The happy couple were dressed to the nines as they walked up the aisle one Saturday in June 1901. The wedding was taking place in the Galician city of A Coruña in northwest Spain. But there was something different about this union that would deeply shock the devoutly Catholic country.
The two names on the marriage certificate seemed normal enough. The bride was Marcela Gracia Ibeas and the groom was called Mario Sánchez Loriga. Their wedding took place amidst the Baroque splendor of the Church of San Jorge, a magnificent building that took more than 300 years to complete.
So what was so unusual about the couple who enjoyed a traditional Catholic wedding on a summer’s day in the province of Galicia? Well, for a start the groom had not given his true identity. You see, his real name wasn’t Mario but Elisa, and so he was actually a she. And this was the first gay marriage involving Spaniards for hundreds of years – probably since Roman times.
When Spain was part of the Roman Empire, morality ruled the roost. The Romans were surprisingly relaxed about homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Indeed, one of the most famous of Roman Emperors, Hadrian, took a man called Antinous as his lover. Coincidentally, Hadrian had been born on the outskirts of what is now Seville in Spain.
But the tide turned against this early example of tolerance during later Roman times that coincided with the rise of Christianity. Same-sex marriages were outlawed by the Emperor Constantius II, a Christian who reigned from 337 to 361. Moreover, things got worse for gay men in 533 when the Emperor Justinian decreed that homosexuality should be punished by castration and death by burning.
Attitudes flip-flopped again in the eighth century with the advent of Islamic rule in Spain. Surprisingly, Muslims at that time were actually quite tolerant of male homosexuality, although the authorities did not go so far as to sanction same-sex marriage. However, historians have been unable to shed light on the public’s view of lesbianism during the country’s Islamic era.
In 1492 Muslims were ousted from what power they still held in Spain. As a result, the Catholic religion and its moral outlook once again held sway in the country. Not long afterwards, sodomy was again made illegal and made punishable by death.
And then in 1524, Pope Clement VII authorized the Spanish Inquisition to investigate and punish homosexuality. Between 1570 and 1630, more than 500 trials involving accusations of homosexual acts were held in the city of Zaragoza alone. What’s more, of those who faced trial, 102 were put to death.
Surprisingly to those who think gay liberation is a modern phenomenon, the Spanish penal code of 1822 again made homosexuality legal. This remained the situation until 1928 when gay relations were criminalized once more. They were then briefly legalized in Republican Spain in 1932, but when fascist dictator Francisco Franco came to power in 1939, homosexuality was once again outlawed. It was to remain so for decades.
So history shows that in 1901 when Marcela Gracia Ibeas married her partner Elisa Sánchez Loriga – who, you’ll remember, was posing as Mario – homosexuality was not in itself illegal. But as far as the Catholic Church was concerned, same-sex marriage in one of its institutions was definitely beyond the pale. Indeed, it’s a position it holds to this day.
Marcela and Elisa would have been well aware of this Catholic prohibition. And of course they did try to conceal what they were up to, with Elisa dressing in men’s clothing and pretending to be Mario. Moreover, looking at their wedding picture it’s easy to see that Elisa could have passed as a handsome, fresh-faced young man.
But somehow word of the couple’s deception got out in the most public way imaginable. And a picture of the unfortunate pair ended up splashed across the front page of A Coruña’s local paper, La Voz de Galicia, alongside the headline “A wedding without a groom.” The cat was now well and truly out of the bag.
This was the first taste of publicity for the couple, and little that had gone before prepared them for the storm they now experienced. Their story began when Marcela and Elisa met at college in A Coruña, where they were both studying to become school teachers.
The couple’s friendship blossomed, but Marcela’s parents, apparently recognizing the direction that the relationship was going in, then decided to intervene. They packed Marcela off to Madrid, more than 360 miles away from Elisa. So while Marcela finished her studies in Madrid, Elisa graduated in A Coruña. However, fate then stepped in and brought the young lovers back together.
Elisa was posted to teach in the hamlet of Coristanco in the Galician countryside, while Marcela was working in the village of Calo, just 20 miles away. It was certainly close enough for the two to rekindle their romance, and eventually Elisa joined Marcela in Calo. Then Elisa took a job in the town of Dumbria, and Marcela joined her there.
But Marcela became pregnant, and in a Catholic country like Spain, that made marriage an urgent priority. So the couple concocted a plan and Elisa began her life as a man called Mario. Marcela told people that she and Elisa had argued and gone their separate ways. Furthermore, Marcela declared that she would be marrying Elisa’s cousin. His name? Mario.
Elisa further elaborated on her guise as Mario by claiming that he had been brought up as an atheist. That meant he needed to be baptized into the Catholic Church so that he could marry within the faith. Accordingly, the parish priest of St. Jorge, Father Cortiella, obligingly baptized Mario, gave him his first communion and married him to Marcella all on Saturday June 8, 1901.
But when the story became public, Elisa and Marcela had to flee to Portugal to escape the wrath of the authorities. There they were imprisoned, and the Spanish requested that they be extradited. However, the couple were released and they took their opportunity to flee to Argentina.
Marcela gave birth to a baby girl before the couple left for Argentina. Once there, for reasons that remain unclear, Marcela married an older man named Christian Jensen, but the union was an unhappy one. Not much is known about Marcela and Elisa after 1904, except for a 1909 Mexican newspaper story claiming that Elisa had taken her own life.
After this subversive attempt at a same-sex marriage, it was to be 104 years before such weddings were made legal under Spanish law. And now the audacity of Marcela and Elisa is to be dramatized in a movie by Spanish filmmaker Isabel Coixet. She told the BBC, “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.”