Guillem Clua | Photo: Courtesy of Guillem Clua
Barcelona, 1989. Picture a 16-year-old Spanish boy on his way to catechesis. He’s getting ready for confirmation, one of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church, to be celebrated in his Catholic school among his Catholic friends and his Catholic family.
The boy left home too early and now has some time to kill, so he heads to a very popular department store in central Barcelona.
He knows exactly where he’s going – the toilets on the fifth floor.
He’s heard some stories about them. Stories about men hanging around far too long. Exchanging glances, disappearing into the cubicles.
He’s been there before, but only for a few minutes. Enough time for a quick pee before running away, scared of the old men lurking in the corners. (They looked so old at the time, but they probably were in their late 30s).
But this time it’s different. There’s a younger man there. Black curly hair, light stubble, black leather jacket, big smile on his face, and big cock in his hand. And this time the boy doesn’t run away.
This was the first time I kissed a man. It wasn’t a romantic kiss, it smelled of urine and shame. It was dirty and forbidden and sinful. On my way back to catechesis, I just wanted to wash my mouth and was scared to death I may now be HIV positive.
I remember thinking that my life would be like that forever. Furtive encounters in public toilets, dark bars, public parks, and no trace of love or joy whatsoever.
Only 10 years before, homosexuality was illegal. Now, in the peak of the AIDS epidemic, it was seen as something disgusting. LGBT groups were seen as something ridiculous and flamboyant, and we didn’t have any valid public referent. What a way to start your sexual life as a gay man.
‘Spain is the country that most accepts homosexuality in the world’
Flash forward to 2004. Only 15 years later, Spain became the third country in the world to legalize gay marriage with full rights.
According to the Centre of Sociological Research, 66% of the Spanish population thought the law was necessary.
Today, Spain is the country that most accepts homosexuality in the world. (Some 88% of the population, according to the latest polls).
Looking back I feel fortunate to having been given the opportunity to grow as a gay man at the same pace that LGBT rights were growing in my country.
Despite my Catholic upbringing, I felt strong enough to get out of the closet to my family in 1994 and never had to hide my homosexuality. Ever.
That allowed me to explore gay characters in my plays from different points of view, shyly at first. With a clichéd closeted gay character in love with his straight co-worker in my very first play Invisibles. And more bravely later with a young teenage boy looking forward to being infected of HIV by his older lover in Marburg, a love story between two Spanish soldiers during the Afghanistan war in Invasion. Or the unabashed celebration of romantic gay love that is Smiley.
I confess, I felt complacent. I honestly thought the work was done. More and more countries were passing laws granting full rights to the LGBT community. Each Pride was bigger, brighter, louder. We couldn’t go anywhere but forward. You can’t stop progress, right?
But then, the unthinkable happened. In June 2016 terrorist Omar Marteen burst into the Pulse Bar in Orlando and killed 49 people.
It wasn’t the first attack in a gay bar. I remembered the bomb at the Admiral Duncan on Old Compton Street in London. But that was back in 1999.
‘In 2017, 287 hate crimes against LGBT people were reported only in Madrid’
I honestly thought this couldn’t happen again. I was aghast. And then I started hearing more and more voices that said this wasn’t a homophobic attack. The FBI claimed that there wasn’t any evidence that the Orlando shooter targeted Pulse because it was a gay club. I felt outraged. And this is how The Swallow was born.
Just a few months before, I thought I would never have to write a play like this. I thought we were over it, that the times when you had to remind the audience of the importance of love, diversity, acceptance, and forgiveness had passed. But I realized that wasn’t true.
I started noticing our society was taking steps backwards. The reactions to the Pulse massacre were only the tip of a homophobic iceberg that still lurks in Spanish society.
It has been silent for a long time, but it’s waking up. In 2017, 287 hate crimes against LGBT people were reported only in Madrid. That’s a staggering 1000% more than in previous years. And that’s fucking scary.
In only 15 years my country made a very difficult journey from darkness to freedom. We shouldn’t take it for granted. It’s still fragile, and it definitely won’t last forever if we don’t treasure it. Fear and hate are back, and it’s our duty to fight them with all our strength. And now, more than ever, the weapon of my choice is theatre.
Words: Guillem Clua
The Swallow is playing at London’s Cervantes Theatre from 30 April until 26 May. For more information, click here.