The Cradle of Queer Civilisation? Why Gays Still Love Greece

By Danny Tye

The day after Valentine’s has proven momentous for queer rights in Europe, as the Greek Parliament approved a bill legalising same-sex marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples.

This landmark decision is the latest in over a decade of legal measures codifying queer rights in the country: 2005 saw the enactment of anti-discrimination laws in employment on the grounds of sexuality, followed five years later by similar laws prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. Then, in 2017, the right to self-ID for trans people was enshrined. Now, at long last, the right for queer couples to marry has been officially introduced.

The news has been celebrated as a full circle queer moment for the country by the global LGBTQ+ community online. One viral Tweet, quoted in Advocate, made light-hearted reference to the “inventors of gay sex finally coming around to gay people being in love.” Greece’s long-standing queer history has recently taken centre stage in online discourse for other reasons, though. A right-wing fury emerged online following the release of the new Netflix series Alexander: The Making of a God, criticising its candid depiction of the legendary Greek king’s bisexuality. In response, many queer historians and publications have sought to affirm that ancient Greece was, as one writer for Out describes, “gay as hell.” However, a closer examination of ancient Greek history reveals that it may not have been the queer utopia that it is often imagined to be.

The idealisation of the sexual politics of Greek antiquity is nothing new. Queer Victorians, both male and female, poeticised it as they faced state- and church-backed discrimination. Terms like ‘Greek love’, and the less complimentary ‘unspeakable vice of the Greeks’, became euphemisms for homosexuality. Oscar Wilde, particularly during his highly-publicised ‘indecency’ trial, played a big part in cementing Greek homosexuality in the British upper class’s collective consciousness. Yet Wilde held no romantic illusions about relationships between men in ancient Greece. In his testimony, he firmly maintained that his homosexual relationships, like those of his Hellenic antecedents, took the shape of an “intellectual” affair between an older, educated gentleman (what the Greeks termed the erastes) and a younger man (the eromenos) who “has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him.” 

Indeed, this pederastic ideal was the most common form of male-male relationship in ancient Greece. Even this style of relationship, which has little in common with what we now call homosexuality, was not universally acceptable across Greek territory. As Professor Paul Cartledge explains, pederastic relationships were mandatory in Sparta and seen as a rite of passage for young boys, while they were strictly controlled and usually confined to the aristocratic classes in Athens. Nonetheless, the existence of these relationships has helped to build up the mythologised idea of a gay utopia in the territories that made up ancient Greece. 

As has been the case throughout history, relationships between women in ancient Greece were given little consideration — a phenomenon that Kenneth Dover, in his landmark study Greek Homosexuality, attributed to the phallocentrism of ancient Greek society. Nonetheless, the poems of Sappho, with their depictions of love between women, provoked fascination within Victorian lesbian circles much as pederasty had done for gay men like Wilde. Lesbian lovers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper used the surviving fragments of Sappho’s poems as “suggestive catalysts” for their own work, published under the pseudonym of Michael Field.

As gay liberation gained traction post Stonewall, accounts of ancient Greek homosexuality became important tools in justifying modern gay sexuality. Understandably, the uncomfortable reality of Greek homosexuality has often been downplayed when its existence is used for this purpose. Historic examples of queer people being allowed to love freely, within reason, serve as important weapons against heterosexist arguments that homosexuality is a choice or a sickness. As David Buchbinder suggested, “If tolerance and approval of male homosexuality had happened once— […] might it not be possible to replicate in modernity the antique homeland of the non-heteronormative?” Yet this approach was met with criticism from queer theorists at the time and sparked a lasting quarrel between ideological camps. As legendary gay philosopher Michel Foucault pointed out, the intricacies of homosexual relationships in Greece, and their link to philosophical and legal notions at the time that are incomparable with present-day society, should ward off simplistic assertions of an ancient Greek queer utopia.

At the same time as the early gay liberation movement was battling with the reality of Greek homosexuality, Greece solidified itself as a hotspot for gay tourism. Superstar socialite Jackie Onassis’s visits to Mykonos in the 1970s turned the island into a prominent destination for queer travellers, a prestigious position it still holds today. As the International Gay and Lesbian Tourist Association describes it, the island is “a gay mecca during the summer months,” hosting hugely popular gay party events such as XLSIOR festival. 

Bars like Pierro’s played a large part in Mykonos becoming a hotspot for the ‘70s gay jet-set.

With the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Greece, a further rise in tourism from queer Westerners to the country is to be expected. Yet as we should be careful not to twist the reality of ancient Greek sexuality into the categories of the present day, we must also be critical in how we approach the current situation in the country. The improving legal situation for queer people should be celebrated – and many people are undoubtedly booking weddings on Lesbos Island as we speak – but it is important not to allow our romanticised notion of Greece, past and present, to cloud reality. 

In the wake of this month’s news, queer people in Greece have taken to social media to point out that their situation within mainstream society is far from secure. The work of queer activists in Greece has been pivotal to bringing about the advancement in queer rights seen over the past decade. However, traumatic events like the murder of gay activist and drag queen Zak Kostopolous in 2018 still weigh heavily on the minds of Greece’s queer community.  The police officers who beat Kostopoulos to death were acquitted of murder in 2022, sparking condemnation from Amnesty International as a “chilling sign of impunity.”

A protest for the murdered Zak Kostopolous outside an Athens court. The banner reads “Don’t close your eyes.”

The continued grasp of the Orthodox Church, as well as the growth of far-right militarism in the country over the past decade, have served as counterweights to the general acceptance of Greek society. While a narrow majority of polled Greeks support gay marriage and adoption, the Church has responded with anger to the Greek state’s approach of sexual liberalisation. A message circulated amongst its churches declared that the new measures “promote the abolition of fatherhood and motherhood… and put the sexual choices of homosexual adults above the interests of future children.” 

NPR reported that political opposition to the bill was present within the Hellenic Parliament, though limited to small far-right parties and the socially conservative Communist Party. Greece’s far-right movement, which was previously represented by the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, has been dwindling in size for many years. However, in recent months it has shown worrying signs of reorganising. As we have seen throughout history, and within the past decade in the West, periods of social liberalisation can often be followed by resurgent far-right and social-conservative militancy. Therefore, it is important that those of us outside of Greece keep a watchful eye on the situation for queer people there, and support the efforts of brave activists who have given up so much in the pursuit of queer liberation.

Danny Tye (@dannytye) is a staff writer at GAY45. After graduating from the University of Manchester with a BA in Politics and Spanish, he co-founded the radical history magazine Red Riding, where he currently works as contributing co-editor and graphic designer. His main areas of interest are the politics of queerness and (sub)cultural history, as well as film and music analysis. Besides his work for Red Riding, he has also been published in The Lemming and the Manchester Historian.

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