Pardon this interruption in my Florentine routine while I provide a Greek adventure!
Through a generous offer by my colleagues in EKU Education Abroad, I traveled to Athens (Hellas), Greece, in October 2016 to perform a site visit and evaluation of Hellenic American University’s offerings geared toward LGBT students.
Hellenic American University’s very small campus specializes in programs such as Aviation, Linguistics, and Psychology, and they even offer a PhD in Linguistics that focuses on Greek-English translation. HAU welcomes students in any major, and they are happy to customize the study abroad experience. American students would be quite lucky to study here, and I can especially see how a service-learning course or an internship would greatly benefit the students as well as the community.
Overall, it was a wonderful visit that allowed me to see a city I’ve only imagined through great literature, art, and mythology, but in good conscience I can’t recommend it for our current students who identify as LGBT.
The Gods Must Be Broke
Athens is not what I expected, and I wish I had formally recorded what I expected. I recall that I expected more historical sites, more remnants of a time from a millennium ago. What I found was a modern city still in shock from the economic crisis of 2008. For over 5,000 years Athenians have defended themselves against foes, and I hope this latest enemy—a pernicious one in its abstract facelessness—doesn’t destroy the city’s resilience.
The history of the place is largely underground. Most residents in the know say every building, every road, every construction is built on top of ancient ruins, but such ruins are only imaginable based on visits to the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the New Acropolis Museum. Most roads—especially any modern ones—are new and easily traveled by the multitude of super-compact cars at any given moment of the day. These roads, as any local will testify, were built when the Olympics came home in 2004 and have remained in fairly good condition since then. The superhighway between Athens’ city center and the airport is a special point of pride among Athenians, and it, too, is an Olympian effect.
Athenians tend to mark the city’s history with three specific eras: the Golden Age of fifth-century BCE, the 2004 Olympics, and the 2008 crisis. The crisis is by far the begrudged gold medal over the admirable silver and honorable bronze of the other two topics. It tarnishes every conversation and every experience of a visitor to this once-regal city.
Restaurant and café employees greet visitors with hesitant enthusiasm, as if to expect them to turn around and leave upon learning prices. On the contrary, in most exchanges I felt like I was stealing:
- a pound of fresh spanakopita and a beautiful chocolate treat for three euro at a bakery;
- a bottle of Greek wine, a half-pound of fresh cheese, a loaf of bread, a box of detergent, a big tube of toothpaste, a six-pack of sparkling water, a bag of coffee, and a quart of milk for less than 25 euro;
- a cab ride of 35 kilometers, 34 euro.
When money was involved, language could become a barrier. Most Greeks that I encountered knew some English, enough to carry on a very basic conversation and to give rudimentary directions. Those who didn’t speak fluent English seemed exasperated when they had to pull someone else into a transaction; they responded with visible irritation when I could offer no smaller bills than twenty euro. The only area that seemed a bit more pricey was the Plaka, the district that attracts the most tourists with its many shops and larger restaurants.
Comparison Is the Thief of Joy
Compared with my month in Italy last summer, my time in Greece confirms that American politics are never far from the eastern Europeans’ mind when they meet someone from the States. In summer 2016, the Italians laughed nervously when Tr*mp’s name came up in conversation, and several conversations ridiculed the sanity of Americans who support Tr*mp. In Greece, the conversation was not jovial at all. On the contrary, Greeks are afraid. They have experienced widespread economic crisis, and they don’t want other countries to share this national woe. My taxi driver brought up the subject and commented, “I don’t like Tr*mp. I don’t like Clinton. But Tr*mp like war, and here we don’t like war.” The driver went on to explain how eight years ago, most Greeks owned four cars; now they might own one. He added that before 2008, most Greeks owned a home and had solid careers; now, having lost their homes, they are renters and depend on multiple jobs to meet each month’s payments. Eight years ago, he lamented, Greece was like the U.S. When I asked him if he expects a recovery, he said, “Thirty years? Maybe. Thirty years if we’re lucky.”
Look Straight Ahead
In Greece, LGBT identities aren’t widely accepted even though male homosexual activity has been decriminalized since 1951. Under pressure from the European Courts of Human Rights in 2015, Greece legalized civil unions, but far-right opposition has been loud, and the large Greek Orthodox population prevents any measures toward marriage equality or adoption rights for LGBT couples. A legislator affiliated with a far-right party claims that the civil union law serves “to present abnormal as normal.”
When my group of LGBT activist-academics met our Athens tour guide, she told us, “To be honest, I don’t mind working with the gays at all. I usually work with normal groups, but the gays are nice and friendly.” All of us bristled and sat up higher in our seats upon hearing this comment, but we granted our patience to her. At the end of a long day of her highly informed lectures at several of Athens’ historical sites, we agreed among each other that she was not at all malicious with her comments and instead didn’t realize her language could be perceived as an insult. Most likely, she was only repeating the popular Greek terminology of “normal” instead of “straight,” and she was attempting to make sure we knew she was tolerant.
Yet, those of us who study language know that it marks reality, and when an idea is framed in terms of normalcy, anything that opposes it is often met with violence. That’s what has happened. According to Colour Youth, a non-profit group that tracks homophobic and transphobic violence in Greece, LGBT-presenting individuals experienced over 100 acts of violence between 2009 and 2015, and the uptick is what’s most disturbing (though I fully realize the difference between occurrences and reports): 75 of the reports occurred in 2015. Data for 2016 is not yet available.
Two representatives from Colour Youth presented the group’s mission to us, and I was very impressed with what they have managed to accomplish. Focusing on awareness, education, and prevention of discrimination against the LGBTQI population, Colour Youth is modeled after GLSEN and is part of the Racist Violence Reporting Network in Greece. The group currently has seventy members from the 18-30 age demographic, and its funding is able to support two employees, who maintain a database of homophobic/transphobic violence and seek pro bono legal services, counseling services, safe housing, and other opportunities for those who have been targeted in discrimination or violence. Like most non-profits that work with marginalized communities, Colour Youth is always looking for more funding. In addition to its very serious mission, the group holds regular meetings and social events to provide a safe, fun environment for LGBTQI youth in Athens.
Athens is home to some pretty prominent Greek activists, including Maria Cyber (aka Maria Cyberdyke or Maria Katsikadakou) and Gregory Vallianatos, both of whom our group met for lunch during our visit. Maria and Gregory are wonderful and brave and innovative. They are out and outspoken. Maria Cyber runs the Outview Film Festival, an increasingly popular, juried film festival featuring queer-themed works by independent filmmakers around the world. When she met us, she embodied a loud and proud presence by quickly going around the table and labeling each of us by our sexuality, making some quite uncomfortable. That’s her personality, cultivated from years of oppression and silencing. Lesbian erasure is a distinct tendency in Greece, and while it would seem fortuitous to be omitted in laws against homosexuality, the exclusion extends to media and popular depictions.
Gregory Vallianatos (whose name sounds like “valiant” to me, appropriately so) is a journalist by career and is an activist; in 2014 he ran for Athens Mayor and was not only the first “out” candidate for this position but was also the first out HIV+ candidate. His story is an inspiration, and while he is every bit as active in politics and grassroots work for Greek LGBTs, he exudes calmness and patience. His most recent target in his activism is the Church, which he believes is the arbiter of religious and social beliefs, regardless of the residents’ attendance or membership in a church.
Throughout the week, I heard from more than one person associated with the LGBT community that it’s important to appear “straight” when outside the university campus or any distinct LGBT area, such as the Gazi District. The Gazi District is an area whose name refers to the city’s gasworks system. The old gas factory is now a museum that still reeks of coal and smoke even though it has been closed for more than 25 years. The surrounding area has become a home for artists and students, and the cafes and entertainment venues welcome non-mainstream identities without persecution. It’s the Athens gaybourhood.
Within the Gazi neighborhood is an organization called Rainbow Families of Athens. These families are made up of lesbian and gay parents who raise their children in a communal, affirming environment. When the University of Louisville sent a study abroad team here several years ago, the students worked for a semester with the Rainbow Families to write, illustrate, and publish children’s books in Greek showing families led by parents identifying as the same gender. No such publications had previously been offered. The books are beautifully done, but the community doesn’t have enough funds to re-print the books or publish new ones on a regular basis. I’d love to see a similar project, and I’d also like to start a book drive that collects LGBT-affirmative children’s books for the Rainbow Families’ children who are learning English.
Even though Athenian culture hasn’t stayed true to its ancient roots of accepting non-heteronormative identities, there is a small population of outspoken queer activists. Clearly, the Hellas underground is not only a place of history but on a metaphorical level, the underground is also where and how the cool people circulate.
Another marginalized population in Greece that needs serious help is the refugee community. Several schools and churches have opened that cater specifically to refugees, and while some of the more conservative Greeks oppose their presence, many welcome them. The graffiti is enough proof: a lot of art says #refugeeswelcome, while other graffiti has been marked through with spray paint several times, as if to create a dialogue between both sides of the refugee argument.
“Why do I feel free only when I do this shit?” asks a graffiti artist’s self-portrait. True to its historical uses, graffiti in Athens typically critiques or otherwise comments on the social climate with the implicit goal of making people think, urging passersby to question the status quo. With its combination of stunning, larger-than-life canvases of the sides of buildings to the tags of individuals quickly scrawled in spray paint on nearly every vertical surface, Athens is quickly becoming the street art capital of Europe. Our guide on our street art walking tour was a PhD-level art historian and philosopher whose name I can’t remember but who regularly teaches the HAU study abroad course called “A Walk Across Greece,” which leads students to several ancient sites in the country—a course that I would absolutely love to take—as well as Athens Across the Ages. The instructive and entertaining professor’s knowledge was absolutely encyclopedic in its thoroughness, and she knew the artist of every major piece of graffiti and their development. I could have listened to her for three full days.
Overall, I wish I could have stayed in Athens for a longer time, and I wish I could have visited Mykonos, which is apparently the place in Greece where LGBT identity is “normal.” If HAU had a site there, I’d happily send my students to learn about this Classical culture. Perhaps in a few years—hopefully not thirty, as my cab driver predicted—Athens will be a place where normal is only a setting on the washing machine. Until then, I can’t send our students to study there; in a country where they don’t know the language, they would be extremely vulnerable, even more so than they are in Kentucky.