Meet the gay stylists playing a key role in Spanish Holy Week

Working with rich fabrics, fine lace and florals, gay fashion designers have long played a quiet but pivotal role in dressing the Virgin Mary figures carried through the streets of southern Spain during Semana Santa, or Holy Week.

But their participation in this week of religious processions which marks the apogee of the Catholic calendar has a price: silence on their sexual orientation.

And it’s a compromise that makes them increasingly uncomfortable.

“Holy Week in Seville is a contemporary festival that dates back to the late 19th century and the gay community has been involved from the very beginning,” says Rafael Caceres, an anthropology expert at Pablo Olavide University in the southern city of Seville.

The Andalusian capital is a hive of activity ahead of Holy Week, which begins on Palm Sunday April 10 and culminates on Easter Day when Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Thousands of people throng the streets to watch life-size models of the Virgin Mary and Christ brought to their locality by different religious associations of “brotherhoods”.

The characters are meticulously dressed and adorned by volunteers from religious associations.

Pedro Pablo Perez Ochavo of Seville Ichtys Cristians LGBT+H, who campaigns for equality within the Catholic Church, said there were always “florists, embroidery specialists, jewellers, stylists” who worked together on the figures of the Virgin Mary – and “almost all are homosexual”.

A path to integration

Carlos Carvento, a 26-year-old dancer and drag queen from Cordoba, said that even within their religious associations, gay people could usually find “a way to fit in”, and one in which “their artistic work and personality are valued”. .

Others agreed that the Church tended to take a laissez-faire attitude, within reason. “Acceptance,” Caceres said, “is based on [the idea] that a person may be a virgin-dresser, and gay, but he would not tell. As long as his public life is reasonably low-key so as not to tarnish the brotherhood.”

It’s a tough line to tow, though. Oil businessman and brotherhood founder Antonio Munoz Tapia, who lives near Córdoba, started having problems after marrying his partner David in 2016.

People stopped inviting him to give the opening address for Holy Week in his village, and recently the Church printed its annual magazine for the brotherhoods without an article he had written about the LBGT community.

“If you don’t have a partner, if you live alone and are silent like me, they don’t cause you any problems,” the 50-year-old said. “I just don’t understand this Pharisee attitude – that we’re good enough for brotherhoods but not good enough to deserve equal rights.”

A Christian lifestyle

The Archdiocese of Seville recently confirmed that it does not have an internal register specifying the sexual identity of the participants. In a statement, he said: “Anyone who wants to deeply experience Holy Week in Seville can do so without any problem”.

However, diocesan rules state that major brotherhoods or religious organizations must “stand out for their Christian lifestyle in their personal life, family life and in society”.

Jose Victor Rodriguez and Jose Luis Medina, two fashion designers known respectively as “Victorio” and “Lucchino”, married in 2007. Shortly after, a Seville newspaper published a letter criticizing the fact that they were authorized to dress the Holy Week virgins.

“We led a more upright and moral life than many other people,” Medina said, calling the attack letter “despicable.”

Lady Gaga against Our Lady of Sorrows

Three years ago, drag queen Carvento celebrated Holy Week by strolling through Cordoba wearing a black skirt, high heels and her grandmother’s mantilla, a traditional embroidered black shawl used at parties or solemn occasions.

His photo on Instagram was first removed following several complaints. Later, the company backtracked. He said: “It is often said that [the gay community] take over. But I don’t take responsibility for anything, because it’s also mine!”

During Holy Week, dozens of different Virgin Marys parade through the streets. Of these, Our Lady of Sorrows, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of the Broom and Our Lady of Hope of Macarena are known to be favorites among the gay community.

“You might have a gay fan of Lady Gaga or Rosalia in Barcelona,” says Carvento, “but here we are fans of the Virgin of the Macarena or the Glorious Ascension, or Our Lady of Sorrows.”

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