As Chueca gears up to take centre stage in next week’s Pride Parade, John Boyce explores the turbulent and everchanging history of Madrid’s iconic gay neighbourhood .
On the 10th of November 1975 Spanish citizens awoke to the news that Francisco Franco had died in his sleep. For some it was a day of genuine mourning. For all his repression and cruelty, Franco had retained the loyalty of a significant minority, the zealots and true believers, and those who had materially benefited from the regime.
For many more it was the end of a nightmare, particularly those who had suffered most under the regime, leftists, democracy activists, feminists and gays. Spontaneous, if discreet, celebrations broke out in certain parts of the capital.
One of those places was Chueca.
Long before the end of the Franco regime, The Chueca district of Madrid, located a stone’s throw from the main street of Gran Via, had become a byword for poverty, crime and deviance. An article published in December 1976 in ABC newspaper, detailing delays to the construction of the Chueca metro caused by the behaviour of delinquents and drug addicts, was typical of the kind of media coverage the zone attracted.
A marginalised neighbourhood with an elderly working-class demographic, poor street lighting and decaying infrastructure, its reputation as a den of vice only grew with the construction of the Metro station, prompting the younger generation from all over the city to descend on the square in pursuit of diversion. The narrow labyrinthine streets of the zone made it an attractive location for committing all manner of indiscretion.
In 1981 the zone was closed to traffic to curtail the ability of people to conduct illegal business from their vehicles and to make the downtown area a more pedestrian-friendly place. The move achieved the opposite effect, allowing drug dealers and prostitutes to loiter in the area and ply their trade.
As recently as 1998 Spain’s biggest selling newspaper, El Pais, described the zone as a black spot on the city map better forgotten. Chueca had earned a reputation that was proving hard to shake.
Its tentative renaissance in the early years of the post-Franco era was complicated by the emergence of la Movida Madrilena of the 1980s, a cultural movement characterised by an explosion of pent-up creativity and artistic expression after decades of repression, which was centred on the Chueca district.
Along with the creativity came the inevitable “sex drugs and rock and roll” aspect of such movements, which did little to improve the image of the area.
La Movida and Chueca were intimately connected with the development of counter cultural ideologies, a product of the revolutionary protest movements that had swept the world in the 1960s and early 1970s but were only now taking shape in a post-dictatorship Spain.
It was this bohemian milieu that began to attract gays and lesbians from other parts of the capital, and from around the country.
Here was a place they could hide in plain sight, and their increasing concentration around the neighbourhood led to the opening of the first overtly gay establishments there in the early 1980s.
The story of Chueca over the intervening 40 years is one of radical changes to the zone itself and in attitudes towards it, both public and official. In the 1980s Chueca was dismissed as a dangerous location best avoided, and was largely left to its own devices.
In the 1990s the rise to municipal power of the neo-liberal right in Madrid, prompted a more interventionist and reactionary approach, aimed at controlling sexual behaviour. An incident that took place in July of 1998, a year after the right-wing Popular party took power in Spain, gives an insight into the homophobic mentality of the new regime.
On the instructions of municipal authorities, police were dispatched to Chueca square to remove some twenty terrace tables, citing obscure bylaws about excessive urban furniture. Given the fact that no other plaza in the city centre was targeted in such a way, it was widely seen as an act of homophobic repression on the part of city hall.
It sparked the brief but noisy “defend our neighbourhood, defend our terraces, defend yourself” campaign centred on the square. It would be the first of many, as the Chueca became the epicentre of the gay rights movement in Madrid.
There is a certain irony in the fact that, twenty-five years on, it is the more radical left elements of the LGBTQI+ collective who now complain about the abundance of furniture in the square, a symptom of what they view as the excessive commodification of the zone.
And the commercial transformation of the neighbourhood has indeed been dramatic, particularly since the turn of the century. The liberalisation of Spanish society, and the success of the gay rights movement has created a more positive narrative of regeneration.
As with other gay neighbourhoods in major cities around the world, this has prompted a process of intense gentrification, with the cost of renting and buying property in the area skyrocketing in recent years.
In the last ten years the transformation appears complete with Chueca now firmly established as a globally recognised gay neighbourhood, a major tourist attraction and a desirable zone to both visit and live in.