s no scandal,” said Jesus Pascual whose 2021 documentary film “Dolores, guapa!” explored the links between Andalusia’s gay community and Holy Week.

But Antonio Muñoz Tapia began to have problems after marrying his partner David in 2016.

“If you don’t have a partner, if you live alone and keep quiet as I did, they don’t cause you any problems,” explained this 50-year-old businessman who works in the oil sector.

Olive oil entrepreneur Antonio Muñoz poses in S. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

Two decades ago, he set up a brotherhood in Doña Mencia, his village near Córdoba, taking the prestigious top role as its “big brother”.

But since getting married, requests for him to give the speech that opens Holy Week in his village have petered out.

And more recently the Church printed its annual magazine for the brotherhoods without including his article calling for equality for the LGBT community.

Muñoz Tapia says he’s never experienced such an attitude within the brotherhood nor among locals, Spain being a country where people are very open-minded about LGBT issues.

“I just don’t understand this Pharisee-like attitude — that we’re good enough for the brotherhoods but not good enough to deserve the same rights,” he said.

‘A Christian lifestyle’

Seville’s archdiocese told AFP it “did not by any means have a register which specified people’s sexual identity” and that “anyone who wanted to deeply experience Holy Week in Seville could do so without any problem”.

However, diocesan rules say those leading brotherhoods or religious organisations must “stand out for their Christian lifestyle in their personal life, their family life and in society”.

Married Spanish designers José Víctor Rodríguez (L) and Jose Luis Medina, also known as “Victorio” and “Lucchino” pose for pictures in their atelier in Seville. (Photo by CRISTINA QUICLER / AFP)

“They don’t use the word ‘homosexual’ but they use this article” against those identifying as LGBT or people who are divorced, explains Ochavo of Ichtys.

José Víctor Rodriguez and José Luis Medina, fashion designers known as “Victorio” and “Lucchino”, got married in 2007 and shortly afterwards, a Seville newspaper published a letter criticising the fact they were allowed to dress the Holy Week virgins.

“We’ve led a life that’s more upright and moral than many other people,” insists Medina, describing the letter as a “despicable” attack.

Lady Gaga v. Our Lady of Sorrows

Three years ago, drag queen Carvento celebrated Holy Week by walking through Córdoba in a black skirt, high heels and his grandmother’s mantilla, a traditional embroidered black shawl used during fiestas or solemn occasions.

His picture on Instagram was initially taken down following several complaints, but later allowed.

Dancer and performer Carlos Carvento, dressed in mourning and wearing a traditional ‘mantilla’. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

“They often say that [the gay community] is taking over (this annual tradition) but I’m not taking over anything because it’s mine too!”

During Holy Week, dozens of different Virgin Marys are paraded through the streets with Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of the Broom and the Virgin of Macarena’s Hope clear favourites among the gay community.

“You might have a gay fan of Lady Gaga or of Rosalia in Barcelona but here, we’re fans of the Virgin of la Macarena or the Glorious Ascension, or Our Lady of Sorrows,” grins Carvento.

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‘We’re strong enough’: Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain's famous Semana Santa processions 30 years ago, female "costaleros" - as float bearers are known - remain a minority who still face resistance.

'We're strong enough': Women bear weight of Easter ritual in changing Spain

On Holy Monday in the historic city of Granada in southern Spain, a team of 50 women rock rhythmically from foot to foot carrying a 1.5-tonne float topped with a statue of Jesus and Mary.

They support the weight on wooden ribs under the belly of the float as they inch forward through the city for ten hours.

A heavy velvet cloth draped over the float leaves only their white shoes visible to throngs of spectators lining the route.

The parades featuring dozens of people dressed in religious tunics and distinctive pointy hoods have returned this Holy Week after being cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic the past two years.

While religious orders started allowing women to carry floats in Spain’s famous Easter processions 30 years ago, female “costaleros” — as float bearers are known — remain a minority who still face resistance.

Women have traditionally formed the back line of the processions, playing the role of mourners dressed in stylish black dresses, embroidered veils and intricately designed hair combs.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s.

Granada’s “Work and Light” brotherhood was among the first to allow women to carry the floats in the 1980s. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

At first “it was not accepted, women were talked bad about,” said Pilar del Carpio, a 45-year-old cashier who has been a shrine bearer since she was 13 and is proud to be one of the “pioneers”.

Today only three or four of Granada’s 30 brotherhoods, which stage the processions, include women costaleras.

“Maybe there are people who think it is not normal,” said Maria Auxiliadora Canca, a 40-year driving instructor who directs a team of float bearers in Ronda, another Andalusia city in southern Spain.

“Since our bodies are capable of doing it, and we do it with conviction, I don’t see why there should be a difference.”


But in Seville, which holds Spain’s most spectacular Easter parades, there are no women float bearers even though the city’s archbishop in 2011 issued a decree to put an end to gender-based discrimination in the city’s religious orders.

Opponents claim the task is too physically demanding, “not suitable” for women.

“It’s a scandal,” said Maribel Tortosa, 23, who manages an Instagram account called “Costaleras por Sevilla” dedicated to women float bearers.

People say that it is “ugly” to see a woman wearing a “costal”, the traditional padded sack used by bearers as protective headgear, she said.

Two female float bearers “Costaleras” of the “Trabajo y Luz” (Work and Light) brotherhood hug each other after ten arduous hours of heavy lifting. (Photo by JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

“But under a float, you don’t see anything,” she added.

Still, the emergence of women float bearers reflects the growing push by women in Spain into traditionally male-dominated fields since the return of democracy in the 1970s.

Spain’s oldest police force, the Guardia Civil, has since 2020 been headed by a woman — a first in its 178-year history.

And since Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez came to power in 2018, women have taken up most cabinet posts for the first time in history.

‘Strong enough’

In Granada, locals are no longer surprised to see women training on the streets in the lead up to Holy Week by lifting and carrying a float loaded with bricks.

The load “weighs more every hour”, even though the shrine bearers are replaced every half hour during the “Work and Light” brotherhood’s procession, which began Monday at four pm and ended at around one am, said Rafael Perez, who heads the team of women shrine bearers.

Working with women “changes absolutely nothing. I just have to treat them with more tenderness,” said Perez.

Among the women of this religious order was Montse Ríos, 47, who has been a bearer since she was 19 and who still feels “strong enough to go under”.

Her eldest daughter joined her this week under the float, while her youngest is a “pipera”, giving water to the procession participants.

“And we don’t lack that,” she added.