MADRID -- Hundreds of thousands of people from across Europe packed into Madrid on Saturday to celebrate gay pride with an evening parade and to salute Spain's socialist government for introducing legislation that has turned this once deeply conservative nation into a bastion of gender equality.
For days, buses and airplanes have been arriving in Madrid loaded with people set on taking advantage of a four-day annual gay festival, which started Wednesday in the Spanish capital's colorful Chueca neighborhood as a prelude to Saturday's bigger, continentwide Euro Pride events.
Around 200 cultural, festive and sporting events were organized around Madrid, where organizers estimated as many as 2.5 million people were taking part.
"They've been enjoying the Chueca festival, at which we've seen many more people than in previous years," said Antonio Poveda, 39, president of Spain's lesbian, gay, transsexual and bisexual federation.
The parade, with at least 45 festive floats, is to crisscross Madrid under the banner "Now Europe, equality is possible," Poveda said.
Last year's Euro Pride was held in London.
"We have to defend our rights as gays, and from Spain we are going to proclaim loudly that these rights can be achieved," said Poveda, speaking in a bar which, like much of Chueca, was festooned with gay rights placards and colorful streamers.
"In this country we are in the vanguard of social victories, we had always been behind Europe," Poveda said.
Spain, predominantly Roman Catholic, had for centuries been under the moral guardianship of the church. The 1939-75 military dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco ruled with an iron grip, and homosexuality was illegal.
The Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in 2005 approved same gender marriages, began allowing same sex couples to adopt children and brought in legislation that made homosexual rights equal to those of heterosexuals in areas inculding inheritance and workplace benefits.
Since then, out of an estimated gay population of 4 million, up to 10,000 gay couples have wed, Poveda said.
With the arrival of democracy in 1977, Spanish attitudes began to shift.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1979 and in the early 1980s a Madrid-based cultural movement called "La Movida," led by artists such as gay film director Pedro Almodovar and photographer Alberto Garcia-Alix, started a sort of "renaissance" that removed some of the negative light shed on homosexuality during the Franco dictatorship.
Today Spain has some of the most liberal gay rights legislation in the world.
Poveda, who married his longtime boyfriend last year, said Spanish society accepts gay marriage with naturalness.
He feels gays and lesbians in Spain are still rejoicing over achieving legal equality two years after Zapatero's legislation was introduced.
"In Spain we've managed to touch a dream, and we're still jubilant," said Poveda.
Poveda is worried that some European countries still foster homophobic intolerance, citing Poland, where officials have proposed firing teachers who promote homosexuality, and Russia, which saw a recent outburst of anti-gay violence in its capital, Moscow.