Chueca, from marginalised area to LGBT+ landmark

Chueca is one of the global epicentres of the LGBT+ movement. This area is widely known throughout Madrid, Spain and even Europe. In fact, Madrid’s Pride is one of the most prominent prides worldwide, after San Francisco’s. However, this area used to be completely different from the Chueca we know today. First, it was a street full of convents, military quarters and farming areas, and later on it became a decadent marginalised neighbourhood. But how did it get to today’s version?

People celebrating pride in a truck

Pride parade in Madrid. | Shutterstock

Home of the outcast

Actually, Chueca isn’t a neighbourhood, but an area inside a neighbourhood. Its name comes from the Chueca square, where one can also find the underground station with the same name. This square wasn’t there till the 19th century, the same period of time where most of the convents and military quarters there —formerly the essence of the neighbourhood— were demolished. Some nearby areas were completely restructured and, besides the Chueca square, about that same time they also built the square known as Pedro Zerolo. With this urban development came the proliferation of unions and political parties.

As you can see, the 19th century brought about significant changes in Chueca. Nevertheless, back then it was still just a square in the neighbourhood of Justicia. Now we shall jump forward in time to the seventies, when the streets that today shine with rainbow colours were nothing but sordid scenes. Indeed, Chueca was once a decadent and marginalised place, and the oldest neighbours recall how common it was to find needles on the floor, prostitutes in every corner and crime scenes all over the place.

In this context, nobody wanted to live there —for obvious reasons too. Housing prices dropped dramatically, and only those affected by exclusion moved to Chueca; among them, the members of the LGBT+ community. “We lived here because it was the only place we were allowed to, not because we had a choice or it was a positive environment for us”, claims Miguel Ángel Sánchez, president of the NGO called Fundación Triángulo, in the following documentary: Chueca. El orgullo de construir un barrio (see above).

A crowded street in Chueca, decorated with LGBT+ flags

A street in Chueca. | Shutterstock

The process of becoming visible

Meanwhile, Spain entered a new historical period: The Spanish transition to democracy. The fist Pride in the history of Spain was held in 1977, although it wasn’t in Madrid, but in Barcelona. In 1978, they removed the law that made it illegal to be identified as a gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender person. The situation of the LGBT+ community then began to improve, even though in reality they still faced a significant amount of discrimination. As a matter of fact, until 1989 there was a law in force called “ley de escándalo público” (the public scandal law) which left them in an incredibly vulnerable position, since it rendered it immoral, for example, for two women to kiss in public. Later on, in the eighties, La Movida Madrileña burst: it was a cultural movement of sexual liberation that succeeded the death of Spain’s fascist dictator.

In this context, many gay bars opened in Chueca, mostly aimed at homosexual men. Nevertheless, a key moment in this process was the opening of Berkana in 1993, the first LGBT+ themed bookshop in Spain. This meant that the members of the LGBT+ community finally had a safe space and they could live as themselves every time of the day, not only in nightclubs. This meant that they could become visible. The anthropologist Elpidio Domínguez states, in the documentary displayed above, that “Before we had Berkana, with its books and the flag exhibited there, Chueca was described as an aging neighbourhood, constantly losing young people”.

The underground station in Chueca, with the rainbow colours, and a tree in the background

The underground station in Chueca. | Shutterstock

After Berkana, other similar establishments opened in Chueca, for instance the Figueroa coffee shop. This way, little by little, LGBT+ people stopped hiding and began to open their own businesses. Thanks to Berkana, Chueca and Madrid saw their first rainbow flag, whose meaning most people ignored. It was Mili Hernández, Berkana’s owner, who first put it in their bookshop after spending some years in New York.

The neighbourhood’s transformation

Chueca gave birth to LGBT+ associations such as COGAM and FELGTB. It’s the heart of today’s Pride celebrations, both in Madrid and in the whole of Spain. Thanks to the LGBT+ community, Chueca went from one of the capital city’s most decadent areas to an international landmark of tolerance and acceptance.

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