Greek and Gay: One Woman’s Struggle
What is it like to be gay and Greek? It’s not like Greeks from ancient times did not have the stereotype of liking a four letter word that begins with a “d” instead of a “c.” But what if you were Greek, gay and a girl? And not on the island of Lesbos, where the female half of the stereotype comes from, nor like the famed female poet whose songs of love still reverberate today, but in modern-day Australia as part of a conservative immigrant Greek family? This is the story of Catherine Politis, a woman who had the courage to come out in spite of the taboo of gayness in the modern Greek community. Because she is lesbian, the taboo becomes anathema as it is a heavier disgrace for a woman to be homosexual. We can all call up a gay Greek man from our schemata, but a lesbian? That’s unheard of. Here at last we can hear the voice that has not been heard before.
Catherine Politis was born in Greece in 1963 but moved with her mother at the age of 4 to join her father and start a new life in Sydney, Australia. She had a typical Greek childhood—the family gatherings, the rituals, Greek food, and Greek school, every Sunday church. She recounts of her life “We became the perfect nucleus family of the seventies : a father, a mother and two children. My brother and I were brought up with the Greek culture, ideals and traditions, and of course, the Greek Orthodox religion. So, by the time I reached my teens in the seventies my culture, my lifestyle and who I was meant to grow up to be was pretty much cemented.”
She was the typical good Greek girl. As she states, “I always obeyed my parents, never questioned them, went to all Greek family outings, birthdays, name days, religious ceremonies and whatever good little Greek girls do. Apart from my sporting activities I wasn’t allowed out with my friends, and kept pretty much to myself or would associate with the children of my parents’ friends. Oh, and NO boyfriends, of course. But I had no feelings for boys anyway. I had a lot of boy friends, and because my upbringing was what it was, I knew eventually that I would have to marry a good Greek boy and have lots of Greek children to uphold our traditions in this foreign country.
Yet, she had always known she was gay. The realization of her gayness came at the cusp of the Sydney Mardi Gras riots. The Mardi Gras riots in Sydney were sparked by the Stonewall Riots in NYC. On June 24, 1978, what started as a small local and legal protest calling for an end to discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, and a repeal of the laws that made homosexuality a crime in Australia, turned into a national call-to-arms. Even though the protesters had received permission for the event, the police arrested 53 of the marchers. What aggravated the assault was that their names were published in full by The Sydney Morning Herald, which resulted in their being outed to their friends and employers. These people eventually lost their jobs and means of livelihood. The riots, however, eventually led to the instituting of an annual Mardi Gras Parade the following year. This parade is currently one of the most attended in all the world and brings in an estimated $30million to New South Wales (if the writers of Wikipedia are up to snuff.)
The public’s reaction to the riots, and especially her family’s, made her swallow her sexuality. She knew she could not come out and tell her parents or even her closest friends. The point was driven home more forcefully by the local priest the following Sunday during the liturgy of our local Greek Orthodox Church St Dimitrios in Moonee Ponds. “The priest said it was a disgrace and that if God had wanted men to be with men, or women with women then he would not have created Adam and Eve,” she remembers. “ He went on to say that they are disgraced in the eyes of God and their behavior would be condemned by the Almighty and that as sinners we would not be allowed to enter Paradise and live ever after.”
As a devout Orthodox Christian, the priest’s words brought her in direct conflict with her sexual identity. She could not rectify how in all of the vespers, liturgies, and services she had attended religiously since her youth there was no mention that God did not love everyone equally.
Here is the rest of her story in her words:
According to the Bible, God loves us all equally without prejudice of sex, race or colour. But nowhere does HE say that He does not love the homosexuals or lesbians of the world. I was confused. I know who I was and who I wanted to be with, but society in the seventies made it impossible to come out and tell the world, whether you were Greek or not. So I kept silent.
Like every other lesbian growing up in the seventies we all had our super crushes on people who were unattainable to throw people off the scent; mine was Donny Osmond. I thought he was cute and boy, could he sing those love songs. Along with Donny, I put up posters of Marie Osmond, Cher and Barbra Streisand, all of whom I was madly in love with at one time or another. And my parents and friends thought that was part of a teenager growing up idolizing TV stars, movie stars and singers.
Doing the right thing by my family, I married a Greek boy just short of my twenty-first birthday(heaven forbid I didn’t get married and be left on the shelf!) and played the dutiful wife producing two beautiful children in the eighties. Now in the eighties a new word AIDS had hit our vocabulary and everyone everywhere was overreacting about this new gay disease that was killing people mercilessly. It made me question myself and if I was still feeling the way that I had always felt about the same sex.
I had many gay men friends and one sadly did pass away from AIDS which made me look into the disease and take away my fears of what it could do. Still attracted to the opposite sex, I still couldn’t act on my feelings as I was supposedly happily married with two young children. But it was tough to control my feelings and to not let on to anyone how I really felt.
In 1994 I separated from my husband and a year later divorced, and for seven years threw myself into my children’s activities and into religion, going to church every Sunday trying to understand where I had gone wrong and if I was being punished by God. I once spoke to my priest who I had known for a long time and asked him “If one was gay would God treat him/her differently when one reaches Heaven?”
His response was, “God does not discriminate, He loves everyone the same and forgives all His children.” Now was he saying that being gay was a sin and that God would forgive me or was he saying that God forgives those who sin but loves everyone? Who knows. But it made me think and many years later I asked him again. To this question he replied, as long as one does not commit any sin against the Ten Commandments then there is always room in Heaven and even if they do, if they repent of their sins, they are then forgiven. No mention of homosexuality at all. I could not make up my mind whether to be true to myself and speak out or stay silent so as not to offend anyone. Again I repressed my feelings.
Just before my mother passed away she did say to me that i should find someone to be with so as I don’t end up alone because she knew she wouldn’t be around and eventually my children would lead their own lives and she didn’t want me to be alone. December 2004 she passed away and my life took a turn. Three weeks after her passing I was admitted to hospital for eight weeks in a bad way with Legionnaires and that made me rethink what I wanted out of life. I did not want to die. I was not ready to die. I was now ready to live my life for me.
In 2006 I took a three month trip away on my own to England, France, Italy and home to Greece to find myself and reassert who I was and what I wanted. Three hours after arriving in England I met a girl and had my first lesbian kiss. Since then, I never looked back. It was my revelation, my freedom and my chance to come out. My family in Greece were the first to find out although my close friends already knew before I flew out of Melbourne. But I must admit, I was expecting some really nasty comments and negativity but instead I got support. They all said that I am still the same person that they had known and loved all along. Who I chose to have as a partner in my life did not change who I was. I felt relieved and loved.
Still fighting with my own demons I approached a priest in Athens and had a discussion with him open heartedly as I knew that I would never see him again and opening up to him was like a confession. He said that I had not committed a sin; I simply fell in love with another human being. It made sense and it cleared my mind. When I came back to Melbourne it was time to face my demons again. I had to build up the courage to tell my family, my dad, my brother and my two children.
Telling my brother and my sister-in-law was quite easy and they were quite supportive, my dad was quite reserved at the start with his comments but has come to terms with it, even embracing my partner. By the way I met my partner almost four years ago and have never been this happy.
But telling my children was quite difficult. My son’s comment was “I don’t like it, it’s your life and you’re still my mother.” But my daughter who is a convert to Islam spat in my face, slapped me across the face and ripped my crucifix off my neck saying that I am nothing but a diseased animal and under her religion she could kill me and no one would do anything about it ! I was hurt and horrified. As a result, my daughter and I no longer speak to each other. It is sad as I never judged her when she converted and covered up.
So let’s see how the world receives me now? Since coming out I am free of my demons , my inhibitions and my insecurities. I know longer care what others think of me and I walk with my head held high. I am proud of who I am and I am comfortable in my own skin and I urge others regardless of race, sex or color to do the same.
Catherine continues to live her Greek life in her native Australia. However, for the last six years she has taken an active role in the LGBT community. She is part of both the Greek and Gay Committee as well as the GALS (Greek Australian Lesbian
Support group.) Incidentally, the Greek and Gay group of Australia( www.greekandgay.com) began May 24, 1995 and was one of the first Hellenic gay support groups to form in the world. Founded primarily to provide social discussion and support for males from a Hellenic background, it has branched out to many affiliate groups in Europe. The Greek Lesbians came on board in 1996 but then was re-established on the 26th May 2002 on a more formal basis. About four years ago the Greek Lesbians changed their name to GALS (Greek Australian Lesbian Support). The groups tackle such issues as “coming out,” “relationships,”
Catherine does not feel her Greek Orthodox faith and her homosexuality are mutually exclusive. Despite Archbishop of Australia Athenogoras’ vehement condemnation of homosexuality and the stance of the Orthodox Church in prohibiting this lifestyle, she maintains that no where in the Bible does Jesus Christ condemn homosexuality. Pointing to Jesus’ acceptance of other taboo persons in the historical context (i.e. women, lepers, sects such as the Samaritans considered unclean by Judaism), she believes Jesus would have been understanding of homosexuality. As she states, “Jesus said to love one another and not to judge, but I feel that our men of cloth are very hypocritical in their sermons when our Church does not embrace all it’s congregation. We are all equal in the eyes of God regardless of race, color, religious denomination and social status as long as our souls are clean.” She does not feel as if being gay is a sin, and so it is quite possible to be gay and an Orthodox.
Gaining acceptance by the greater Greek community, however, will always prove elusive, she claims. Although gayness might be accepted in the most intimate circles of friends, she still has to “tread carefully if she is to meet older relatives or extended family because heaven forbid ‘Ti Tha Pi O Kosmos.'”
To those who are “still narrow minded” she challenges by admitting that her homosexuality has not changed her essentially as a person– “Am I still not the same Cathy who you’ve always known?” She has not caused any harm or hurt to others through her sexuality so she feels she should not be judged.
What is your opinion? Can someone be Greek and gay? Greek Orthodox and gay? Please add your comments.
I can relate a great deal to Catherine’s story. I am a gay Orthodox Christian, just 2 years younger than Catherine and I am half Greek on my mother’s side. I struggled with my demons in the form of an inner dialogue that ran through my head as I tried to reconcile my feelings for my faith and for who I was. I had met my partner at 26 and being with her was the easiest, most natural thing I had experienced ever. We were not just lovers, but best friends, true partners in life and we made each other better people. With her in my life, I felt so much stronger than when I was alone. How could that be a sin? I just didn’t believe it. So I stayed away from church for fear of being rejected, until I we moved to los Angeles and I met the priests at Saint Sophia Cathedral. I was talking to one of them on the phone in regards to an issue with my mother and he asked me why I had been away from church so long. I can not stress how much weight I felt in the moment before I answered him. It is the weight you hold when you watch the faces of your parents change at the moment you tell them you are gay. You know they will never see you the same way again. It will change things. So to be rejected by a priest, for me, it would be like my faith rejecting me. When I told him I was gay and he said “is that all?” I don’t really remember a lot of the other things he said, because they were drowned out by the great my relief I felt. He told me I was always welcome in his communion line and the very next Sunday I started going to church again and haven’t looked back. Now I live in another, much smaller town, and I am a little more guarded about it but I do go to church and I hold on to something else father John said to me, “Your faith is yours. Don’t let other people take your faith away from you.”
Firstly, I’d like to commend Catherine and Sharon on their show of courage, bravery and honesty, in sharing their experiences. As a Greek American lesbian, I’ve had some of the same experiences and thoughts myself. My family is devout Greek Orthodox. My parents and yiayes instilled in my siblings and me, the necessity of being fully devoted to all aspects of our religion. We fasted every Wednesday and Friday throughout the year, went to church every Sunday with no exceptions for sports games or practices, social get togethers w/friends etc., went to Greek School every Monday and Wednesday after our “American school” day, participated in G.O.Y.A and so on. After I left home, to attend college, I found my true sexual identity and, like Sharon, felt what true, real happiness with a romantic partner felt like. Though I had concerns about the challenges I’d face in coming out to my family and being out in all aspects of my life, the one thing I never doubted was that living in truth and honesty is what Jesus did and teaches us to do as we try our best to emulate Him. God made us in His image and though we are all sinners in many respects (as He is the only One without sin), loving each other is one of His most important lessons. Jesus’s life would have been easier had He hidden His true identity from society surrounding Him, but He believed in His Father and chose, time and again, to live a harder though true and honest life, making the ultimate sacrifice of all, in dying on the cross as His true self. In following His example, which is the most basic foundational lesson of our Orthodox faith, and living who we truly are, who He made us, we are re-committing ourselves to our Lord, our faith and our families.