"I wouldn't normally be seen dead at a trade fair," 50-year-old Spanish artist Jose Ruanco admits as he looks at the 180 stands that make up ExpoGays, the world's first trade fair to be dedicated to gay-friendly businesses and enterprises. "But this one is a first. I wouldn't miss it for anything."
Mr Ruanco is not alone in seeing ExpoGays as a breakthrough. An estimated 20,000-plus visitors are expected for the three-day run in the coastal resort of Torremolinos, finishing today. "We had to fight to get our stand here," says Valérie Millet, a sales rep for the perfume Eau-mo.
While it touts itself as the biggest concentration of gay-friendly businesses in a single place, organisers insist all visitors, regardless of sexuality, are welcome. Straight couples may not be the first in line for the gayzapatos.com stall, which sells, as its publicity banners put it, "shoes that understand" – Spanish codewords for being gay – nor for the "bearcode" stall, which prominently features a line of T-shirts showing stick-men vigorously engaged in, well, getting it on.
Other stalls, though, are far less specific. Among them are an English language school, hotels, spas and healthclubs the length and breadth of Spain, and even one selling noni fruits from Tahiti, the latest rage in health food.
Satellite events running concurrently, such as the CineGay cinema festival, are clearly directed towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and some represent breakthroughs in their own right. The Gayvision song contest, held last night in Torremolinos, is Spain's first such competition. As for the more intellectually-minded, yesterday morning ExpoGays played host to Europe's first Gay Chess Championships.
Having veteran film star and gay icon Claudia Cardinale as honorary president was also a major draw, with lines of well-wishers cheering her on as she swept off to the showing of Le Fil, her latest film which inaugurated CineGay. While Le Fil highlights repression surrounding homosexuality in the Arab world, some are surprised that ExpoGays could take place in Spain, where, in rural areas, homosexuality is still frowned upon.
"The post-Franco constitution establishes equality for homosexuals. When the socialists first took power [in 1981] it was another big step, and the gay marriage law in 2005 was another landmark," said Yolanda Dema, a lesbian lawyer from Valencia at a stand representing the specialist legal firm Defengay. "But there's a long way to go yet."
Ben Goldstein, who is gay and has lived in Spain since 1991, said: "Things have improved since I moved out here. Chueca, Madrid's gay district, used to be very seedy, but it's now much better off. That said, there are a lot more 'closeted' men than in the UK."
As for the ExpoGays trade fair, its next appearance will be in Paris in 2011. "It is good this has happened, even if I am sorry to see that it is capitalism that is making the running for us gays now," Mr Ruanco wrily observed. "In any case, we'll know things have really changed when exhibitions like this are no longer necessary."