As Madrid Pride week festivities approach, John Boyce looks back at the life of iconic gay activist Pedro Zerolo, and his unique contribution to the Spanish gay rights movement.
After decades of oppression under Franco, the more liberal political environment of 1980s Spain presented an opportunity for the LGBTQI+ community to come out of the shadows.
Taking inspiration from the burgeoning rights movements in the US and the UK, Spanish activists began the long fight for equality.
One towering figure in this decades-long struggle is Pedro Zerolo.
Although of Tenerife stock, Zerolo was born in Venezuela in 1960, his father a republican exile of the Spanish civil war. His family returned to Tenerife when Pedro was a young boy, and he completed a law degree on his native island, before moving to Madrid for his postgraduate studies.
It was not long before the openly gay Zerolo became immersed in activism, becoming the legal representative for the prominent gay rights organisation now known as COGAM (the LGBTQ collective of Madrid), before being elected its president in 1992.
From 2003 until 2011 Zerolo also served as a socialist party (PSOE) councillor in the Madrid municipal assembly.
Zerolo is most renowned for his work in persuading the then Spanish prime minister, Jose Rodriquez Zapatero, to legalise gay marriage in 2005. Zerolo played a key role in the negotiations between the government and the opposition on proposed changes to the Spanish civil code.
The task was not an easy one, due to the ingrained homophobia of conservative forces in parliament, led by the Popular Party (PP), who used their majority in the senate to hold up the legislation for many months. When the bill was eventually brought to parliament, where it passed by a large majority, Spain became only the third country in the world to legalise equal marriage, after the Netherlands and Belgium.
A few short months later Zerolo married his own long-term partner, Jesús Santos.
In subsequent years, his career in politics continued to blossom, though a failed bid to win the nomination as the PSOE candidate for Madrid mayor in 2005 was put down to lingering homophobia in a party to which he had devoted most of his political life.
In 2015 Zerolo was elected to the more powerful community of Madrid assembly, but never took up his seat. Just months before the election, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, succumbing to the disease just two weeks after the vote. Despite his tireless work for the cause of equality the distance still to travel in creating a homophobia-free Spain was revealed in repugnant terms by the pronouncement of a prominent Catholic bishop that Zerolo’s cancer was a just punishment from God.
Though taken far too soon, Zerolo’s legacy lives on in the Equal Treatment Act, finally introduced by the government in June of last year, after many months of delay and wrangling. Better known as the Pedro Zerolo law, it mandates prison terms for “public incitement to hatred of the Gitano community” and includes the offence of “aporafobia” (hatred of the poor), which will now be considered as an aggravating factor when crimes are committed against vulnerable citizens.
The Gitano community, whose Spanish contingent predominantly reside in the southern autonomous community of Andalusia, is amongst the poorest and most marginalised minority groups in Europe, and their protection and welfare had long been a cause close to Zerolo´s heart.
A particular regret of his close friends and colleagues is that he did not live to see the enactment of a law he had worked so hard to make a reality.
The politics of Plaza Pedro Zerolo
For many years one of the main squares in Madrid´s gay district of Chueca has been a popular location for gay pride celebrations, events and demonstrations. Though often referred to as plaza Pedro Zerolo by the LGBTQI+ community, its name was only officially changed in 2015 under the mayoralty of veteran leftist Manuela Carmena, after several petitions on the subject in the wake of Zerolos´s death.
Up until then it had been plaza Vázquez de Mella, named after a long dead Carlist politician, who would no doubt be turning in his grave at the idea of being replaced by a gay, socialist, civil rights activist.
In response to an anti-gay neo-nazi rally in two of the principal streets of Chueca in 2021, the city council agreed to have a LGBTQ+ flag flown permanently in Zerolo square, and a monument erected in memory of those who were persecuted for their sexual orientation.
All parties in the municipal assembly voted in favour of these gestures, with the exception of the far-right Vox party who wanted the square renamed. In a seemingly never ending culture war over its status, the Popular Party Mayor, Jose Almeida, until recently politically dependent on the far right, halted a major, long planned renovation of Zerolo square, citing the concerns of residents.
The opposition condemned the decision as a petty, Vox inspired, act of revenge for the changing of square ́s name six years earlier.