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Saturday, 7 December 2013

Greek gay (Ομοφυλόφιλος)

A while back, I was testing school students' level of spoken English, where I was working with another colleague, who is much more than a colleague to me: in my opinion, she is one of the colleagues I regard as a true friend. Our job: one of us interviewed the test-taker (as examination candidates are now known), while the other assessed him/her. Due to the time pressure involved, we rarely discussed the marks between us; we both have an immense amount of trust in each other, as we regard each other as equally capable and diligent in our work. Each teacher did the job assigned to her, but every now and then, an interesting student would come along and brighten up our day, maybe with their exceptional language skills, or the interesting discussion that ensued from the questions we asked them. And so it was with one young boy, who spoke fluently and eloquently, using appropriate and natural forms of interaction that did not sound restrained or parrot-learnt (eg he would say things like: 'oh, i didn't mean that exactly, what i wanted to say was...' instead of using a standard textbook guided-speaking stock phrase, like: 'i highly disagree and i would like to state my point of view', which most students use).

"He was really quite good, wasn't he?" I remarked to my colleague, who was assessing - I had just completed the interview with him.

"Yes, he was," she agreed with me. "Most gays are usually quite good at English."

I was a little stunned by how my colleague passed judgment so quickly. It's something I couldn't do myself. I would probably need more 'verifiable evidence' to pass this kind of judgment - in fact, I'd have to hear it directly stated from him. But the main issue for me is that I would not have even put it in my mind to mention his sexuality. It would be the last thing to come to my mind. We often make this kind of estimation in men when they are effeminate in some obvious way (mistakenly influenced by the mass media: in Greece, there are a number of gay TV hosts, who - in my opinion, again - seem to 'play their part' right), but to be honest, I didn't think that this was the case with the young boy concerned. He had a very melodious voice, that's for sure... but does that make him gay?

"How can you be sure he's gay?" I asked my friend.

"I lived in England for two decades," she replied. "Trust me, I know a gay when I see one."

I didn't ask my friend this question because I doubted her opinion; I asked her because I felt that it was something I wanted to know how to do myself. I seem to be able to suss out what kind of Greek I'm talking to, for instance; is there some kind of magic formula that can be instantly applied to suss out someone's sexuality, too? I don't mean transgenders, where the obvious masculine form can be 'unmasked', as David Cade explains in his recently published book about Athens:
"On a lower landing, just below the foyer, standing all by themselves and not participating in any of the interaction, but just observing it, are three people who form a very interesting unit. I first see the two who are older: a very ordinary Greek couple, middle-aged, and probably husband and wife. I then notice that the person who is with them is clearly transgender, and whether transvestite or transsexual, I can’t tell. She’s much taller than the couple, she’s no older than thirty, and her clothing is very feminine and somewhat lavish in variety so that only her hands and face are visible. Her hair is long and luxurious, and her make-up is a very carefully-applied all-over work of art. Every visible inch of her, the clothed and the unclothed, is the product of meticulous intention and design. The ghost of masculinity, however, unfortunately remains. Her eyes and mine suddenly lock. We gaze into each other. I smile. She smiles back. Her expression toward me is timid, but brave, and her eyes widen with a knife-edged mixture of curiosity and anxiety. Stupidly perhaps, I feel I've unmasked her, conveyed to her that I know her secret. I feel embarrassed. In hindsight, I wish I’d immediately gone to her and spoken." 
I mean people who look just like you and me, who haven't had a sex change, like these people in the video link below:

A first in the world - New Zealand's defence services recently approved a video reaching out to young people struggling with the realization that they are not heterosexual. 

It is only fair for a simple-minded person like myself to ask this question: can I tell when someone is gay? I took my colleague's view quite seriously because she may have a point, and she seemed to be more sure of herself than I was. There are even countries in the world we live in that know the proportion of gay people in society. Take the UK, for instance, where she lived, which is supposedly an open society that does not discriminate against homosexuals (if you know about the story of the gay couple who were turned down relatively recently as potential customers at a hotel, you will understand that this is simply a 'stereotype' of the English): it conducts regular metrics to find out the proportion of gay people in British society.

I could have just taken the seemingly effeminate sound of the boy's voice and made the same assumption myself, but something stopped me. For a start, my affirmed gay friends are not effeminate. So an effeminate voice is not enough to make me think that someone is gay. Thankfully I don't watch much TV, so I miss out on all that crap hosted by the effeminate gays (they don't do the homosexual community in Greece a service), which would have distorted my understanding of gays in Greek society even more.

It's really common to make assumptions about people you don't know. We do it all the time. We are not as liberal as we think we are. When I read names, I try ot understand which country people are from. When I read names like 'Tom Brown', 'Sara Greene' and 'John Black', they all sound like 'white' people to me. But of course, names do not tell us the colour of a person's skin. Here is another example as related to me by an American friend who is about my age. She called her parents 'racists'. "That's what they were", she told me, and she refuses to hide it because she says that it helps her to come to terms with it. They rented out apartments and whenever there was a vacancy, they'd place a newspaper ad with their home number. When my friend answered the phone and it was about one of those ads, she'd tell her parents, who always asked her before they picked up the call "Do they sound like niggers?" My friend knew, even at such a young age, that expressing oneself in this way was 'wrong'. Being a white child, she couldn't tell if someone was white or black; even now as an adult, she knows how near impossible it is to understand the difference between a black or white person just from the sound of their voice on the phone. Not all Americans speak with the same accent, and not all Americans speak grammatically either. To her parents' question, my friend always answered "I don't know." The young girl was processing the telephone call in a different way from her parents.

My friend told me this story because she wanted to show me how the law says one thing, but how people think is another thing, even in very progressive countries where she and I both used to live. In the US, it took a long long time to get over the 'Don't ask, don't tell' prejudices against gays in the military. And even in New Zealand today, as the above video clearly shows, there are still people who fear 'coming out'. And I wonder: while you've been reading my blog post, were you thinking that my American friend was the rich offspring of Greek immigrants? Good for you; you're just trying to work out the validity of my writing. But you are wrong: my friend is simply 'American' - in any case, Greek American immigrants would probably not say the word 'nigger' to their offspring: they'd say μαύρο. As for the Greek military, here is what Wikipedia tells us about gays in the Greek army:
"While the Presidential Decree 133 (of 2002) allowed people to avoid the draft for deep psycho-sexual problems, it did not ban homosexuals from the army. The newer 2005 law 3421 has removed even the wording that could be misconstrued as offensive to homosexuals. In recent years, the Hellenic army has been shortening the length of conscription and hiring more and more professional soldiers and there hasn't been any incident of someone being fired for homosexuality."
There are many things that have to do with Greekdom that I have a hunch about, and I am often right, eg Greeks aren't homophobic*. But I've never been able to ascertain if someone is gay. Never, ever, ever; not unless they tell me. Maybe this has something to do with always struggling hard just to be myself, since I know I cannot be anyone else. Or maybe this has something to do with the fact that in Greek society, the vast majority of homosexual citizens do not feel safe enough to let people know that they are homosexual.

It isn't the first time I have found myself in the midst of discussions about a person's sexuality that bewildered me somewhat. When I first came to Greece in 1991, I had arranged to meet up with a Kiwi (not Greek) friend who was living in the Greek island of Lefkada in the Ionian. We compared notes about the islands we were living on. She asked me where I was staying:
"I'm living in my uncles' house," I told her.
"Is your uncle married?" she asked.
"No... actually, there are two of them." She had obviously misunderstood.
"Oh, are they gay?"
I felt she had shat a brick at that moment, but I could only assume that in New Zealand's then nascent gay liberation period, it took a while for people to understand homosexuality. I don't suppose anyone would actually say something like that in this day age. The woman clearly lacked understanding of both homosexuality and the Greek culture. I also find it amusing that people like my 90-year-old Cretan mother-in-law would never even pose the issue of homosexuality in a discussion of my unmarried uncles.

Maybe when you are more often yourself and you are less self-conscious of who you are, you don't worry so much about pleasing others with your own person, and you expect others to treat you in the same way. But that takes a lot of self-confidence and courage, which most people - and this extends to heads of state, who are our lawmakers - generally don't have. Greece was recently reprimanded by the European Court of Human Rights for excluding same-sex couples from a civil union, which is restricted in Greece to heterosexual couples. I take courage in the fact that Greece is not alone in Europe concerning recognition of same-sex couples: Lithuania also reserves civil unions only to heterosexuals. And beyond Europe, not even all the states in the Unites States of America recognize gay marriage.

But eventually, the modern world catches up with all of us, so it's only a matter of time when same-sex civil unions will be possible in Greece too. Already, Greece has come a long way in such a short time, with the introduction of the anti-discrimination law to combat racism. It is also supposed to cover discrimination against minority sexual orientation but the wording of the law has been changing on a daily basis, and until it actually goes through, this is difficult to ascertain at the moment**. As a step in the right direction, we should not forget that only just over a decade ago, religion was declared on Greek identity cards. This was of course almost always "Christian Orthodox", since other religious groups in Greece are in a minority. Now, religion is not stated on your identity card, despite the big brou-ha-ha that the Greek Orthodox church caused concerning this matter. Moreover, heterosexual registry office weddings are also valid in Greece, which are especially popular in the crisis (they are cheaper). Although the church wedding is still held in greater regard, the couples who marry at a registry office often go ahead with this once children come into the picture (mainly for the purpose of naming their children through the baptism ceremony). But what the church preaches is not necessarily practiced! People's thinking changes over time, because life changes. The modern world catches up with all of us, but the pace at which it does this differs among cultures.

Modern heroes like Nelson Mandela remind us of how much the modern world's ways of thinking have evolved in such a short time. The developing world may be said not to have reached the same levels of tolerance in their own societies (and I am talking about Greece as she is right now), but we mustn't forget that there is room for improvement in even the most highly developed nations. It isn't just the laws of a country that create tolerance - they were created to remind us that, as free-minded individuals, we are not all tolerant; otherwise, there would not be any need for such laws.

My hope for Greece, and by extension, the world, is that tolerance of people's differences is one day simply taken for granted.

*This post is getting really long, so I won't discuss homophobia in Greece here. We didn't even get to lesbianism, same-sex couples kissing/holding hands on the street, men dancing together, prominent gay Greeks, homosexuality and religion, and homosexuality in Ancient Greek culture.  I can do that in another post.

**UPDATE 08/12/2013
Eleftherios Venizelos of the Greek ruling coalition has basically told the Archibishop Seraphim that same-sex civil unions need protecting, and that he (Seraphim) can 'go stick it' with his empty threats: "Τέλος, επιτρέψτε μου να αγνοήσω για λόγους αναγόμενους στο σκληρό πυρήνα της ύπαρξης μου την άτυχη απειλή ότι ´´θα αποστερηθούμε de facto ως πρόσωπα την χάρη και την ευλογία του Δικαιοκρίτου Κυρίου´´. Η αποστροφή αυτή θεωρώ ότι είναι απλώς σχήμα λόγου και όχι επισκοπική θέση που αξιώνει θεολογική και εκκλησιολογική θεμελίωση." Religious leaders do not hold such power over us, after all - another myth that needs dispelling about the mysteriously wondrous Ελλάδα.

And a big thank you to my friends who supported me in writing this post.

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