Small Spanish towns are struggling with mass exodus to cities. But some are trying to turn things around by making them safe spaces for LGBTQ+ people who could return from urban areas.
Arenas de San Pedro is exactly what you picture when you imagine a small Spanish town: small tables on terraces, a castle, and mountains in the distance. But this town in the province of Ávila with 6,500 inhabitants also has a feature of many similar Spanish ones: depopulation. And it is conservative, which seems unlikely to change in the short-term future.
It's not a place where you'd expect to find an organization for LGBTQ+ people. But the Arenas Arcoíris collective emerged at the beginning of 2020 (pre-pandemic) to bring together LGBTQ+ people from Arenas and the neighboring Sierra de Gredos area. According to its Facebook profile, It was created with the aim of achieving more visibility as an "open space to inform, create networks, help each other, and celebrate … In short, to stop feeling alone."
No choice but to head to urban areas
Romina Cabreras belongs to this group that has tried to shine a light on the LGBTQ+ reality in rural areas. According to Cabreras, one of the main difficulties that the group has is the lack of previous similar experiences when coming out: "We believe that there are many differences between living homosexuality in the urban context or living it in rural one. Among them, the possibility of looking and learning from other referents, which is more possible in the city.”
This has consequences: “In rural areas, there are no leisure or meeting spaces for LGBTQ+ people either,” which makes mutual support difficult. The loss of anonymity is also an added difficulty for Cabreras. All of this, she confirms, can lead to sexual and gender diverse people leaving the rural for the urban. "Since there are no referents, opportunities of employment or of meeting people who share common interests, it is almost necessary to leave the rural areas to go in search of that connection.”
Others' experiences confirm what Cabreras is saying. Nathalie Merino acknowledges that in her case, her queerness was a compelling reason for leaving her native small town: “In the cities, the gaze of others does not touch you … In the village, you know everyone from a young age and it is this very thing that means that when social acceptance is important, especially during adolescence, the gaze of others becomes unbearable.”
In rural areas, there are no leisure or meeting spaces for LGBTQ+ people.
Hugo Gómez is trans and has lived his transition process in Arenas de San Pedro and says that the experience has not been "as negative as it could have been." Although he has felt contempt and lack of acceptance among his close circle, he highlights that “there are people who surprise you”, referring to the oldest neighbors. Although they do not understand the situation, they have shown respect and support. He refers particularly to his grandfather: “I am Hugo Antonio and my grandfather prefers to call me Antonio because his name is Antonio and his father’s name. So, he calls me Antonio and introduces me as such.”
Pepe Paz is secretary of the Towanda de Aragón association, a group that defines itself as “LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, queer and intersex) union-oriented, secular, transfeminist and left-wing,” which emerged in 2000. Paz speaks of the difficulty for rural areas of building enough of a community to create "the feeling of having spaces of understanding and support."
Paz's perspective is somewhat more optimistic. He thinks that this proximity to the rural environment prevents them from "new hatred" that comes from extreme groups. He says that "violence against strangers because of their sexual orientation or identity is clearly a more urban phenomenon than a rural one, since it entails a need to … depersonalize [other people]". This is more difficult to do in rural areas, where everyone knows everyone.
2022 LGTBI Pride demonstration in Palma de Mallorca
Creating safe spaces, no matter where queer people live
Concrete proposals are emerging to combat the rural depopulation. But what does this mean for the LGBTQ+ community? Pepe Paz points out that "many towns are trying to increase their attractiveness through diversification".
Cultural options are one way to approach the issue. As Pepe Paz explains, the Towanda collective has launched the exhibition "Aragon, Diversity Everywhere" on "history, rights, resources and visibility of sexual diversity in Aragon." This exhibition, which has already traveled to several of the less populated localities, has been created with the aim of "bringing closer the reality of sexual diversity, as well as legal, institutional and social support for its defense."
Along with the exhibition, teaching activities are carried out in some of the town's schools. There are also cinema screenings. Between October and December 2021, the Towanda collective toured eight towns and has continued its work in 2022, to reach between 12 and 18 towns "depending on the time of allocation and the amount of public support funds available".
Back in the town of Arenas de San Pedro, the Arenas Arcoíris collective considers it necessary to highlight individual experiences of coming out of the closet in a small town. That is why, since its creation, it has been working on building a network, in order to create a safe space in which access to personal testimonies serves as a support for other people.
They believe that this is the best way to compensate for the lack of role models that people have in rural areas. Ultimately, they want to create a safe space without judgement — whether that's in a metropolis or a small town.