By Madeline Weng
While Brighton’s 2014 Pride Festival was hailed as ‘a fabulous array of music, dance and colour from around the globe… a celebration of all that is great about the city and its LGBT community’, its counterpart in downtown Athens was met by outcries and ululations from the Church. Instead of a celebration, the mid-June parade was seen as ‘homosexuals rampaging the streets’ by the indifferent and irate public.
Leonidas Karathanasis was one of the young gay people who attended the Athens Pride parade earlier this year. Karathanasis was born on 28th May 1987. He began studying Communication and Media Studies at the University of Athens, after finishing working in a local cafe. Although he has had the courage to ‘come out’, because of the unspoken rule of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ not all of his friends know about his sexual orientation.
It used to be the case that Greece was heaven if you were after gay sex, but hell if you wanted to openly ‘cruise.’ In a country where the word ‘gay’ is used to describe someone as being silly or behaving ridiculously, most gay Greeks find the social environment not entirely supportive.
Statistics from the Special Eurobarometer show that Greece is believed to be the second most anti-LGBT country in Europe, with 65 percent of Greeks pointing out that discrimination is very widespread in their country.
In Greece, homosexuality is a topic that everyone seems to avoid. Cassi Moghan, a blogger for ‘This Is Not My Country’, says that “Greeks will deny that they are homophobic or racist, and that makes it difficult to have any kind of discussion about it.”
Moghan also says that there are very few openly gay personalities within the Greek media industry. And Greek TV series tend to nourish homophobic stereotypes without much hindrance or censorship.
Gay Greeks do not always accept their own sexuality. “There is a huge psychological conflict at play here. In fact, a lot of homophobic people are themselves gay,” says Karathanasis.
A term has been coined for this dismissing of primal desires: ‘Internalised Homophobia.’ It’s employed when lesbian, gay and bisexual people consider or accept heterosexuality as the correct way of living, according to ILGA-Europe.
Karathanasis takes a sip from his frappé coffee; his eyebrows furrow when his tastebuds meet with the familiar strong, rich flavour. He then puts down the glass and explains, “It takes some courage to accept and live with yourself the way you are and be able to come out and let others know.”
However, there are still people that Karathanasis doesn’t feel ready to broach the issue with yet. Many are members of his family. Although living under the same roof, Karathanasis’ parents have never seen him bring back a girlfriend – they hardly hear him talk about girls.
When Karathanasis was 15, an incident occurred which has haunted him ever since. One day, Karathanasis left his room without erasing the browsing history on his computer. When he came back a few hours later, his older brother had been using the computer and Karathanasis noticed that the browsing history had been erased.
“My brother has never mentioned anything about it ever since. And neither have I,” said Karathanasis.
Karathanasis told me that the older generations grew up with the myth that homosexuality is a disease, and so their attitudes towards gay people take longer to change.
Ms. Moghan explained that Greece is a country dominated by a macho culture, in which men do not perform traditional female tasks, and boys are preferred over girls. Not long ago, people still used to say, “I have two children and a boy.” Men are doted on by their mothers and can do no wrong. However, an openly gay child is usually ostracised by the family.
Fortunately Karathanasis’ parents are rather more open-minded, but still he understands that his sexuality is a lot for them to fully digest.
“It is always different when it comes to your own son rather than someone else’s,” he says, “and what it actually requires them to do is to view me in a very different light.”
Karathanasis used to work for the local cafe in order to cover his expenses during college, but the money was so good that he kept doing it after finishing college. However, when the financial crisis hit, he started to get fewer and fewer tips, a reduced salary and shorter shifts.
“So I started not having a good time during work, and it is very important for me to enjoy what I do,” said Karathanasis.
When he was diagnosed with myocarditis in his ninth year of working in the Star cafe, Karathanasis quit the job without a second thought.
However, it isn’t easy to get a job in Greece now. According to Eurostat, in 2012, more than half of young Greeks aged 15 to 24 were unemployed, which has increased 24% compared to late 2009 when austerity kicked in.
Karathanasis knows many graduates who are waiting tables. One of his friends with a Bachelor degree from the University of Athens is now delivering fast food. Some waiters used to be paid €1,500, whilst nowadays they don’t even get half of that.
Half of all young Greek adults live with their parents, suffering from the guilt of being a burden on their parents, which, as Karathanasis told me, is a commonly shared mindset.
But although the house prices continue to fall due to the weaker property demand, young people still cannot afford one of their own.
For Karathanasis, there is something more that he needs to sort out before he can find a job in this already difficult situation. He needs to have a piece of paper that shows he has served in the army in order to get a proper job. But in Greece, it used to be the case that a gay man could not join the army. This put him in a Catch-22 situation.
Karathanasis postponed enlisting when he was 18 and went to university, thanks to a rule that students who wish to attend further education can apply for a deferment for 5-6 years. Now that he is graduating soon, Karathanasis has to face the same situation again, but this time for a different reason.
“I think this eight-month service is a total waste of time, especially for those who just graduated,” says Karathanasis.
But not all gay people think the same way. After years of against discrimination based on sexuality, gay people can finally join the army.
However, a progressive policy toward gay and lesbian soldiers does not invariably guarantee its gay citizens freedom from discrimination. Especially in Greece, where the financial turmoil and a rise in national fervour has resulted in a spike in hate crimes against homosexuals.
Since the financial crisis took place in Greece in 2009, hate crimes against the gay community has been started by the so-called “last hope of Greece” – the Golden Dawn party. The extreme far-right party has found its chance in the turmoil and climbed up onto the political stage. They’ve sold people the idea of “pure Greeks”, those proud, able-bodied, ‘full-bloodied’ men that keep women in their place. People who don’t fit this standard are labeled as “faggots”, “scum”, “whores” and “invaders”.
Golden Dawn does not accept homosexuality, because for them it is “un-Christian”, even though they follow Pagan religions instead of Greek Orthodoxy. In the name of religion, Golden Dawn members advocate violence by committing crimes and making provocative speeches, claiming they are “defending Greece against ‘un-Greek’ influences.”
Among their unfriendly gestures towards homosexual people, dropping leaflets that say “after the immigrants you are next” in the Gazi district of Athens – the famous area where many gay people convene – was one of Golden Dawn’s most ridiculous deeds.
Karathanasis was upset when he saw the leaflet: “It only makes me sad. Pity is the only thing I can feel about them. But I am not afraid of Golden Dawn. When they are ‘done’ with us, who else are they going to hate next?”
In the meantime, Karathanasis is always under pressure from society. He observed that Greek people nowadays like to label themselves using their appearance, gender and nationality. He thinks Greeks have forgotten that they are human beings, constantly feeling the need to prove themselves “pure Greeks.”
“You see, when you meet someone, automatically you make a profile of him in your head in order to be able to identify him and interact with him.” As a student who studies communication and media studies, Karathanasis is able to analyse his personal experience in a professional manner, “however, I don’t want people to immediately categorise me as ‘gay’ when they just meet me. Sexuality is only one part of myself.”
“They forget that sooner or later we’re all going to end up in the same place,” said Karathanasis, his voice gentle and sincere, “life is too short to hate and discriminate against each other. We all smile, laugh and cry in the same way.”
Having said that, Karathanasis laughs shyly: “Look how stupidly romantic I am. This is why I think my sexuality is only one aspect of myself.”
The last time I saw Karathanasis, I asked him what he was going to do when asked the a question relating to his sexuality whilst in the army. He shrugged and laughed with relief: “If they ask, I will tell. After all, I am not the only gay soldier here.”
Madeline Weng, 23, is a journalist from China and a graduate of the University of Sussex. She is a keen museum-goer, a bookworm and a couchsurfer. Her work has previously appeared in the Argus newspaper, A Younger Theatre Review, and New Economy Magazine.