A new Netflix film will tell the story of Spain’s first same-sex marriage.
The wedding photos of Mario Sánchez Loriga and Marcela Gracia Ibeas seem typical of early 20th century shots. Captured in sepia after their short ceremony on 8 June, 1901 at San Jorge church in A Coruña, Spain, the portrait bears witness to the pair’s happiness. Marcela, in an elegant embroidered veil, clutches tightly to the arm of her husband, a fine-featured man with close-cropped hair who sports his smartest suit for the occasion.
But the picture hides a secret. ‘Mario’ was actually ‘Elisa,’ and 104 years before same-sex marriage was legalised in Spain, Marcela and Elisa’s nuptials became the first ever gay ceremony to be recorded. It remains, to this day, the only homosexual wedding in the entire history of the Spanish Catholic Church.
Now their story is set to be made into a new film, produced by Netflix and written and directed by one of Spain’s most prolific female filmmakers, Isabel Coixet.
“I was fascinated the first time I heard about the story, which almost raised more questions than it has answers,” Coixet, winner of seven Goyas (Spain’s most prestigious film awards) told BBC News in a recent interview.
“When I think about these two women and the courage it took for one of them to pretend to be a man, it was unbelievably brave. We don’t know what happened to them in the end, and how did they think they would get away with it?”
They almost did. But Elisa and Marcela – who first met while training to be teachers – were exposed when disapproving neighbours sold them out to local newspaper La Voz de Galicia. The exposé was published with the damning headline ‘A wedding without a groom.’
Historian Narcisco de Gabriel, who wrote a 2008 book about the pair, Elisa e Marcela: alen dos homes (“Elisa and Marcela: beyond men”), recorded how the revelation caused both women to be fired from their teaching roles. They were also excommunicated from the Catholic church, after Elisa underwent a humiliating medical examination in an attempt to escape the law by proving that she was a hermaphrodite.
It didn’t work. Instead the couple – with Marcela pregnant by an unidentified man – were forced to flee to Portugal. After Marcela gave birth to a daughter, the threat of extradition pushed them to board a boat to Buenos Aries, where records show Elisa married a wealthy Danish man. That union ended acrimoniously, amid accusations of fraud on her part.
After that, the story trails off until 1909, when newspapers tragically reported Elisa had committed suicide in Veracruz, Mexico.
Elisa and Marcela’s struggle to be recognised is one that still resonates with queer individuals around the world, and activists have welcomed the news of the film as a step forward in representing lesbian relationships on the big screen.
“We lesbians have virtually no [out] role models in Spain among politicans, actresses or artists,” said Immaculada Mujika Flores, director of Spanish LGBT organization Aldarte.
“If this story was about two gay men, I’m sure it would be better known. There are still people who keep their sexuality secret […] due to embarrassment or a fear of being fired.”
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Images: Rex Features / Celsius Entertainment