Maria de los Dolores Gamez, 81, stands next to the big door of a run-down building. She's looking at a plaque placed next to it, so high that one has to stand on tiptoes to read it. The inscription remembers the "historical injustice" suffered by homosexual and transgender people in this old prison of the western Andalusian city of Huelva.
It's not the first time Gamez had heard about sexual minorities imprisoned and mistreated here. Nevertheless, she had not noticed this tiny memorial before. In fact, it was installed this year, almost four decades after same-sex relations were decriminalized in Spain, in 1979.
"I think it's good that politicians have finally started doing something about these issues," Gamez said. "We have had too many years of silence."
Memory comes back to the political arena
Last month, the Spanish government passed a decree to dig up the remains of former dictator General Francisco Franco from the controversial Valley of the Fallen memorial. Parliament approved the decree on Thursday, after Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez found enough support, even though both liberals and conservatives abstained.
The issue has sparked the so-called remembrance debate in a country estimated to have more than 2,000 mass burial sites. They date back to the civil war (1936-1939), a conflict considered by many historians as a preface to World War II. The uprising marked the start of a decades-long period of authoritarian rule and political repression that only ended after free elections were held in 1977.
Read more: Lawsuit filed against Franco regime torturer
Three months in prison, a life of punishment
Aside from targeting political opponents, Franco's regime also went after those who dared to defy its nationalist-catholic model of society. Historians have concluded that the dictatorship had two "specialized" prisons for those people convicted under its homophobic legislation: one in Huelva and one in Badajoz, at the Portuguese border, in the western region of Extremadura.
Antoni Ruiz, born in 1958 in a small town in the eastern province of Valencia, was among them. At age 17, he outed himself as a homosexual in front of his family, but a nun denounced him to the police. "That was when my martyrdom started," he told DW. He was taken to different penitentiaries and ended up in Badajoz's prison. Legally, he was not an adult yet.
He spent three months there that felt like a lifetime. "No one would give you a job," he said. He was a criminal and a homosexual, and the police efficiently informed his potential employers about it. Like so many others, he said, he was prevented from developing professionally, struggled to make ends meet and felt socially excluded.
The fight for reparations
Those who were targeted want their discriminatory criminal records to be removed from the police's computer system. Ruiz and fellow activists also want economic reparations for the LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex) victims of the two laws that criminalized this minority between 1954 and 1979.
It is not an easy process, as the victim needs to undergo an individual judicial process. Sometimes this can be cumbersome, Ruiz says, because the records do not always talk about homosexual acts, despite this being the reason for their arrest. According to his organization's data, which was confirmed by the government last year, only 116 people have succeeded in getting compensation from the state. Historians estimate, however, that at least 5,000 people were convicted on these grounds.
DW talked to Ramon Martinez, author of a recent essay on the history of Spain's LGBTI activism, who believes there is much more to be done by Spain to deliver justice to these citizens. He mentions the example of German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who in June apologized on behalf of Germany for the historical mistreatment of gays.
In contrast, the UK in 2017 issued a posthumous pardon for gays under the so-called Alan Turing law [the World War II codebreaker convicted of gross indecency in 1952. He received a royal pardon posthumously in 2013 — the ed.]. Both Martinez and Ruiz criticize the British approach. "Who are they pardoning? It was the state who committed a human rights violation," Ruiz said.
Martínez underlines the urgency to work on his country's collective memory: "Unlike Berlin, Amsterdam or Cologne, no Spanish city has a memorial for the LGBTI victims of Franco's dictatorship." He says it's important to highlight the significance of sites like the old prison in Huelva, which is now in ruins and closed to the public and the press, as DW discovered.
When asked about her feelings towards a place like this in the middle of her home city, Maria de los Dolores Gamez recalls a poem she read while helping her granddaughter with her literature homework. "There, far away, where oblivion dwells," she quoted. It was written by poet Luis Cernuda, a well-known, homosexual poet who was driven into exile after the military uprising. She wonders now if these victims are even mentioned in the textbooks."This is no justice at all," she concluded, before resuming her evening walk around her neighborhood.