Story by Isabelle Hahn ·
THESSALONIKI, Greece – Five flights above the streets of Thessaloniki is a rainbow regalia-filled sanctuary for the city’s increasingly visible LGBT community. A bright red fold-out table occupies the middle of the workroom, a communal space for volunteers working at the center.
On this day, though, the only activity in the small space is Apostolis Karabairis, typing furiously on his keyboard. The founder of Thessaloniki Pride is working on the biggest project of his tenure at the organization, which he established in 2012: applying to host EuroPride in 2020, a pan-European international lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender event. If he’s successful – and some are skeptical – it would be an enormous boom for the community, which already boasts a more accepting environment compared to the rest of Greece but has yet to keep pace with other parts of Europe.
“I wouldn’t imagine myself here back in 2012,” said Karabairis. “After six years, we are constantly competing with ourselves to be better than the last year. EuroPride keeps us going.”
The European Pride Organizers Association, or EPOA, promotes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender pride on a pan-European level and is the umbrella organization for European Pride organizers. The EPOA grants the license of EuroPride to a different member every year. The host city – for 2017 it’s Madrid, then Stockholm in 2018 and Vienna in 2019 – is usually one with an established gay pride event or strong lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. The host city for EuroPride 2020 will be selected in September at the EPOA annual general meeting in Gothenburg, Sweden.
Pride is an internationally used term to designate gatherings – such as the parade and festivals Thessaloniki is vying for – that concern the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender population. Pride events, which usually span a few days, celebrate LGBT identity and promote equal rights while eliminating negative stereotypes and discrimination.
Karabairis filed a letter of intent on March 31, and in doing so threw Thessaloniki into competition with three other potential hosts: Bergen, Norway; Brussels, Belgium; and Hamburg, Germany. If chosen – which is done by a vote of EPOA members – Thessaloniki Pride will have three years to prepare for what promises to change this city’s LGBT profile on the world stage.
“It’s a sign that Thessaloniki is a city that supports all kinds of ideas and positions,” said Yiannis Boutaris, Thessaloniki’s mayor since 2010. “We don’t [seek] to tolerate difference. We support difference.”
Boutaris, 74, is widely known as progressive on many social issues, and is recognized as the first mayor in all of Greece to publicly attend a pride event. His vocalization of acceptance toward the queer community in particular has lifted Thessaloniki above the rest of Greece in terms of acceptance. In 2014, he was photographed nude for the local Adore Lifestyle Magazine to defend gay rights. And he has consistently supported the city’s bid to host EuroPride.
That sort of support means the world to so many in the LGBT community – including Giannis Tzokas, a 25-year old born in Switzerland and raised in Greece. Tzokas has proudly attended the Thessaloniki Pride parade for three years, but believes most Greek LGBT-identifying people continue to live in fear of discrimination and intolerance.
He said that he is afraid to hold hands with a man in public, for example, because he knows people who have been attacked. While he has not attended EuroPride, he is excited about the idea of it possibly being hosted in Greece.
“It would be beautiful,” Tzokas said. “Thessaloniki isn’t for me. I was born in Switzerland and moved here, then to a smaller village. The smaller towns are more close-minded. It was horrible,” he said, adding that eventually, he plans to escape to where he can live a more open life. “I want to go to London [because] you can hold hands down the street.”
According to a 2015 Epsilon Report, published by an international think tank specializing in human rights and inclusion, Greece is still behind in issues regarding the respect and protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender human rights. The majority of LGBT people in Greece are afraid of revealing their sexual orientation due to a hostile societal attitude toward homosexuality, according to the report. And although Greek society has begun to accept queer identifying people and anti-discrimination legislation exists, a 2012 survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights stated that 48 percent of respondents have faced discrimination or harassment because of their sexual orientation in the last 12 months.
However, city municipalities within Thessaloniki have been an ally to pride efforts since day one, said Thanos Vlachogiannis, a spokesperson for Thessaloniki Pride, adding that the city harbors a safer environment than other Greek cities for LGBT identifying people because of government support.
“I think it’s going to boost our self-confidence,” said Vlachogiannis. “If Thessaloniki can host this event, we will be a point of interest.”
Indeed, if the city is chosen as host, it will thrust Thessaloniki Pride into the spotlight and allow the organization, which is run by volunteers that range in number from 80 to 120, to prepare for an exponential increase in attendees. In five years, Thessaloniki Pride has grown from an attendance of 3,000 to a predicted 16,000 in 2017. Last year’s EuroPride, celebrated in Amsterdam, had an estimated attendance of 560,000.
The next step in the application process is building a “bid book,” which will contain all the information needed for the official presentation of Thessaloniki as the EuroPride host city. When completed, the book will contain a full history and legal status of the organization, details of the proposed program, a business plan, marketing plan, political context of the program and general information about Thessaloniki.. Thessaloniki Pride’s plans are on track to be completed by the end of July, Karabairis said.
One minor complication is that the mayor’s term ends in 2019. Nevertheless, the city government and mayor are committed to supporting gay rights despite conservative resistance, said advisor to the mayor, Leonidas Makris.
“As long as the mayor is in office until Aug. 31, 2019, we will definitely do all that we can to host a bigger event, a bigger pride,” said Makris. “For us, it’s right, it’s correct. And we’d like our city to be a part of it.”
What many will be watching are the political implications of hosting EuroPride in Thessaloniki. If EuroPride were to be hosted in Greece, it would have strong political reach, Vlachogiannis said.
“Thessaloniki has a longer tradition of safe prides and it is often attended by a significant number of LGBT identifying persons, mostly activists, from Western Balkans,” said Dragana Todorovic, executive director of the LGBTI Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey.
According to a 2015 poll by the National Democratic Institute, an NGO dedicated to protecting human rights and strengthening democratic governments, the general Balkan population resists affording lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups equal rights. Activists and members of the Balkan queer community often seek refuge from their home countries, which do not legally recognize same-sex unions or marginalized gender identities. People come to Thessaloniki Pride because they feel safer, said Karabairis.
Greece did not recognize same-sex civil unions until 2015, two years after the European Court of Human Rights ruled its civil-unions law constituted a human rights violation. It still doesn’t recognize marriages. That said, only two of the four countries applying to host have legalized gay marriage: Belgium, since 2003, and Norway since 2009.
Born during an economic crisis, Thessaloniki Pride has adapted to functioning with few financial resources. The 4,000 euro, or $4,500, application fee for EuroPride was funded by an initiative organized by the mayor’s office; if the bid is chosen, there will be an additional 6,000 euro, or $6,700, to obtain the license.
Not all constituencies have been on board with the attempt to host. Some resistance has emerged from the Greek Orthodox church, a religion that encompasses 90 percent of Greeks, according to a May 2017 study by the Pew Research Center. The same study noted that only 19 percent of adults over 35 favor legalizing same-sex marriage.
“We’ve been experiencing pushback from the very beginning. We don’t forget the church is very conservative,” Vlachogiannis said. “Even if you believe in God or not, young people are raised into the Greek Orthodox environment. I am sensitive to that. We know how dangerous it is.”
And yet, to those in his organization, expanding public perspective on homosexuality and cultivating a haven within the city evokes ancient Greece, he said. History scholars have widely noted that it was common for men of status to engage in sexual relations with subservient younger men. And although sexual relationships between adult men were socially stigmatized, there is ample evidence that they existed publicly.
Ancient Greece opened the discussion on homosexuality, noted Karabairis. So, it’s fitting that the city of Thessaloniki is vying for such an important event – one that will both unify and highlight the LGBT community – because in some ways, he said, homosexuality was invented here.