CULTURE

Paving the way for gay rights

Over the past decade, Greece has been a rapidly changing society, confronted with the assimilation of immigrants as well as cultural and social acceptance of the «other,» of minority or socially marginalized groups. As societies are becoming increasingly multiethnic and diversified, one thing to ask is how clashing rights can be accommodated as harmoniously as possible. The recent release of a monthly gay magazine by the name of «AfterShave» provides an occasion to think about where the gay issue stands in this country and whether the broader changes in Greek society are having any effect on privileging the gay community. Grigoris Vallianatos, co-founder and first chairman of the Greek Gay Community (EOK) and member and founder of various other Greek gay organizations, a gay activist from an early age and presently communications adviser to Aftershave, spoke to Kathimerini English Edition about the present condition of the gay issue in Greece. (The interview took place before Vallianatos was assaulted by lawyer Alexis Kouyias, who alleged that Vallianatos had cast aspersions on his manhood.) Although Vallianatos holds great faith in the international, promising young people who are part of Greek society, his views on how the average Greek handles gay issues is rather pessimistic. «The problem with Greek society is modernity. It is a word that is completely out of the hard disk of the Greeks; they would rather live in Byzantium, not in Old Athens…. Greek society is not conservative; it is hypocritical – anything goes, anything sells, anything is done. Nothing is said, and we go by the book, which is the holy book,» Vallianatos said. Vallianatos, a member of the board of the Greek Helsinki Monitor for human rights for over a decade and its chairman since 2002, approaches the gay issue through the human rights agenda. Fighting discrimination based on sexual orientation thus acquires a broader social context and avoids becoming marginalized. Vallianatos says that the inclusion of legislature against discrimination based on sexual orientation, which was passed in Law 3304 this year, refers only to the workplace and employment but has been a step in the right direction. «Because we belong to the European Union and we are very eloquent on that, things are not conquered as much as they are awarded, they come from Brussels. Here is the Social Chart of Human Rights, here are the non-discrimination guidelines. The Socialist goverment promised that they would respect and give gay people the place that they deserve in this society. This was just words. There were minor changes in ways of expressing themselves. But, unfortunately, respect for diversity is not a part of sexual education because sexual education is not a part of education at all. The penal code has a ridiculous article that penalizes gay prostitution and refers to gay relationships in a pejorative way, as well as stipulating different ages of consent for straight and gay boys, mind you, boys only. Unfortunately, the overwhelming influence of the Greek Orthodox Church keeps not only the representatives of the Church but the host journalists on TV, radio or newspapers from commenting on prejudiced references» said Vallianatos. A major issue that is still pending is condonation of symbiosis. «[Gay] co-habitation or marriage is accepted in every other [EU] country except Greece – at least among the original 15 – with Italy being on a local authority level. The discussion is open everywhere else, laws are there and there are rights, including adoption [of children] or various ways of recognition, such as PACS in France. Greece is the only country that has not started any serious discussion of the matter,» Vallianatos said. Vallianatos believes that discrimination against gays – and for lesbians, even more – is the strongest of all other discriminations, at least in Greece. «Professionally, I have done nothing that I originally planned, which was a career in diplomacy or politics, which is really what I am doing except not in the traditional way. No one would support me and every obstacle would have been there had I followed that path.» Despite this alleged discrimination, Vallianatos has carved out a successful career, both in the field of voluntary activism and in the professional arena. Coming from a rich educational background – he studied law in Athens, French literature, cinema and journalism in London and Paris, and international relations also in Paris – he became involved in NGOs from an early age, was international relations officer for the Athens ’96 Olympic Games Bid Committee, was an adviser to George Papandreou in the General Secretariat of Youth, a founding member of ACT UP (an organization for the protection of people with AIDS), Amnesty International officer and communications adviser for various companies, among other things. He was also editor of AMPHI magazine, an activist, intellectual magazine for gays, editor of other gay-issue magazines and is currently a contributor to Aftershave, Athens Voice and a TV host on an X-rated program aired by Channel 10. Public exposure is a part of most of these activities. A public spokesman for the gay community, Vallianatos has used publicity – he was the first to come out on TV and talk about AIDS – to help make the gay issue a public affair and with the intention, as he himself says, of giving the average gay man confidence and visibility. He has also given himself publicity. Just three months ago, a radio program was shut down, but, as Vallianatos says, there is a growing effort for gay press to become more regular. Aftershave is meant to work toward this. According to Vallianatos, it is a lifestyle magazine addressed to «anybody who wants to familiarize himself with gay aesthetics.» Interviews with former European Union commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou, choreographer Constantinos Rigos and a profile of Alexandros Iolas were among the subjects of the first issue. The cover of the first issue, which shows the toned torso of a young man dressed in an effeminate garment, seemed to perpetuate the stereotype of the sex-oriented gay person. «It is a bit provocative because you see that masculine guy wearing something that looks like a gown but is hard to identify. It is the portrait of a taboo but really carries a very complex message,» said Vallianatos. »Gay men believe that persecution and ridicule are part of gay culture and are used to living with this idea, they do not react at all.» Vallianatos has come up with his own way of putting an end to this «inertia.» Besides publicly voicing his convictions on the gay debate, he has also been involved in the entertainment business and afforded the gay community with hip, recreational options. Years ago, he opened the Factory nightclub and is currently organizing a four-day cruise on a boat that will sail with a gay flag and will end up in Myconos. There are also plans for a gay boat hotel and a sex club in Athens. Vallianatos seems to enjoy the provocation, perhaps the public exposure as well. «I try to keep up with expectations,» he commented, a bit smugly. His professional profile is always there to keep the balance and to afford him a profile that does not fit our stereotypical notion of gay man, a stereotype that gay people often fall prey to. «As long as gay men are entertainers, it is OK, they are accepted. On television, the adventures of gay characters are ridiculous caricatures or of sexless, neutral hybrids of a clone-like nature. There is some effort and brave attempts by new directors and filmmakers to portray gays as anybody else but it is rare,» Vallianatos noted. «The alarming thing is a non-screaming gay type. And there are plenty of them. But if you tell them that 90 percent of the gays who live in this country are not recognizable, not different, not screaming, then they are afraid because they sense that even they could have that side,» explained Vallianatos, perhaps with some exaggeration. But if the non-screaming type turns out to be gay after all, would he be placed on the social margins? And if so, would his position be inferior to that of other non-gay members of the population, such as single mothers and women? As a gay activist, Vallianatos will, of course, focus on gay rights. What he does, in his own words, is «fight for change.» «Yes, for the joy of life, freedom and modernity, which is, after all, the controversial problem in this country,» he concluded.