“Out of personal suffering has come so much good”

An interview with civil rights campaigner Felix Alvarez.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Felix Alvarez single-handedly started a revolution to end legal discrimination against Gibraltar’s LGBT community. The groundswell this created led to same-sex couples finally being granted the right to a civil partnership at the end of March 2014. Charlotte Simmonds hears his story.

When I meet the Gibraltarian civil rights activist Felix Alvarez in London, just two weeks have passed since civil partnerships were legalised in the territory. The new law, which grants the right for both heterosexual and same-sex couples to enter into these arrangements, was a moment 14 years in the making. It was a moment whose roots lay in the year 2000, when the man sitting opposite me acted with forthright passion to end legal discrimination against Gibraltar’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) residents by founding the Rock’s first gay rights group. It was a moment that made waves.

“We threw a huge party the following Friday,” Alvarez tells me. “There were DJs, dancing. I stepped back from the crowd at one point and looked at all these young people.

“They had no inhibitions. Maybe they didn’t know who I was, and maybe they didn’t know the whole story, but their freedom was a great satisfaction.”
Alvarez may not be known by many outside Gibraltar, but his is the story of a man who single-handedly began the campaign for gay rights on the Rock. It was a campaign that began in the late 1990s when Alvarez returned to his homeland after years spent working in the Middle East. He wanted his partner, a national of the Philippines, to return with him. And here the couple hit a wall.

“We had given up our respective jobs and I returned to Gibraltar with the expectation that he would be able to obtain a visa and join me there,” Alvarez explains. “I was so naive. Same-sex couples were not recognised on any level at the time. I appealed directly to the Chief Minister and my appeal was ignored. I thought, ‘This isn’t right for me and it isn’t right for other people either.’ ”

In 2000, embittered by the situation but unwilling to back down, Alvarez decided to formalise his opposition. He chose a name, Gib Gay Rights, designed a logo and issued a press release. GGR, as it soon became known, strove to “end the fear factor” and bring about a total shake-up of Gibraltar’s stagnant policies: an end to shame, to discrimination in employment and housing, an equal age of consent and the right to civil partnerships. “I just came out and said: ‘We’re here!’ ” he recalls. “In fact I was lying through my teeth, because at the time nobody wanted to stand behind me on this issue. I was completely alone.”

This foray into activism was not his first. Alvarez’s parents had uprooted to London in 1959 in the hope that life in England would hold more opportunities for their son. It was at the age of 20 that he first came into contact with the Gay Liberation Front, the radical movement born from 1969’s Stonewall Riots in New York City. GLF’s manifesto preached not reform but revolution: a society free from the oppression of patriarchy, self-censorship and the constrictive ideal of the nuclear family.

Alvarez attended his first GLF meeting at a pub in south London. “What I heard there cracked all the schema that I had in my head, all that self-oppression,” he remembers. “They were totally idealistic – full of altruism, utopianism: a determination that things were going to be different and that we were going to make that difference.”

And make a difference they did – within a month of his first meeting he and other group members decided to found the UK’s first gay community centre. A squatted shopfront in Brixton served as the venue, offering services such as counselling and a help hotline, as well as a forum for social gatherings, meetings and cultural events. Alvarez describes the centre as “a focal point not only for people in London but all over the country. It didn’t stop, day and night. We became a refuge for a lot of homeless young people.”

It was a formative period, during which Alvarez at times struggled personally. After he came out to his family, his mother threw him out of the family home. He squatted for a time in a building without water or electricity. Aspiring to become a social worker, he took a trainee position with Lambeth Council, only to be dismissed after appearing on local television representing the GLF community centre.

Homosexuality had been decriminalised in the UK in 1967 and the following decades saw a period of opening up, as mainstream culture began to embrace the changes brought about by the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s.

However, the story of the LGBT movement in Gibraltar is very different. Homosexuality remained illegal until 1993, when pressure through the European Human Rights Convention pushed through an amendment to the Rock’s outdated laws. Yet culturally, the territory remained largely isolated in the surge of liberation taking place across other parts of the world.

The reasons behind this point towards Gibraltar’s political and cultural solitude, which set in at a time when other countries were flirting with more liberal attitudes. Despite a subculture of queer activism, anti-gay legislation in Spain remained fierce under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco. After the border closure of 1969, the territory entered a period of stasis, cut off from developments in the outside world.

“Why was Gibraltar still so behind at the end of the 20th century?” Alvarez asks. “My analysis is that our preoccupation became survival. Survival and sovereignty. All the politics of the past decades has concerned itself with this. The gay issue was sidelined.”

With just 30,000 inhabitants, Gibraltar has a “small-town” culture that also presented an obstacle to change. The anonymity offered by larger cities had perhaps been the catalyst for the most successful social movements, Alvarez says. “In London, Paris, Berlin, it’s possible to cloak yourself so as to raise taboo subjects. In Gibraltar, people crossed to the other side of the street when they saw me coming.”

Despite the difficult early days of GGR, a collective hunger for change deepened as the years went by. He likens the later stages of the civil partnerships campaign to “jumping on a moving train”, propelled by civil partnership and equal marriage legislation passed in the UK and Europe. Support from the recently elected Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party (GSLP) also marked a turning point in the fight.

“The GSLP came on board with us while in opposition and agreed to take up our demands in their manifesto,” Alvarez recalls. The Civil Partnership Bill was drawn up during two years of close discussions which fine-tuned the legislation’s more unusual features, such as giving the right to hetero as well as homosexual couples. On the day of the bill’s passage, the enthusiasm from the Alvarez camp was equalled by that of members of parliament, as the new Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, tweeted: “A person is not worth less because of who or how they love. That reality delivered change today.”

Fourteen years on from the founding of GGR, Gibraltar’s gay community has strength, Alvarez says. It has also found its political voice. He estimates a gay population of 1,500, perhaps more, an electoral factor that is being taken seriously by those in power. In a land where elections are sometimes won by margins of just a few hundred, a unified LGBT community can wield significant influence.

Gib Gay Rights has grown, too. Now broadened and rebranded as Equality Rights Group, the organisation is an internationally recognised human rights agency, staffed by a network of committed volunteers who tackle issues from sexual health to disability rights. A campaign for same-sex marriage is also under consideration but the decision here will ultimately depend on the wishes of LGBT Gibraltarians, Alvarez says.

A proud Gibraltarian, he is quick to praise his community’s resilience and adaptability. “We are a willing society when we stop hiding things under the carpet. So many people have gained courage and inspiration from what we started.”

Today’s youngest Gibraltarians may not be old enough to recall the full struggle of the past 14 years, but notoriety appears to be of little concern to Alvarez. Rather, he prizes the legacy of his organisation’s work for the next generation.

“Out of personal suffering has come so much good,” he says, leaning forward in his chair, holding my gaze. “Without independent thinking, independent-acting citizens, no democracy can flourish. Younger Gibraltarians are living without the hang-ups of the past. They don’t have to keep their mouths shut. In fact, they’re making a lot of noise.”


For more from the NS and Gibraltar media hub visit: www.newstatesman.com/gibraltar

#NSGibraltar

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.