Is Greece About to Start Persecuting Its LGBT Community?
Athens Pride 2013, photo by Paola Revenioti.
They weren't the greatest circumstances in which to pay a homecoming visit to Mum and Dad, but the last time I was in Athens it was to hang out with homeless users of a deadly new drug made with car battery acid and crystal meth, called sisa. As they struggle to deal with their problems, the Greek police are mangling them in the wheels of Operation Thetis, an initiative that involves arresting drug users en masse and detaining them for a few hours before releasing them back on to the streets. It's an unorthodox way to deal with the twin sadnesses of homelessness and drug addiction. It is also stupid and cruel.
Just after WWII, pastor Martin Niemoller gave a speech that included one of the most famous quotes of the 20th century. You know the one – first the Nazis come for the Socialists, then the Trade Unionists, then the Jews and finally, "they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me". In the past three years, during which a right-wing coalition government has been joined by fascists in Parliament, Greece has been enacting its own version of Pastor Niemoller's quote. In 2013 alone, immigrants have been stabbed and shot at and drug addicts have lost most of their rights to state welfare. With depressing predictability, it seems members of the LGBT community are next.
At the beginning of this month, reports surfaced that the police in Thessaloniki (Greece's second-largest city) have been prosecuting transgender people, giving the excuse that they suspect them of prostitution. It's not a healthy situation to be in ahead of Thessaloniki Pride, which is set to start today.
Paola Revenioti is a transgender Greek artist and activist. Alongside seminal poetry anthologies and documentaries, in the 80s Paola published what was possibly the first Greek gay rights zine, funding Kraximo through her own prostitution. She was also a founding member of one of the first Athens Pride parades in 1992. I called her up to talk about the recent persecution of the transgender community by the Greek authorities.
VICE: Hi Paola. I don't suppose this if the first time trans people have had problems with the authorities in Greece?
Paola Revenioti: No, it's not. Police have been randomly arresting trans people in the street for the past three years, usually under charges of prostitution and the pretence of checking their identification. They have tended to hold them in a cell overnight and take them to court the next day. It's barbaric, but in the past, a large percentage of these people would, in the end, be acquitted. What we're seeing now, though, is that they're being made to pay huge, unreasonable fines.
Has it ever happened to you?
Once, three years ago, I happened to be in the Iera Odos area. It's a place people do street work, but I wasn't. I had to spend the night in jail and the next day in court. The worst part of it was the disgrace I felt, even when I knew I was innocent. Anyway, they stopped doing that at some point and got to randomly forcing people to undergo HIV tests. Which is just disregarding basic human rights.
Is this clampdown related to the financial crisis, in your opinion?
The trans community has always faced the same problems. One way it is related, though, is that the fines they're made to pay once they are arrested can be up to 700 Euros. This is already a downtrodden social group. It's hard to find a job as a transgender person and there's usually no family support to fall back on. Most people have to turn to prostitution to make a living, and that doesn't even work these days because people don't spend as much on prostitutes. Having to pay this kind of money to the state is only making things worse.
Demonstration for LGBT rights, Athens circa 1980. Paola, pictured in the centre, is holding a placard that reads "The State Has No Business In Our Bed". Photo via Paola's Facebook page.
How come the recent crackdown first happened in Thessaloniki, instead of Athens?
I'm not sure – it's not like the trans community is large in Thessaloniki. I doubt it consists of more than 200 people. The Archbishop of Thessaloniki, Anthimos, has always been very vocally against the gay community, LGBT rights and, most recently, the Pride Parade. The persecution is all coming from the police, though.
Do you think the recent crackdown has anything to do with the setting up of Thessaloniki Pride?
Who knows? Could they be trying to terrorise the people so they don't take part? It's something we are forced to consider, given it really got intense just a couple of weeks before the event.
This week, the Greek government closed down the state-owned media organisation, ERT, which has led to a lot of speculation about the prospect of yet another election. Say that happens – is there any hope for LGBT Greeks?
Greeks are now facing the ugly side of themselves. We haven't shown any respect to our history, the people who died for our freedoms and those who had to emigrate to escape that same ugliness in past decades. It's an oxymoron; such a beautiful country has fallen into a deep paranoia. I went to the supermarket the other day and there was a long queue at the till. A few people started shouting; "It's a good thing we've got the Golden Dawn." We've elected certified criminals. We are completely insane and I wonder if we were always that way but just chose to ignore it because we had money. I don't know, I'm confused.
I recently spoke to Tom Bianchi, an American artist and gay rights activist, about the onset of HIV in the US. He said that AIDS forced the gay community to grow up and take matters into their own hands. If the persecution against gays escalates, could it have the same effect happen for Greece's LGBT community?
You're optimistic and that's good. Then again, think about this; if the state forced Panathinaikos or Olympiakos to close down, people would riot for days. Would the same thing happen if they closed down the national healthcare system or an anti-drugs organisation? They wouldn't give a shit.
But Athens Pride, which took place last Saturday, went well…
It went really well. Thousands of people attended, and half of them weren't even gay. If this whole situation with having fascists in our Parliament did any good at all, it's that it brought people together. That's what we have to realise. These matters concern us all. My downfall means your downfall. Still, I doubt any Greek TV channel even mentioned Athens Pride.
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