by Joanna Eleftheriou
My island has been awake for hours by the time I, in my Midwestern suburb, rise and hunch over a screen to wait for news. It is May 31, 2014, and on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, Cyprus is having its very first Gay Pride Parade. Victorian sodomy laws remained on the former British colony’s books until I was in college, when the island’s lawmakers gave in at last to the European court which had ruled in favor of the change. In Modinos v. Cyprus, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that Cyprus could no longer keep a law that made sodomy punishable by five years in prison. I was fourteen when the court ruled in favor of Alecos Modinos, but Cypriot religious and political institutions formed a “Committee for the Fight Against the Decriminalization of Homosexuality,” and through its influence managed to resist pressure from Europe until 1998. This is the Cyprus in which I spent my adolescence and half my twenties. This is the island on which I tried not to believe that I, too, was gay.
Between Nicosia’s long rows of towering palms, a sea of people moves, rainbows on their chests and on their backs, love in three languages: αγάπη, love and aşk. It is impossible to tell which of the people are the Greek Cypriots, which are the Turkish Cypriots, which are the gay and which are the thousands of straight allies who have driven from all over the island for this parade. The island has been partitioned for forty years, and the Pride organizers’ invitation of Turkish Cypriots to the southern Greek side is a radically progressive political act.
My friend Erika has ridden a bus from our town of Limassol into the capital, and when she calls to tell me she’s arrived, I thank her for marching for me.
“I’m not just here for you,” she answers. “I’m here for everyone.” She tells me she can’t reach the parade’s starting point yet because members of a group called the Pan-Cypriot Christian Movement (ΠΑΧΟΚ) are trying to block access to the parade. The police have formed a line to keep the marchers safe.
The “Pan-Cypriot Christian Movement” is one of many right wing Greek-Cypriot organizations that pay lip-service to the rights of “Greek-Cypriots and Turkish-Cypriots, Armenians, Maronites, Roman Catholics,” but are really saying that their own community’s rights haven’t been protected enough. Their rhetoric is an “all lives matter” of sorts, with “all” meaning “ours.” Until I went to graduate school and started reading on my own, I bought into the perspective of my conservative Greek school books, which presented Greek Cypriots as the only victims of intercommunal violence, and the only ones who needed their rights restored. And when teachers and priests and politicians said that the Greeks had suffered and deserved to have their human rights better protected, I understood that they meant only certain Greeks—the Greeks that dated the opposite sex, married, and procreated. When Greek-Cypriots demanded their human rights, they were fighting for heterosexuals like themselves. Gay Greeks weren’t really Greeks. The archbishop of Cyprus made a statement in anticipation of the pride parade, and in it he insists, as the church has for decades and as it will continue to insist for many years to come, that homosexuality is, and has always been, an imported foreign disease. The disease of homosexuality can be treated by the church, but it must not be accepted as good health.
Greek Cypriots don’t seem to know, or to care to remember, that in the nineteenth century, British colonizers thought the contagion traveled in the opposite direction. A British scientist named Richard Burton theorized that gay was an inclination particular to geographic place, which was congenital but could also be contagious. Burton had given to southern Europe, northern Africa, most of the Americas and Asia the name Sotadic Zone, and warned that in this region, people were by nature prone to sodomy. After colonization, the people indigenous to the so-called Sotadic Zone would work extra hard to prove they are not so prone at all. A kind of “it’s not us, it’s you.” Many colonized people reimagine the precise “deviant” inclination attributed to them as inherent, instead, to the former colonizer. Greek-Cypriot-American immigrant communities also tend to be especially vigilant against the deviant-producing force of the formerly-colonial now-host Anglo culture. Discovered in New York to have been loving men, one of my first cousins was sent to Cyprus to be changed. His parents’ unspoken logic must have gone something like this: “No gays in the homeland; send him there, to a land very blessed and very Greek, and he will be cured.” Nothing about sexuality or exile was spoken to me. My cousin Elias just turned up in Cyprus one winter day, not yet thirty years old, neither working nor on vacation, and ate some meals with us before disappearing again. I learned what had been done to him only years after he was gone.
Today, all this is different. Today, the rainbow flags make gay Cypriots real.
Suddenly, I exist.
Children are raised up on their parents’ shoulders towards the sun at the same level as the flags and the signs: same love – equal rights. Above a first story of adult bodies, the bodies of children, the rainbow flags, and the signs form a second story of hope: homophobia harms you and those around you.
In place of a picket sign, one demonstrator has made an effigy of an ostrich, and it stands with its head buried in a heap of fake sand the shape of Cyprus. It hangs in a real cage.
Anna Vissi, the Madonna of Greece and Cyprus, greets those who have gathered to begin the parade, and pulls a folded page from her pocket, smiles almost bashfully, and tells the crowd she wrote down a few of her own thoughts, if we’ll listen.
“It’s already been stated many times by painters and by poets: whatever our skin color, whatever country gave us birth, we all have the same right to love, the same right to life, and the same right to a peaceful daily life.”
Whoever these “painters and poets” are, they haven’t ever taken a public stand in favor of gay rights in Cyprus. I, at least, never heard any of them address sexuality directly. For as long as I lived in Cyprus, through all my teenage years and my early twenties, all I heard on the radio about human rights was the violations suffered by Greek Cypriots forced from their homes in the Turkish military intervention of 1974. The continued occupation of northern Cyprus by Turkish troops underpins, oddly, one of the most popular conservative rationales for maintaining a ban on gays. In May 1997, when I was receiving my high school diploma and the repeal of the Victorian anti-sodomy law was debated in Parliament, clerics led a protest of some thousand people to keep sex between two men a crime. Greek Cypriots were arguing, as they continue well into the twenty-first century to argue on talk shows and in letters to newspaper editors, that if homosexuality is legalized, it will spread, and gays can’t fight, so the rest of the island will be therefore conquered “by the Turks.”
Behind Vissi, as she leaves the stage, I see signs: Kuir Kıbrıs Derneği, which a Turkish-English dictionary tells me is “Queer Cyprus Association.” Another sign says, in Greek, FOR THOSE WHO CANNOT YET BE HERE. I’m sure it does not only refer to people like me, who live far away, in places where it’s easy to hide out, easy to wear T-shirts from gay events, and say that I’m gay, because no one will hurt me. Rather, the sign also refers to those who are living in Cyprus, but would risk being beaten or put out of their houses if they were seen at the Pride parade.
I never thought it would happen, not, at least, so soon, not before my hair turned white and my sadness grew so heavy I could not find a way back. During my eleven years on the island, I heard the word gay every day and always as the slur poushtis, like fag is used in America. Like many teenagers all over the world, I heard of homosexuality only in the context of sin or insult. Much later, when I moved to my progressive Missouri college town for graduate school, I began to talk about my love of women, and to refer to myself using words that I had learned as insults. In academic circles of twenty-first century America, I was called brave. It was sweet to earn praise for speaking so uncomplicated a truth. I felt, however, that if I’d had real courage, I would not have left Cyprus, where being gay was hard, and where pride parades were not safe.
I’ve been going to protests I believed were safe for many years – progressive parades in progressive New York, Take Back the Night marches in Missouri, and anti-racism marches in Greece. Last July, a Greek nationalist-fascist parliamentarian from the Golden Dawn Party slapped another parliamentarian – Liana Kanelli – on live national television. The Golden Dawn MP hit Kanelli with three left-right blows, almost knocking her down. I was in Thessaloniki at the time of the televised assault, and the next day I joined a rally against discrimination. We called on our fellow Greeks to stop harassing immigrants, and stop making them the scapegoats of the country’s financial ruin. Somewhere near the middle of the large parading protest, a small group held a rainbow flag, and I walked close to them, a few feet off, still afraid of being outed as gay in a Greek place. I was safe, yet still, it felt like a risk both because I felt exposed and because my fellow protesters were chanting a slogan that equated policemen and right-wing people with fascists. In the sixties, the police collaborated with a fascist regime and the left has not forgotten that liberals were then tortured, imprisoned and exiled.
As the Pride Parade proceeds, though, on this morning in May, some counter-protesters from the Pan-Cypriot Christian Orthodox Movement, ΠΑΧΟΚ, gather at NO Plaza, named for a famous rejection of an ultimatum from Mussolini. Τhey carry no guns, no knives, and it is possible to believe for an instant that they will make their procession in peace. On their banners I spot the word for hell in Greek, κόλαση, and in English, disaster, along with quotes from American demagogues and from quacks: cannot be strictly genetic.
Some men peer over the policemen, bouncing in place, yelling, “Hey! Are there gays back there? Eh? Are there gays?” They strive for a glimpse of the gays as if there is a show, and they have bought tickets, and are entitled to gaze upon the circus of freaks. The ΠΑΧΟΚ people carry banners with Bible verses and slogans. They are men in polo shirts and faded jeans, with sunglasses masking their faces. They begin to shove the police, who are in their riot gear. The police are bearing the blows, whatever their history of collusion with right-wing totalitarians, and they are being hit by the men carrying banners of Bible verses, nationalist tropes about the blood of Cypriot martyrs, and translated propaganda from right-wing America.
The helmeted police officers lock their arms. I have seen arms locked before, on television and in my dreams. In my world, police are still the ones who deliver blows: the tall British policeman who brought his bayonet down to kill my father, a tiny teenage freedom fighter with orders from the guerilla leader to break through the line. My father scampered under the policeman’s legs and lived. I have seen sticks raised this way before, sticks beating down onto flesh. Wood used as a form of torture, a big stick with a man nailed to it, for instance.
Priests in their long black cassocks and their cylindrical priests’ hats try to stop the men with banners from beating the police. These clerics must not have realized that when they recommended banners that condemned gay people weeks ago, they were arming their congregation not only with words, but with sticks. In several videos, I watch the banner-bearers use sticks from the banners to beat the police. The priests run into the fray but cannot stop the sticks, and so they run away. The police stand firm, raising their clubs to shield their bodies. The Christians bludgeon the police.
“For you, Cyprus!” Ya sena Kyprosa a deep-voiced counter-protester shouts as he heaves his body against the officers in riot gear and breaks through the line. They stop him, eventually, and he is not permitted to hurt anyone at the Pride Parade.
When a television reporter stops a man from the counter-protest to ask why he is there, the interviewee seems puzzled by the question, as if the reporter had asked why he was defending the country against an invading army. He answers with a question. What are they trying to do? Proclaim their… their… perversions? He doesn’t understand why they (we) aren’t hiding.
When I was thirty-two and in my second semester as a PhD student here in Missouri, I confessed my attraction to women to a Greek Orthodox priest, and he told me that being gay was not a sin, but more like being born deformed. It was like having a club foot.
It doesn’t damn you, he said. It merely keeps you from some of the pleasures of being alive.
Just as people with deformed feet cannot run, the priest explained, so gay people cannot touch the person they desire. I did not, in that instant, see the fallacy of comparing physical and cultural laws. I did not remember the Spartan mountain of Taygetus, where, when I was thirteen, I was taken by my parents to see the place where our ancestors had left their deformed children to die. I did not think about how a few thousand years and the delayed appearance of my own deformity had been all that separated me from the infants who were killed on Taygetus. I did not think that children born imperfect had been dumped into a rock crevasse to have parts of their bodies swallowed by wolves, and then later, have the rest of it eaten by scavengers, who would take pleasure in the carcass’s decay. I thought only of leaving the church and driving home, where I could curl up and hide.
The appearance of videos and online reports on my Missouri computer screen slows, eventually, as the parade in Cyprus comes to an end. No one has been hurt. I search and search obsessively for more videos of the religious banner-bearing men. I want to watch even though it hurts. I will later ask myself what drove this compulsive watching, over and over, and why it felt good. I will realize that it felt good to have proof that all these years I’ve feared a hatred that was real. That this is what they do. This is what they would have done if I had let them see who I am.
Behind the closed police line, another man who wants to get past it to the Pride Parade holds a stick ripped from his banner, the tatters of the former word-bearing cloth fluttering in the wind. He raises it high in the air so that the blow will crash with great force onto the helmet of a policeman. Instead his blow hits the cassocked shoulder of a running monk, raising his arms up to prevent more violence. The monk walks with his hands outstretched and begs the Christians to stop hitting the police, but men with sticks keep charging past him. It is too late. Their official decrees and their sermons about the threat posed by gays and their supporters have already been taken to heart.
While I wait for more videos and images to come from Cyprus, I tune into an American tribute to James Baldwin, honoring the writer’s ninetieth birthday. During a discussion of Baldwin’s queerness, someone challenges the panelists: would you die for the word queer?
Are you willing to die—or would you lie?
When I was a kid, my mother read me the lives of the saints as examples of how to live. Martyrdom was a calling for which I should, as a child, diligently prepare myself. The only stories I remember are of a nun, Anastasia Logacheva, who sat naked on an anthill for Christ, and of St. Christina, whose breasts spouted milk when her anti-Christian father had soldiers raise their swords and slice off her nipples. My mother told me I’d have to risk everything for God. To be safe in eternity, you have to be ready to die.
Soon, Cyprus has gone to sleep, there is nothing more to watch on my computer, and I go for a run in the humid Missouri heat. I think of my friend the poet Carolyn Forché, who told me about the talks for James Baldwin’s ninetieth birthday, and who has always insisted that one person, one person’s art, can change the world a little bit. She went to El Salvador when war was brewing to bring back the truth in her poems. The year we met, I explained that I was trying to decide whether to give up my Orthodox faith or renounce my love of women and remain celibate because there aren’t any people who are both Orthodox and gay.
“Then you’ll have to be the first,” she said. I told her about the priest in Missouri and she said I should find another.
I’m still running in Missouri but I’m thinking of my village in Cyprus, where I ran on lonely roads cut into the mountain forests as a protection against wildfires. I felt like that lonely running kept me alive. I was running, one evening, when a pop song called to me from the radio, why don’t you believe that I love you? Why won’t you come back? And I, a teenager, believed it was God, speaking through the pop song, because he had noticed a hesitation in my prayer after a year or more of passionate, deep and ecstatic prayer. I apologized to the pop singer (or Christ), and said I would come back. I wasn’t yet aware, then, of my homosexual desire, but I had been feeling the resentment the church’s rejection of that desire had produced.
Twenty years later, running on a Missouri trail, I feel it again, someone asking why won’t you come back? I respond to God with a condition:
You’ll have to take me as I am. The girl I used to be, the girl willing to pretend she doesn’t fall in love with other girls, she’s gone. This is who I have become: a woman who sees the beauty of women as the brightest of all beauties. I can’t love a God who doesn’t love me this way.
I head back to the house, feeling like maybe that conversation changed something. It’s getting so dark I can hardly see but it is still hot, so hot I feel different in my body, different about my body. The endorphin-ecstasy that takes me over while I stretch brings with it a new way of seeing. I see that there isn’t love without body, there isn’t person without body, that this soul I used to associate with love isn’t real without the reality of bodies, of desire. I wasn’t just scared of being gay – I was scared of the body that responded to women’s beauty in ways my mind could not control.
When my sweaty self turns on my computer, I find that Erika has posted an image of the demonstration to Facebook, writing for Joanna Eleftheriou and all others who could not be here. For a minute, two minutes, I want to take down my name. I imagine my Cypriot neighbors shouting that I, a shameful deviant perverted lesbian, don’t deserve to be called Greek anymore–I have brought shame upon my parents, and must not be allowed into Cyprus, not even to visit my father’s grave.
I leave my name up. I turn off the computer, and go to sleep, changed.
Two months after the parade, I am in Cyprus. No one has blocked my entry, no one mentions Erika’s Facebook post. Cyprus feels different to me. We go to a new bar named Sousami, where men hold hands with their boyfriends, and women refer to their exes as she. I meet graduate students, academics, and writers, many my own age and gay. I speak Greek to gay people for the first time and for the first time discuss queerness in Greek. We introduce ourselves, stating our names and occupations or fields of interest. They ask me where I am from. This question has always been a difficult one for me to answer, as all simple answers skew the truth. So I say, “from New York and Asgata,” pou Nean Yorki ch’ Asgatan. Everyone laughs at the wide gap between the places of origin that I claim, Asgata being a tiny backward town of four hundred folk.
The next morning, I ask Erika if it was pretentious, or too flip, to claim two places.
“No,” she explains, “You answered exactly where you are from.” She is right. Those are the birthplaces of my two parents, as well as the only places in the world where I have lived for longer than five years.
And so, it seems, just like that, the gay bar revealed to me a way to answer the question, Where are you from? that has plagued me since I left New York after seventh grade. I was born there, and I own property in Cyprus. I have two driver’s licenses and two passports.
Several days in advance of my return from Cyprus to Missouri, I dedicate an entire morning to seeking gifts. With my American friends in mind, I choose handicrafts, and I shop for religious icons in a shop owned by the church. As I walk around the store, I remember the Cyprus Pride pin on my backpack. When Erika fixed it there last month, we were travelling in Greece where I know no one, and I didn’t care. No one there could hurt me. Now, I turn my bag around and clutch it in a way that keeps the Pride pin hidden. The entire island of Cyprus has fewer people than greater St. Louis does, and it feels like everyone is my relative. The clerks at this religious store wear the rosaries, black garb and long beards of the men of the Pan-Cypriot Christian Orthodox Movement. I continue to clutch my backpack to hide the pin while I get my money for two icons. Only once I am almost out the door do I risk being mocked for just a moment – and I swing my backpack onto my back for all to see.
I confess this failure to be out in the religious store to a friend months later, ashamed of my faint-heartedness, my just-when-it’s-convenient activism and my enjoyment of freedoms I did not help attain. She asks if I absolutely have to be a martyr all the time. We recently spent a morning at the LGBT table during Parents’ Weekend at our university, passing out supportive pamphlets for students whose families had renounced them when their queerness was revealed. My friend warns me against fantasies of martyrdom and heroism, and asks why I can’t be satisfied with what is actually within my power to do. My cousin’s death at thirty-eight makes me feel survivor’s guilt. But by the time I turn thirty-eight myself, I will have marched in two Cyprus Prides and one in Thessaloniki, with students of mine in tow. In 2017, a major Cypriot news source will report on that year’s Pride with a photograph that includes me and I will be not be afraid. These will be little risks – ones I can take without damaging myself irrevocably, and I will realize that perhaps this is enough.
I will, indeed, become the first Orthodox gay woman I know, but it won’t mean becoming some lone hero, some desert-dwelling martyr, all alone. Maybe this is what marches are for. For courting risks together. For overcoming danger together. For not being alone.
JOANNA ELEFTHERIOU is an assistant professor of literature at the University of Houston – Clear Lake, a contributing editor of Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies and a faculty member at the Writing Workshops in Greece. Her essays, short stories, and poems appear regularly in journals including CutBank, Arts and Letters, and The Common. She is completing a memoir-in-essays titled This Way Back.