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An introduction – history, identity, reclaiming the word Gypsy and Romani sexual dissidence

Taken from an interview with Iñaki Vázquez Arencón, from Plataforma Khetane and Ververipen 

A history of persecution

“The first Gypsies to arrive in Spain in the early 15th Century were the Calé, which means los negros (blacks) in the Romani language. At that time, it seems that they were welcomed and given safe passage by the rulers of the separate kingdoms which existed on the Iberian Peninsula before the Spanish crowns were unified. Calé were people that came from the East, who were seen as exotic by the Europeans. They were well-dressed and relatively wealthy and presented an opportunity for cultural exchange and learning.

However, with the marriage of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella in 1469, which led to the unification of the Spanish crowns, persecution of Gypsies began in earnest. The Catholic Monarchs had an overt political, military and economic project to unite all of the kingdoms. As far as I’m concerned, they also had an explicit agenda in terms of ethnic supremacy, and for this reason when they consolidated their power and began the construction of what is now the modern state of Spain, everything changed for Gypsy people.

In 1499 the Catholic Monarchs enacted the first law against Gypsies. Throughout our time here in Spain there have been more than 2000 anti-Gypsy laws. Since we moved from a dictatorship to a democracy in the mid 1970s, these laws ceased to exist, but societal discrimination still persists.

Just consider…The Jewish community was expelled after having been here for centuries. The Moors were also expelled or assimilated, and then they tried to do the same with the Gypsies….they were trying to rid Spain of otherness and construct a hegemonic identity. This reached a peak almost 300 years later, when there was an attempt at complete extermination of Gypsies known as La Gran Redada (The Great Gypsy Round-up) in 1749. A large part of the community was annihilated, and at the same time a significant part of our collective memory was also erased.”

Identity and majority values

“In my opinion, this in part explains why the Gypsy community in Spain is where it is now. One dominant group has exerted social, cultural, political and economic influence over all others for almost 600 years and has projected all of its ills on to those members of society who are perceived to be different. As Gypsies were the only minorities left in Spain for many centuries, we bore the brunt of this process.


Iñaki Vázquez Arencón, from Plataforma Khetane and Ververipen. Photo by Bex Wade

Our identity has only been preserved by our own sheer will, despite the oppression which began with the Catholic Monarchs and has continued until the present day. This anti-Gypsyism and our struggle against it is also perhaps what joins us together as a people. It’s strange because we’ve been here for 600 years, we’re fully European, and yet our oppression has always been accompanied by accusations of being outsiders.

I think many Spanish people have always felt close to Gypsies in terms of culture and identity. In fact, Spain has appropriated Gypsy culture and made it its own. However, as I said before, the construction of Spanish identity has always been directly related to the obliteration of difference. For instance, the Gypsy origins of flamenco are often negated. For us flamenco is so important. I always liken it to the significance of blues music in the USA for African-Americans. It embodies the suffering of our people; it’s a cry of pain, but it’s also a way of overcoming pain. Flamenco is our own unique way of expressing ourselves. But the public image of Spain in many parts of the world is flamenco. It has even been awarded World Heritage status, yet in a statement from the Spanish government welcoming UNESCO’s decision, they never once mentioned flamenco’s Gypsy origins. There’s even a movement in Spain to reassign flamenco as property of the Gypsy community.”

Reappropriation of the word Gypsy

“We have customs which are different from other Romani peoples around the world. At a meeting in 1971 in London where the Romani flag and anthem were agreed, we very much felt part of the global Romani family, but still conserve our own culture as Calé.

In Spain we call ourselves gitanos or Gypsies and we when we say Roma we mean Romani people that come from the rest of Europe. But, of course, we are all Romani and what joins us together is our shared identity. It’s a little confusing!

Roma flag

Roma flag, Photo by Bex Wade

Colloquially we call ourselves gitanos or Gypsies. Curiously in Spain we have reclaimed and taken the name that they once used as an insult against us. It comes from the word Egyptians, which is what they called us when we first arrived as supposedly we came from Little Egypt, where Greece is nowadays. The word Gypsy is still pejorative in the rest of Europe, but in Spain we have reconceptualised it and made it our own. In fact, when we get together with the rest of our Romani cousins in Europe, and we say, “We are Gypsies,” they often come back with, “What are you saying!”

We do in my opinion have problems of political cohesion. Gypsy people in Spain definitely want to continue being called Gypsies. However, I’m not sure if all of the Spanish Gypsy organisations feel that we all belong to the same global Romani community. I think it’s really important. One of our strengths is that we are a transnational movement and we should break down the barriers that borders represent, especially as they are artificial frontiers that modern Western states have imposed on us.”

Romani sexual dissidence

“During the last decades in Europe there has been legislative reform to recognise the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and trans (LGBT) people. In a way the recognition of the rights of LGBT people has been established as one of the core values of the West. But all of this has happened within the norms of the  system, including in terms of class and ethnicity.

For example, we are here in Madrid. Madrid is known as one of the LGBT capitals of Europe, with one of the largest Pride celebrations. But Pride does not represent the sexual diversity of the minority and migrant communities who live in Madrid. Pride should be anti-racist or just shouldn’t exist at all. And it most certainly shouldn’t be commercialised. For instance, Chueca, which is known as the gay neighbourhood, isn’t very accepting of ethnic minorities. I’d even say it’s quite a racist neighbourhood. There is also a class component. Poor people can’t afford to go out in Chueca as it’s simply too pricey.

Celia Montoya from Ververipen. Photo by Bex Wade

Celia Montoya from Ververipen. Photo by Bex Wade

So, the imposition of a certain kind of gay culture excludes ethnic minorities who are sexually diverse. We count ourselves amongst the latter. Mainstream gay culture doesn’t represent us. As a result, for a number of years now we have been using the phrase ‘sexual dissidence’ as it includes so much more than the LGBT acronym. It directly confronts the regulation of the LGBT space by the heteropatriarchal system. For example, there are so many rainbow flags on the balconies of Madrid at the moment, but I’m not sure if those same people speak out when there are attacks on immigrant trans people, which are really frequent at the moment.

There are many Gypsies in Spain who are sexual dissidents, who are gender and sex diverse, but who do not call themselves lesbians, gays or bisexuals. It’s a definition and terminology that our community doesn’t necessarily relate to. I’ve been an LGBT activist for years, and in many ways the struggle for the enjoyment of our bodies has been centred around deconstructing the institution of the family, which is seen as one of our main oppressors. Of course, I understand and share the concern, but there are specificities.

Romani and LGBTQ solidarity wristbands. Photo by Bex Wade

Romani and LGBT+ solidarity wristbands. Photo by Bex Wade

For Gypsies, who have been systematically excluded from the protections provided by social services and welfare state, the only institution which has protected us has been our own families, at every level. That is why we so often live in groups. I personally don’t want to live with 30 people in a house, but my people often have to do this out of necessity. The different social institutions have denied support to the Gypsy community systematically, and so we turn to our own for support.

There are many dissident Gypsies who do not classify themselves as lesbian or gay because they have to continue to live within this family environment, and yes because for many Gypsies being gay or lesbian is being payo. Identities are complex and multifaceted…It’s really important for us to be able to continue to claim our Gypsy identity and be sexual dissidents at the same time.”

Written by Emma Eastwood