Thursday, 3 July 2008

Independent UK: How a gay Spanish mayor brought life back to his village

By Elizabeth Nash in Campillo de Ranas
Thursday, 3 July 2008

As you push aside the foliage and descend the stone steps to Francisco Maroto's house, a small rainbow-striped sticker by the door signals the revolution achieved in this tiny village north-east of Madrid.

From the Spanish capital, you drive 78 miles across parched meseta and reach a verdant valley overshadowed by the Ocejon mountain, where slate-roofed houses dot the hillsides around Campillo de Ranas. Some are new, others restored, but they exude a prosperity rare among villages hereabouts, most of which are dying.

Mr Maroto, 44, Campillo's Socialist mayor, has bucked the trend of rural depopulation by promoting his village as a venue for weddings, particularly gay weddings.

Three years ago this week, Spain's Socialist government passed a same-sex marriage law giving gay couples the same legal rights as heterosexuals. The ground-breaking measure broke the stereotype of Spain as a macho, Catholic nation. Since then 5,243 gay marriages have taken place in Spain, 3,675 between men and 1,568 between women. That's more than 33 gay marriages a week, quite an advance for a country where 30 years ago homosexuals faced jail.

Before 2005 no one had married in Campillo de Ranas for 35 years. Since 2005 Mr Maroto has conducted more than 100 weddings, 32 of them gay.

"At first my idea was to offer people the chance to get away from priests, and marry in beautiful, rural surroundings in a warm, civil ceremony.

"Then, when same-sex marriage became legal, many mayors refused to carry out homosexual weddings, but I said 'I am gay and I'll promote gay weddings on principle'," he says.

That political gesture grew into a development opportunity as Campillo's fame spread as a venue for original and relaxed, even outrageous, weddings. Mr Maroto has presided over a medieval-costumed wedding and a Lord of the Rings-themed wedding (dressed as Gandalf).

Mr Maroto is not at home, but gladhanding runners in a half-marathon in the Ocejon foothills. Locals from seven hamlets in the municipality of Campillo (population 250) down beer and chorizo from trestles after a yomp across the hills.

"This village was seriously ill, dying, but now people are coming to live here," says Fernando Barbero, 58, a hillclimber and trade unionist. "It's changed a lot. It used to be elitist, the local strongman decided everything. Now it's more consensual. I completely approve our option for gay weddings. Even conservatives accept it as something normal, and a way to bring life back to the village."

Juana Hombrados, 82, a lifelong shepherd, beams as she joins her fitter neighbours. "Gay people have as much right to set up home and be happy as everyone else," she says. "I only became aware of homosexuals when my daughter Pilar started working for a fashion designer. Then I got to know Paco [Francisco Maroto] because he has sheep, and we coincided on the hillside."

Mrs Hombrados's daughter Pilar Peinado is deputy mayor, and conducted the wedding last month of Mr Maroto and his partner of 14 years, Quique Rodriguez.

Mr Maroto says: "I realised this could be a way to develop the village. Restaurants created wedding feasts for 200 guests. Guest houses booked out," he says. He has re-roofed Campillo's church, re-opened the school after 30 years, and introduced mobile phone coverage. Weddings have saved his village.

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