I have always been ambivalent about the 6th of January. It is the day before my birthday, which means I can get presents and get drunk. On the other hand, it is a great celebration of Orthodoxy. Greeks gather at various ports around the country and watch a rather theatrical religious tradition: priests throwing a crucifix into the sea while several young men dive into cold water and attempt to retrieve it for good luck. The day is called Theophany, or Epiphany, and it commemorates the revelation of God in human form through Jesus.
Since I’m an atheist, this whole ritual doesn’t mean much to me. However, this year the 6th of January got a lot more interesting. I got up early in the morning and joined a group of gay activists, members of Greece's LGBT community, who gathered at the port of Piraeus to protest against Seraphim, the town's ultra-conservative Bishop, who is notorious for his homophobic statements. By the time Seraphim tossed his cross into the sea, the assorted Ls, Gs, Bs and Ts were giving each other big gay kisses and handling out leaflets that read: “Love is not a sin.”
Last November, the European Court of Human Rights ordered Greece to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil partnerships like straight people can. The Strasbourg-based tribunal ruled that, in not doing so, Athens was in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Greece remains the only EU country other than Lithuania to refuse to extend this right to same-sex couples. Seraphim responded to the plans to make Greece join the rest of Europe in the 21st century by stating that "homosexuality is a unnatural aberration not even observed in animals”. A statement that discriminates against the sexual habits of many albatrosses, king penguins, dolphins, giraffes and ancient Greeks.
In the face of Greece's resistance to legally recognised same-sex relationships, activists Grigoris Vallianatos and Nikos Mylonas, together with three more couples, brought legal action against Greece through the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. The country now has to compensate them with 5,000 euros each. But most importantly, this ruling brought the issue of gay marriage to the fore. There were rumours that the Greek government would finally resolve the issue allowing same-sex civil unions. It was then that Seraphim spoke out against attempts to make "this terrible sin of homosexuality, sodomy, unnatural sexual intercourse, pederasty and paedophilia, to appear as a normal state, as diversity". He even threatened Greek MPs with excommunication in case they voted for such a law. The government subsequently postponed the vote on the legislation indefinitely.
Mylonas, who took part in the protest in Piraeus, told me, “We want to pass the message that love is not a sin. That love has to be respected by everyone.” Eliza Goroya, one of the organisers, confirmed it was Seraphim’s provocative comments that inspired the idea for the protest. I met her the day before the “Epiphany kiss”, during a meeting of the activists who were trying to organise the event and gather as many volunteers as they could for the next day.
For Eliza, the day was given extra political frisson by the attendance at the Bishop's ceremony of various politicians. "Bishop Seraphim is legitimising himself and his awful critique using his institutional status. People who choose to attend his church cannot be considered completely innocent," she railed. "By doing so, they confirm his influence as a religious leader, an influence which he then uses to manipulate politicians to sustain his medieval patriarchal views. We are here to say that we are not ashamed – people who love will not be silenced by hate. We will not hide. We will not apologise. We fight back and we want equality."
The activists published a blog that explained why they decided to protest during the Epiphany celebration. “We were not targeting people's right to practice their religion. Εven if this has happened, we would like them to reconsider why a kiss would constitute a threat in the first place and the reasons why we had to 'invite ourselves to the party’ this time.”
The group created the hashtag #poustiriot – a pun on Pussy Riot. The word “pousti” is Greek slang with a meaning similar to “fag”.
According to the law, the kissers could have been arrested for public indecency and blasphemy, so some brought toothbrushes to the kiss-off in case their participation earned them a couple of nights in the slammer.
In the end, it wasn't the LGBT crowd who were hassled by the authorities, but the Greek MP Ilias Kasidiaris of the far-right Golden Dawn. Port officials prevented him from accessing the ceremony, saying he was not invited. Speaking to the press, Kasidiaris expressed his dissatisfaction “with the fact that the large municipalities never send official invitations to the Golden Dawn. Nevertheless, this will not last for long as the party will be able to win in the local elections on the 25th of May.”
When the jilted neo-Nazi had finished his whining, the activists began to kiss among the Christians who, despite the rain, had gathered to watch Seraphim blessing the waters. The cops didn’t show up, the crowd didn’t boo them and the courageous activists became the talk of the Greek internet. In a few days they will be hitting the headlines again, since many of them are planning to bring legal action against Greece once more.
After the protest, the group gathered outside the Metropolitan Church of Piraeus for a final kiss. Hot stuff, you guys.
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