Gay World With Tim Warrington
The Greek Islands are a popular holiday destination for gay travellers, particularly Mykonos.
Greece Ancient Greece was A-okay with being gay. Modern Greece – not so happy. But things are changing… slowly. In 1982, American songstress Charlene went to “Nice and the Isle Of Greece” where she “sipped champagne on a yacht”. Thirty years later, it’s hard to imagine much cause for popping the bubbly in Greece. The Hellenic Republic is in its fifth year of recession with unemployment at a whopping 22 per cent. Greece is experiencing its worst fiscal crisis since welcoming back democracy in 1974 – poor Greece… literally! This Southern European country of 11 million people is doing it tough at the moment. The Global Financial Crisis and uncontrolled government spending has devastated the country’s economy, resulting in massive, multibillion-dollar bailouts (€240 billion so far), a substantial debt write-off, stringent austerity measures and internal political instability. And despite the fabled pink dollar, Greek gays are not immune; they now battle recession as well as discrimination. Once upon a time in Ancient Greece, it was okay to be gay. Same-sex sexual relations were routine. Society didn’t distinguish sexual behaviour by the gender of the participants, rather the roles they played. The dominant partner, almost always older and upper class was seen as masculine. The passive partner, who was usually younger and lower class, was perceived as feminine. While this type of homosexual arrangement was commonplace in Greek society of old, more equal relationships between mature men were rare. One notable exception was that of Alexander The Great and his buddy, Hephaestion. In Greek mythology too, heroes of the Trojan War, Achilles and Patroclus, were rumoured to be more than just friends. 104 DNA
And it wasn’t just the boys. There is strong evidence to suggest lesbian love was present in Ancient Greece, too, albeit far more discreet. Sappho, a 6th Century BC Greek poet was born on the Isle Of Lesbos. Not much of her writing remains, but fragments of her poems that have survived focus on the beauty of women, proclaiming her love for girls. Sexual acts aren’t mentioned but often implied – regardless, she is seen as the mother of lesbianism. The term “lesbian” came into common usage in the 19th Century, in
“There’s the secular Greece and the religious Greece and somewhere in the fray, there’s gay Greece desperate to be recognised.” homage to the island of Sappho’s birth. Now, fast-forward roughly 2,500 years. Male and female same-sex sexual activity is legal in Greece. For males it was decriminalised way back in 1951. Lesbians weren’t mentioned or acknowledged at all in the Greek Criminal Code. But while it’s not technically illegal, homosexuality isn’t generally accepted. It’s still seen by many as
taboo – existing in a sort of no man’s land. A Eurobarometer survey on discrimination in the European Union published in 2007, showed that 77 per cent of Greeks believed that being gay or lesbian in their country “tends to be a disadvantage”. In 2005, Greece banned discrimination based on sexual orientation in the labour market, adopting a European Union directive, however, no serious effort has been made to enforce this legislation. Gays and lesbians cannot adopt and hate crime laws do not include sexual orientation or gender identity. One of the biggest issues facing the LGBT community is the Greek Orthodox Church. Church doctrine pledges allegiance to the hatethe-sin-love-the-sinner school of forgiveness, yet many Church leaders (and followers) strongly appose what they see as the “gay choice”. On the Orthodox Wiki website, it states, “We are not born homosexual as we are born with a particular skin colour or gender.” The former head of the Greek Orthodox Church, the late Archbishop Christodoulos was fervently homophobic. Famous for his one-note agenda of strict moralising, he once referred to gays as “handicapped”. In a 2004 sermon, Christodoulos stated, “Imagine the sorrowful state humanity has reached. It wants us to cover up and not speak about what is a declared, blatant and flagrant sin [homosexuality], because those who have the ‘defect’ are annoyed and because they want all the rest to admit that this is a natural situation.” He died. The new head of the Church, however, has made comments that may indicate a softening in his faith’s hard-line opposition to gays. Responding to government proposals in
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2008 to introduce legal rights for cohabiting couples, Archbishop Ieronymos II Of Athens suggested, “There is a need to change with the time.” It is unclear, however, whether this view applied to same-sex couples, particularly as the Church has traditionally opposed gay rights in general and civil union laws in particular. Even if Archbishop Ieronymos is mollifying his opposition towards gays, it is not a view shared by many of his fellow clergymen. The influence of the Greek Orthodox Church extends well beyond the borders of the Hellenic Republic. It’s strongly vocal in Australia. Recently, the Australian Greek Orthodox Church issued statements to their local congregations urging them to oppose any move towards same-sex marriage. In June 2012, Archbishop Stylianos, Primate Of The Greek Orthodox Church In Australia, wrote to his congregation saying, “The proposed alteration to the traditional form of marriage (between a man and a woman) is diametrically against the sacredness of marriage ... therefore a sacred duty of every responsible member of our Church is to request that his or her local Member Of Parliament vote in Parliament against the Marriage Amendment Bill. No one should be indifferent to this issue, as there is a danger that we will be overwhelmed by the well-organised ‘same-sex marriage’ lobby.” Traditionally, marriage has been an intensely sacred institution in Greece. The country has one of the lowest divorce rates in the world. Any proposed changes to this institution would always be contentious. On 18 July 1982, Greek Law 1250 was passed allowing civil as well as religious marriages. The new legislation was ambiguous. Did it include homosexuals? Unlikely. But it did inject a secular freedom into what had previously been only an ecclesiastical institution. It was not well received. Religious groups were vociferous in their objections. But they needn’t have worried as the new law meant little to the gay community. There was no one brave enough to marry them… yet. Twenty-five years later, on 3 June 2008, this new legislation and the loophole it contained (it did not specify that a civil union must involve a man and a woman) was put to the test. The mayor of Tilos Island, Tasos Aliferis, decided to take the 1982 law at face value and marry two “persons” – they just happened to be the same sex. In doing so, he became the first elected official in Greece to marry a gay couple, provoking the wrath of conservative church officials and senior politicians. An immediate judicial reaction swiftly invalidated the marriage and Aliferis only just avoided a jail sentence. Church members expressed strong objections to same-sex unions. “Who can guarantee that in the future we will not see a wedding between a man and his dog?” wrote the bishop of Kalavryta and Aigialeia. >> DNA 105
Gay World With Tim Warrington
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>> Despite the obvious problems religion poses to the Greek LGBT community, George Kammenos, Greek expat and Melbourne-based blogger believes things are changing. “Greece does not hold a monopoly on religious objection to homosexuality. It’s true that the country hasn’t experienced the same shift to towards secularism that many European countries have, but the situation is improving. It’s only in recent years that the gay community has found a voice. We need to be patient. Athens Pride 2005 was a huge step. The single biggest factor holding us back is that people refuse to talk about homosexuality. It’s rarely mentioned in the press or on the radio or television. Being gay is not an ailment. It’s not something that can be ‘cured’. It won’t go away with the silent treatment.” Gay Greece is making small gains. In June, the second-largest city, Thessaloniki, held its first gay pride parade. Police (who maintained a strong presence throughout) say about 50 people threw eggs and plastic bottles at the participants, but the event was deemed 106 DNA
a success, with thousands turning out in support. Mayor Yiannis Boutaris permitted and welcomed the gay parade. The local bishop did not. Bishop Anthimos of Thessaloniki referred to homosexuality as a “diversion from their natural lives” and described the gay pride celebration as “an unacceptable event on our city’s ethics.” His objections fell on deaf ears; the parade promises to be even bigger next year. Lonely Planet recently listed Thessaloniki as the world’s fifth-best “ultimate party city” in 2012. Nikolas, Athens-born but now living in Ioannina, believes Thessaloniki is indicative of a nation in transition. “On one hand you’ve got the mayor representing forward-thinking, acceptance and equality… and on the other, the Orthodox Bishop – repressive, conservative and hopelessly out of date with society in 2012. I think this is representative of Greece as a whole. There is a divide. There’s the secular Greece and the religious Greece and somewhere in the fray, there’s gay Greece desperate to be recognised… which is easier said than done. We have a habit
of burying our heads in the sand when we don’t want to deal with something. Acceptance of a gay son in Greek culture is almost impossible for the older generation. My parents won’t accept it. They don’t think about it; they can’t think about me being gay because then it becomes ‘real’. The only way they can deal with it... is by not dealing with it. So, we need to educate and inform.” Athens, the capital, is home to almost four million people. It is, due to its size, the central hub for the gay community in Greece. Here, being gay isn’t usually an issue. According to Apostolos who was born and raised in Athens, the gay scene is alive and kicking. And while he acknowledges that his experiences may differ from those living in rural communities, he believes conditions for the LGBT community have improved significantly in the last decade. “Being a gay man in Athens in 2012 is pretty much like being a gay man in any other major European capital – definitely better than it was 10 years ago. There are far more lifestyle options. People are much more accepting than they used to be. In most parts of the city I’m not afraid to hold hands, kiss or hug my boyfriend. Hell, we even have two IKEAs.” Athens is home to Greece’s largest gay festival, Athens Pride, now in its eighth year. According to the Athens Pride website, “This year’s slogan (Love me, it’s free) stresses that the values that fortify a society are priceless. Yet they cost absolutely nothing.” This year the parade attracted over 12,000 people, making it the largest pride event in Southeast Europe. As the LGBT community becomes more visible, conditions continue to improve. In recent years, Athens has seen a significant boom in gay-owned businesses, from shops and cafés to nightclubs and galleries. Rooster in Monastiraki typifies the enterprising spirit of young Athenians. This café/restaurant/art gallery and club provides a welcoming and safe place for the gay community. Rooster’s popular U-NiGHT! is part of its Project Care, a non-profit organisation which supports the LGBT community. Nikolas is optimistic about the future. “I think it’s important to focus on what we do have in Greece, and where we’re going. We’re only a couple of hours flight from Baghdad and look at the gay hate there – thank God we don’t have that! What we do have is a community that hides from the ‘gay issue’ and we need to change that. I think the growing exposure of the gay community, together with the explosion in the number of high profile people coming out will force Greeks to look inwards, at a part of the community ignored for so long. I believe that with each generation, attitudes towards homosexuals will get better. Hopefully, the kids of the future will study this period in history and wonder why being gay was ever an issue.” H Go to athenspride.eu and find Rooster on Facebook.