Back from Barcelona: My experience as a queer student doing queer research
by Alyssa Sileo
Well, I’m back from Barcelona, and I sure had an unforgettable Pride Month. I got to do research on Spanish LGBTQ history and meanwhile I learned so much about my own queer identity and how to live in this world with it.
Before I get into my story, I am going to cite something I wrote in the blog I posted before I left for my study abroad program. This piece was about what it’s like to be a queer student going off to a new place, and I shared advice to other students in the same position. When it comes to dealing with nerves about being and feeling alone, I wrote: “There are, for certain, queer and trans people within the spaces you’re going to. They may not be out, to the world or to themselves, but they are certainly there, it’s according to science. You are not alone where you will go, which I know does not make things seem less scary immediately, but is something that can ground you. If you’re a person that can sense energies and can find comfort from them, just know that there are queer and trans individuals with their beautiful energies all around you on those busy streets or quiet corners!”
Yeah…I’ve got to say, a month and change later, this is great advice that I had to eventually return to. That’s because I faced a brief encounter with homophobic sentiments during my program. For a time, I hadn’t felt farther from my own queer community back home and in my school. While I wouldn’t wish this pain on anyone — and thoroughly believe that it shouldn’t take this pain for someone to get to a better place — for me, it took this moment to realize some pretty important things about what my community really is and where we really are. The short solutions to the previous item: we are everywhere (and everywhen too).
This is what happened: a student in my language class from a different program and different country said unwarranted, random homophobic things during my second day of class (one of the things including that “homosexuals are contaminated”). Immediately after, I switched classes so that it wouldn’t happen again. Of course, I wasn’t out to this student, but I was afraid of what could happen if somehow I was outed. I was thinking about worst-case scenario stuff, like violence ensuing. I also knew what kind of person I was — some people are able to stay in a space where someone is extremely and openly prejudiced, but I’m not that kind of person. For one, I might just start crying, but also, I just won’t tolerate that.
So that was a hiccup during my first week abroad. I had told my program director about the scenario — I knew she would help me deal with it — and now that I was out of the class, I was at least out of this student’s way. There was no way that I could guarantee that any other student would be like her, but at that point, I was going to assume everyone was an ally until proven queerphobic. It’s all my already-overwhelmed brain could deal with at that moment.
Now, for Item 2 on My Gay Summer in Barcelona…when it comes to my project on the LGBTQ history of Spain, it was an absolute gift to be able to learn about the community’s fight for rights. To begin my research, I visited the city’s LGBTQ center. I needed an overview on the community’s history, so I chatted with a center employee. I’m going to lay out the basics about what I learned, which was all wildly interesting to compare and contrast with American LGBTQ history. Full disclosure, this overview is going to be highly generalized, and it is what I gathered from that singular conversation.
The people of Spain suffered from the dictatorship of Franco from 1936–1975, after the nation’s civil war. According to the employee I spoke to, the queer and trans community were one of the first marginalized groups whose fight against fascism became visible around 1970. Trans women were the first to take to the street and organize. (Note that the Stonewall Riots, the manifestations by American trans women of color, had occurred just a year before.) If we flash forward to fifty years later, queer folx have been “legalized”, trans folx can affirm their legally-recorded gender without a surgery, and queer couples can marry and adpot. There’s protections against sexuality- and gender-based discrimination, the scope of which I am unable to describe, but from what I understood from my conversation, they’re comprehensive enough.
Many problems that queer and trans Americans face are apparent in Spain, too. The following that I will list has to do with what this employee has seen and experienced (namely in Barcelona). The youth are, of course, at risk, because they don’t have independence to leave their living situations if they are unsafe. People with HIV face discrimination. Trans women face difficulty with unemployment (but according to this employee, socially, there is less and less discrimination). There’s also a general invisibility of the contributions of the trans community, making for cis individuals gaining most of the credit and clout for LGBTQ+ affairs, especially when it comes to the actual celebration of Pride. In fact, the presence of corporations in the Barcelona Pride that dip after July 1 is quite high. The Barcelona police does not always follow-through with investigations of queerphobic and transphobic incidents. Also, the rural population of the area around Barcelona is not as connected with the resources as the urban population.
While I’ve seen all of these issues present (and at a more heightened presence) in the USA, there’s a couple key differences between the state of both communities in either region. For one, I did not hear about a huge threat of queerphobic or transphobic violence in Barcelona, contrasting the persistent violence against the community in the USA, especially against trans women of color. Also, when it comes to the Pride parade celebration, turns out the Police that are present are actually a benefit, as they protect the Pride-goers from queerphobic and transphobic protestors. (This really contrasts the situation in the USA, in which the presence of law enforcement is something that makes a lot of queer and trans folx uncomfortable, seeing as the first Pride was fighting back against oppressive police officers.) There’s also something integral about the community’s state of being in Catalonia — the government funds the LGBTQ+ center. I know this doesn’t necessarily make a government pro-LGBTQ+, but it’s a great thing to hear. In fact, the employee used the following phrase to describe the government post-dictatorship — “this government is actually afraid of the alt-right.”
Both the employee and I understood this is not a blanket statement about every action the Spanish government takes, but I could not help but vocalize this stark difference to my own country’s government. Which is made up of many many alt-right politicians. Who flaunt their alt-right views. Proudly.
After this interview, I visited a Pride street fair. (I couldn’t make it to the big parade at the end of the month because I had an excursion with my class, plus, it was during that huge European heat wave, so I don’t think I would have wanted to go anyway…) It was a super calm and fun event, and I caught this amazing picture of the trans flag in front of the Catalonia and Spanish flags. That is the community’s history right there. I said a silent thank you to the trans ancestors that fought so I could be at that very Pride fair.
Over the next two weeks I constructed my research paper, including both my experience with Barcelona Pride and my history lesson. It was time to do a couple more grammar checks during the last week of classes, and lo and behold, as I walk into my classroom, the classmate from the first week was in my class. After my program had told me we would not be matched again, our class levels combined, and apparently if something was going to change about who is in each class, it would have to be me. I told my professor that I may have to switch classes because the reason I escaped initially into this one was now there. Understandably the professor was disappointed to see me go, and had asked me to stay, because they promised to shut down any more queerphobic comments. My response was that I wish I could stay, but I couldn’t. I knew my emotional state, I knew I needed a safe space, I knew there would be no way I could focus with this student in the same room. I told my professor “I come from a country where there is a lot of violence against my people. I’m trying to get back home in one piece. This is what I feared most. I cannot be here.”
That afternoon my anger was at an all-time high. Why did I have to leave a class that I actually liked, with classmates I enjoyed and a professor I connected with, to readjust to a whole new setting for the last four days of my program? Why does the world tiptoe around the queerphobic ideals of others, claiming its “their right” to maintain those views? That’s just a way of saying that the (at least) discomfort and (at most) oppression of the marginalized is acceptable. Why didn’t the school mark down enough times on enough forms that for my safety, this student and I needed to be seperated? Why was my study abroad program turning into a game of cat and mouse?
I was not exactly sold on the idea of leaving the class, because I felt in my heart how unfair it would be to my learning (which I had paid a pretty penny for) to go into a whole new environment. My program director from my university and I talked that night after our tour of a historic hospital, leading me to be able to mark down “cried openly sitting in a UNESCO site” off my bucket list.
This is what she said: you should stay in the class, because you deserve to be there, and you should include this experience in your project too. Because now it’s personal.
I’ll be honest, at first, I was thinking “no way,” when it came to staying in the class and the paper revisions. But then we started talking about the Spanish LGBTQ+ history, and when ancestors or descendents are brought up in anything, that’s when I start listening.
I thought about that picture I took at the street fair of the trans flag in front of the regional and national flags. I thought about how each day, as hard as it was to wake up and get out of the flat, with my still-present grief, ever-growing homesickness, and almost debilitating-perfectionism. I thought about what would honor my own queerness, because that’s what mattered most to me in that moment.
My anger needed to manifest into presence. I hesitantly told my program director that yes, I was going to stay in the class for the last week and include this experience in my research. On the way home from the hospital, I ducked into a market that I had been meaning to check out in the park outside my house. I eventually realized that I exited the wrong way because the front and back of the market look the exact same. On the way back to my flat, I walked through the park, and saw a queer couple with their kid in the playground.
Now, I see the little one in my future being a dog or a cat. And I see myself in a Philadelphian neighborhood park more than I see myself in a European one. But I saw my future right there, and I saw my community right there. It wasn’t until I had my paper in front of me that I affirmed for myself and without reservation that yes, I was going to stay in the class, and I was going to write about this in my paper. Looking at my final draft, I saw that my queer resilience is what the paper needed, to follow in the footsteps of the queer and trans ancestors of both my country and this new one I was learning and living in.
I need to share that I believe the decision to have left the class would have been a valid one. I also have so many privileges which makes violence against me less and less likely. My queerness is invisible according to the stereotype, and I am cis. I also was out to the people who mattered, of whom I had at least a vague assurance that they would be on my side. But at that moment, staying in the class is what I needed to do, because this classmate’s homophobia should not drive me out of the place I deserve to be in. Hate all she wants — I’m still queer, I’m still a rightful member of this program, and if she has an issue with it, she should deal with it on her own. I was done making space for her. I was actually looking forward to being in my seat, queer and so much more.
Whenever I’m in a beautiful place, there’s something often on my mind. (Well, my mom and sister already know what it is, because I can’t shut up about it.) I’m always thinking about what it’ll be like to bring my future wife there. I’m so excited for our life together. I had my reservations dreaming about this, though, because too often there is no way to know if a space is safe. But after my experience in Spain, I don’t want anyone’s hate to be the reason I miss out on what I love. I’m looking forward to traveling the world with my identity always with me, because it’s not just personal — it’s worldwide. It’s historical. It extends generations and continents. I’m forever proud of my ancestors, and I know what they wanted for me was to exist anywhere and everywhere.
Here’s an excerpt from the conclusion of my project, translated back into English: “In fact, I should not be afraid to travel. The spirits of my LGBTQ+ ancestors are around the world. They fought for their descendants to have opportunities like my study abroad program. The history of my community is a thing I can use to create a better present.”
That is the gift of LGBTQ+ history and Pride: that I know good things and good times are worth fighting for.
About the Author:
Alyssa Sileo’s Thespian identity comes first and foremost in anything she carries out. As a member of the Drew University Class of 2022, she studies theatre arts, women’s and gender studies, and Spanish. She’s a proud NJ Thespian Alumni and member of their state chapter board. She is the leader of the international performances network The Laramie Project Project, which unites worldwide productions and readings of the acclaimed Tectonic Theater Project play and encourages community-based LGBTQ+ advocacy. Alyssa is humbled to serve as the 2017 Spirit of Matthew Award winner and as a Youth Ambassador for Matthew Shepard Foundation. She believes there is an advocacy platform tucked into every piece of the theatre catalogue and intends to write outreach into the canon.