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Spanish Socialist politician and gay rights activist Pedro Zerolo dies at 55

Party’s Madrid leader helped get same-sex marriage legislation passed in 2005

Pedro Zerolo Ver fotogalería
Pedro Zerolo, Madrid city councilor and veteran gay rights activist, died Tuesday.

Pedro González Zerolo, a Socialist politician and gay rights activist who helped get same-sex marriage approved in Spain, died in his Madrid home on Tuesday morning after a year-and-a-half battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 55 years old.

Born in the Venezuelan capital of Caracas in 1960, Zerolo had been a Madrid city councilor since 2007 and went on to become head of the Madrid Socialist Party (PSM) in February of this year.

But his public reputation had been cemented earlier, as president of the Spanish Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Transsexuals and Bisexuals (FELGTB), an influential advocacy group that he headed between 1998 and 2003.

A Roman Catholic priest said that his illness was punishment from God

It was at this time that he worked to help get same-sex marriage passed in Spain’s parliament – a personal dream that came true in 2005, under the Socialist administration of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Revolutionary in Spain, the new law also had a great impact in Latin America. For the first time, a nation recognized the full equality of same-sex and heterosexual marriages. Before this, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries had passed legislation recognizing some rights for same-sex couples.

Zerolo – a lawyer by trade who gave up his profession to enter politics – was one of the people in charge of reviewing Spain’s legislative system to change all mentions of “husband and wife” to “spouses.” The Spanish law also made no difference between heterosexual and same-sex couples for adoption purposes, forcing a change from “mother and father” to “parents.”

Pedro Zerolo (right) married Jesús Santos in 2005.
Pedro Zerolo (right) married Jesús Santos in 2005.

The same year it was passed, Zerolo made use of the legislation to marry his partner Jesús Santos, who was with him to the end. Soon after, he also contributed to the sexual identity law that recognized many rights for transsexual individuals.

Then-Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero convinced Zerolo to join the Socialist executive as head of non-profit groups and social movements, a topic with which he was very familiar.

A Madrid city councilor since 2003, he continued to fight for the gay community but became increasingly involved in politics. Zerolo tried to get himself appointed as the Socialist mayoral candidate for the 2007 elections, but failed to garner enough support within the party, which instead backed Miguel Sebastián – who ultimately lost to conservative Popular Party candidate Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón. Party sources said his open homosexuality played against him.

In January 2014, Pedro Zerolo announced that he had pancreatic cancer. That was the first year that he failed to take part in the Madrid Gay Pride march. It was one of his few signs of weakness. Always one to keep a high profile, he regularly updated the picture he used on social networking sites to reflect his changing appearance. Chemotherapy caused him to lose his trademark mop of curly hair, but his bald head became a new symbol of the man.

In the last interview he granted to EL PAÍS, Zerolo said that he was still feeling full of life despite his illness.

“I am ill, you know that,” he said. “Illness has taught me that you reap what you sow. I have been surprised at all the sympathy I’ve been getting from strangers. I think that, in order to beat this, you cannot be afraid. Fear is defeated through calm, by being calm with yourself. Without fear, you feel that life is on your side...”

The attitude went down well with cancer patient groups, who like the gay community, found in Zerolo a visible symbol. But the publicity also had its negative side. A Roman Catholic priest, Jesús Calvo, stated that his illness was punishment from God.

Zerolo spent his last months going to the movies in Madrid in the company of his husband, sister and friends, and taking strolls around Chueca, the city’s gay neighborhood.

A self-declared atheist, republican, gay man, feminist and socialist, he decided to die at home. On Monday, his closest friends were called in to say goodbye one last time. Madrid City Hall will hold a wake on Tuesday afternoon.