Notions of liberty and ‘liberation’ are topical once again in the wake of tragic events in Paris. At the core of the debate is the particular notion of liberty of expression and the difficulties of defining and protecting ‘liberty’.
As in the past, ‘liberation’ is currently being brought into tension with fundamentalist religion. And it is in this tension that awkward questions arise: What place does religious sentiment have in a secular republic seeking to assert liberty? At what point does ‘liberty of expression’ become illegitimate and bastardly? Does the freedom of expression afford one the liberty to offend? How worthwhile is it to defend ‘liberty’?
The late 1960s and 1970s offer a potentially instructive moment to reflect upon current events. Indeed, this widely-explored period was an interesting point in time where aggressive calls for the liberation of minds and bodies became central, often being played out before an offended audience.
Along the shores of the Atlantic, various groups including the then much-loathed homosexuals demanded liberty in a spurt of radicalism and tumult.
Among the several countries in the North Atlantic where ‘liberation movements became visible at the time was Spain that hosted a network of radical homosexual groups seeking to break down medical and legal practices that approached homosexuality as criminal and pathological.
The Franco dictatorship that fell in the mid 1970s had consolidated homophobic attitudes. Indeed, under Franco’s Spain, homosexuals were assigned to particularly brutal treatment, even by the period’s standards: they were sent to concentration camps and subjected to humiliating medical centers in addition to the default universal stigmatization of the time (Marlin 2014).
Yet, radical and liberationist ideas took root in Spain as they had elsewhere on the continent and beyond the Atlantic. The Movimiento Español de Liberación Homosexual (MELH) emerged in 1971, drawing inspiration from the Communist Worker’s Group and other similar groups at home and abroad. The Frente Homosexual de Acción Revolucionaria (FHAR) also emerged and sought to undermine hostile Franquista positions toward homosexuality. The very presence of such resistance signaled a remarkable assertion of liberty.
In decades immediately prior to the 1970s, oppressive, homophobic legal and medical frameworks had taken root. These effectively overrode the decriminalization of homosexual acts that had been enshrined in the Napoleonic Code framework adopted in Spain as far back as 1822 (Altmann 2006). ‘Laws against vagrancy’ adopted just prior to Franco’s rise were aggressively enforced to criminalize homosexuality along with other subsequent stringent laws that framed homosexuals as security threats, criminal, and pathological.
Nonetheless, as elsewhere, radical calls for liberty did not survive beyond the 1970s. By 1978, radical homosexual groups in Spain had declined significantly in vigor and lost much of their support.Radical groups for gay liberation took the route of almost all other similar movements along the Atlantic. The burning desire for liberty dissipated.
This (arguably) raises, in light of current events in France, an interesting question about the trajectory of calls for liberty and liberation.On January the 11th,2015 millions marched across Paris in an act of defiance, to assert liberty of expression and to proclaim liberation from fear. Yet, if the 1970s, a moment of a consuming appetite for liberation that engulfed Madrid as much as it did London and San Francisco shows anything, it is that radical protest has a short life span.
(As an interesting but not entirely irrelevant aside, it bears mentioning that the slain staff of Charlie Hebdo were products of May 1968 . Prior to the terror attack, however, their brand of radical challenge was rapidly disappearing.)
In post-Franco Spain (after 1975), the once radical, offensive gay liberation movement evolved (as it did elsewhere) into a more inclusive, ‘sensible’, alliance that worked less against the grain.Spain would became one of the first countries to legalize gay marriage and still remains one of the more open societies to sexual minorities. This transition from radical gay liberation to inclusive and integration-minded activism, however, has never fully assuaged offense from the religious establishment.
The Spanish case of gay liberation provides food for thought in many (perhaps slightly contradictory) respects. Firstly, radical and offensive assertions of liberty are very difficult to maintain in the long term. Boredom sets in and provocation grows old and tedious. Secondly, fundamentalist readings of religion thrive on offense and cannot be assuaged by capitulating to their demands. Moderation and avoiding confrontation does not necessarily defeat the permanent sense of offense among religious extremists.
These thoughts lead to a third: Seeing that one can neither avoid offense in the quest for liberty nor sustain provocative, radical liberationist protest in the long term, it could well be that challenging the status quo is a worthwhile endeavor, while its lasts.
Altmann, Werner. “” Vicio repugnante en lo social, aberración en lo sexual, perversión en lo psicológico y defecto en lo endocrino”. Un ensayo bibliográfico sobre la homosexualidad y los homosexuales bajo la dictadura franquista.” Iberoamericana (2001-) (2006): 193-210.
Marín, Lucas Jurado. Identidad. Represión hacia los homosexuales en el franquismo. Editorial La Calle, 2014.