Content warning for brief mention of suicide
Netflix’s new Spanish history film, Elisa y Marcela, features a fascinating historical queer couple. The movie, based on real events, details how two Spanish teachers became known as the first same-sex couple to be married in Spain. The movie itself attempted to portray a heart wrenching and beautiful love story, but one has to take it upon themselves to see if the “real events” the movie was based on telling the same story.
Elisa Sánchez Loriga and Marcela Gracia Ibeas reportedly met in a school in A Coruña while they were both studying to be teachers. From there on their friendship blossomed into romance. Marcela’s parents saw their close connection and sent her away to Madrid to complete her studies. Later, they would both get teaching positions within walking distance of each other and spend time together every day after class.
On June 8, 1901, the two were married by a parish priest in A Coruña. They achieved this by having Elisa put on a fake identity as a man. Elisa cut her hair short and started wearing suits to put on a masculine appearance. She adopted the name “Mario” and concocted a fake backstory for him. They claimed that Mario was Elisa’s cousin who had grown up in London as an atheist. Because of that, he was reaching out to the parish priest, Father Cortiella, to be baptized. Cortiella agreed, baptizing Mario in May of 1901 and then marrying Mario and Marcela in the following month. During their wedding, Marcela was pregnant through an unknown man. Very little is known about this pregnancy but some believe it was premeditated to help validate the marriage.
After the marriage, the newlywed couple’s secret was sold out to the press by their neighbours. Newspapers in Spain, France, Belgium, and Argentina headlined this story as “The Marriage Without a Man”. Both were fired from their teaching jobs and excommunicated from the parish church as a result of their story going into international news. The priest that wed them requested a doctor to examine Mario to see if he were a man or a woman. Mario agreed and claimed to be diagnosed as intersex in London when the doctor reported the results. The priest was denounced and persecuted for his role in the wedding and in order to avoid being tried in the Spanish court for their marriage the couple fled to Portugal where Marcela gave birth to a daughter.
Marcela and Elisa were soon caught by the Portuguese police and arrested. The Portuguese government planned to extradite them to Spain but before the couple could be sent back they were cleared for their crimes in Portugal and released before their extradition. They used this as an opportunity to flee to Argentina before they could be extradited back to Spain.
There they changed their names, Marcela to Carmen and Elisa to Maria, and started working in the domestic service industry. Later, Elisa married a man named Christian Jensen who was more than twenty years older than her. She then invited Marcela and their daughter to live with her and Jensen under the guise that she was her sister, Carmen. Jensen grew suspicious when Elisa refused to consummate the marriage and eventually figured out Elisa and Marcela’s true identities. Jensen took Elisa to court once again but the court found that their marriage was valid since this one was between a man and a woman. Little is known about what happened to Marcela and Elisa after this point. There are unverified rumours that Elisa committed suicide and Marcela married a man, but none of this can be confirmed.
An Argentinian woman named Norma Graciela Moure recently came out as Marcela’s great granddaughter. While doing some research on her family she found out about the film that was being made about Marcela whom she had known under her Argentinian alias, Marcela Carmen Gracias. This means that she is the granddaughter of the baby girl Marcela gave birth to in Portugal. She saw that historian Narciso de Gabriel wrote a book about Marcela and Elisa called Elisa y Marcela: Amigas y Amantes (Elisa and Marcela: Friends and Lovers). She saw a great resemblance between her ancestor and the woman on the cover of the book, so Moure reached out de Gabriel, sending him her grandmother and great grandmother’s birth certificates. De Gabriel confirmed to her that her great grandmother Marcela was the same woman.
Much of the information and documents they had on Marcela, however, was unfortunately lost in a fire. The family had long believed that Marcela had become pregnant through an affair with a married man and Elisa and her concocted the plan to marry in order to save Marcela’s honour. Moure herself spoke to the press saying, "Whether it's was that or that (Marcela) was lesbian or bisexual, because she had relationships with men and women, who can judge?"
Marcela and Elisa were married about one hundred years before same-sex marriage was legalized in Spain in 2005. But it is safe to say that their story did have a far-reaching impact. Today they are own as two of the earliest Spanish pioneers in same-sex marriage, having a street named after them in A Coruña. The first adaptation of their love story actually happened in 1902 when Felipe Trigo used their love story as inspiration for his novel La sed de Amar, which focused on gender roles in Spain. The most recent adaptation is the 2019 black and white biopic, directed by Spanish director, Isabel Coixet, released on Netflix and was distributed to 190 countries, bringing Marcela and Elisa’s story to international attention once again. The film itself can be criticized for many things. Variety Magazine criticized the somewhat absurd sex scenes and the camera work while some viewers lauded the film for its portrayal of a loving gay relationship. Reviews are a mixed bag but the main plot of the story does appear to be true to most of the real-life events that happened with a few exceptions and exaggerations as is common for biopics. Nonetheless, the release of the Netflix movie is sure to bring Marcela and Elisa’s story to a larger audience and hopefully with it an increased interest in the history of queer historical couples like them. Their story shows that were queer people present before there was any acceptance for them in society and perhaps it will lead to more content about where the LGBT community fit in the past.
[Disclaimer: some of the sources may contain triggering material]
Lothian-McLean, M. (2018). The incredible tale of Spain's first lesbian marriage is being made into a film. Stylist. Retrieved from https://www.stylist.co.uk/visible-women/film-gay-marriage-isabel-coxiet-spain-netflix-lgbt-elisa-marcela/190852
Menta, A. (2019). The True Story Behind Netflix’s ‘Elisa & Marcela,’ The First Same-Sex Marriage In Spain. AT&T. Retrieved from https://start.att.net/news/read/category/news/article/decider-the_true_story_behind_netflixs_elisa_marcela_the_f-rnypost
Terceiro, C. (2019, June 5). Argentine learns about great-grandmother's past thanks to new Spanish film. Agencia EFE. Retrieved from https://www.efe.com/efe/english/life/argentine-learns-about-great-grandmother-s-past-thanks-to-new-spanish-film/50000263-3993626
Thomas, K. (2018, August 30). In Spain, two women fooled a priest into marrying them in 1901. The Vintage News. Retrieved from https://www.thevintagenews.com/2018/04/30/marcela-gracia-ibeas-and-elisa-sanchez/
Weissberg, J. (2019, February 13). Berlin Film Review: ‘Elisa & Marcela’. Variety. Retrieved from https://variety.com/2019/film/reviews/elisa-and-marcela-review-1203138467/