San Sebastián LGTBI, always ahead of its time

Jokin Egaña Journalist

The LGTBI issue has become a thermometer of a city's development and modernity, and now no one wants to be left behind. Many cities call on an institutional effort to make them tourism-friendly for the LGTBI community. In the case of San Sebastián, however, the LGTBI diversity and inclusion experience was no coincidence, nor was it sought out, but it is the natural evolutive consequence of a cosmopolitan, multicultural, open, welcoming city that has been tangible for decades.

I was born 56 years ago in San Sebastián, where I lived until the age of 30. Since then, for work reasons, I have lived in a number of Spanish cities, and I have travelled in many countries. As a curious and restless traveller with an interest in the behaviour of human beings and their societies, I was able to analyse the lives of our LGTBI community in various environments. Quite apart from the hugely famous beauty of our city, about which so much has been written, here I wish to dwell on its lifestyle, idiosyncrasy and special atmosphere, which can captivate any tourist. And most especially the LGTBI community and other social minorities.


By the 70s and 80s San Sebastián was already hugely attractive to LGTBI tourists, beyond the general interest of the city itself. The Miraconcha district had several nocturnal locales such as Master, Valentino, Wali-Jai, Cristal, or the Orient Express ... making up a genuine queer underground. This area was an oasis of freedom in those times, which the national and international LGTBI community was eager to move into. If we add to this the emblematic KU with its incomparable location on Mount Igeldo (this emerged in the 70s, and was subsequently exported to Ibiza), with its decor, go-go dancers and music breaking the moulds of the time, during those years San Sebastián was already an icon of modernity, style and rebellion opposing the excessive, suffocating parameters of an epoch.

Today there are practically no LGTBI-specific night spots in the city. A few years ago the hospitality sector decided that the atmosphere of the entire city was safe and open to the LGTBI community. It is my personal opinion that there can be no excess of LGTBI spots, since they form part of our culture, music and social movement etc., but there is no doubt that a city with no need to provide spaces that are safe for the LGTBI community is a most obvious symptom of the city's LGTBI-friendly character

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Similarly, San Sebastián has proved successful in attracting an exclusive chain of LGTBI or hetero-friendly hotels, thereby adding to the offer of other iconic LGTBI cities such as Ibiza, Mas Palomas, Berlin and Miami.

Curiously, talking of icons ... did you know that Saint Sebastian - one of the Church's most venerated saints - is a genuine gay icon? His extensive representations in paintings and sculptures did not go unnoticed by the gay community. As far back as the late 19th century, gay men had perceived in the representation of Saint Sebastian a homoerotic ideal and the symbology of a tortured gay man "in the closet". The image of Saint Sebastian has served as inspiration for the work of great literary masters such as Oscar Wilde or Yukio Mishima, and, of course, in films.

And films are precisely one of the particular attractions of the city of San Sebastián for our LGTBI community, as a well-known exponent of our enthusiasm for the seventh art. My professional career deprived me of a life in one of the most beautiful cities on earth, but every year I relentlessly book out a week in September to go back to San Sebastián and enjoy one of the world's major film festivals to the full. The atmosphere in the city during the festival is incomparable. Art, culture, sophistication and style overcome locals and visitors alike. Because, despite its luxuriousness, the city has given the festival a popular facet to be enjoyed by one and all.

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Yes, culture forms part of the city, and it is a key component of the reason why San Sebastián is known for its respectful open attitude to the LGTBI community. I would add that another key component in this regard is its international multicultural profile, because for decades the city has played host every year to countless university students from all over the world through the Erasmus programme.

The beach and gastronomy are attractions for many locations, but the case of San Sebastián is far removed from those overcrowded cities and their beach bars. Our gastronomic quality and culture has been acclaimed all over the world. And the beach scene is as elegant as the rest of the city, with particular enthusiasm reserved for surfing and protection of the environment.

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I cannot finish this opinion piece without an outside reference to what the city constitutes. During one of my visits to San Sebastián I escape to France's Les Landes nearby, seeking out the air, the freedom and privacy of its kilometres of beaches and dunes. A privilege usually combined with a stroll around Biarritz or Saint Jean De Luz afterwards.

Whether you come to San Sebastián as a student or a tourist, or to attend a professional event, the reality is that everyone is welcome in their diversity with great respect, and also with curiosity. Yes, we Basques are usually discreet (this is occasionally mistaken for "standoffish"), but we are always more than willing to meet and greet visitors, keen to interact to discover new experiences and concerns. And, of course, in the case of LGTBI travellers too.

Historically San Sebastián has been oppressed for political reasons, and so our character still features a somewhat rebellious facet, opposing the tired old rules of epochs various, including the modern age. I love this. And if you are a member of the LGTBI community and you go to San Sebastián, you will be caught up in the enthusiasm of enjoyment of a city that has always been ahead of its time.