In this episode, LGBT activist Vangelis Skoufas tells the story of moving from Thessaloniki to Athens for his first love and coming out to his friends, family and colleagues shortly thereafter. He talks about his self-acceptance journey and his supportive community as the two major catalysts in his commitment to fight for the political rights of marginalized people, and he offers insightful details about the landmark legal victories that have changed the lives of LGBT Greeks since 2015.
Vangelis Skoufas: When is the right time?
I am Vangelis Skoufas. I was born in 1981, I am 41 years old and for the last 15 years I...
Vangelis Skoufas: When is the right time?
I am Vangelis Skoufas. I was born in 1981, I am 41 years old and for the last 15 years I have lived in Athens. I realized that I was a homosexual at a very young age. For as long as I remember, anytime I touched myself, I always thought of boys. But growing up in a smaller city like Thessaloniki it was very difficult, at least at a young age, to accept my sexual identity. It took me a very long time to be able to accept who I actually was. Nevertheless I had my first sexual experience with a boy at age 15. . . shortly thereafter another experience, that one with a girl. For several years I tried to resist my sexuality. I tried hard to have sexual experiences with women in an attempt to “correct” myself. But finally I realized that in essence a gay man is born gay and that what really makes me happy is accepting my sexual identity as it is, as gay. Of course, it took me far too long to get there.
It started essentially at age 25, when, during some summer holidays I met my first love. I was going back and forth between Athens and Thessaloniki because my partner was in Athens at the time. In a very short period of time I had a proposal from him. He asked: “Vangelis, since you like Athens so much, why don’t you come here to stay?”
It started as an experiment. I can’t hide the fact that, at first, it scared me because I knew that making that decision would mean there was no turning back . Because in essence it was the first time that I allowed myself to live the life I wanted to live. I knew it was going to be a difficult road. It’s much harder to be gay than it is to be heterosexual in our society. Of course I was very, very lucky. When I started this relationship at 25, which lasted until I was 29, I remember that there were very few people who actually knew the truth about me. That’s because I was still debating whether or not I actually wanted to make my identity public. Because in the back of my mind, in that first era, I wasn’t totally sure whether this same-sex relationship would be followed by others in the future. Which meant that in the back of my mind there was a small possibility that I might at some point return to a heterosexual life. It may have been an internalized homophobia, as it’s called. Which of course was a very unrealistic thought because after my first relationship ended, which lasted 4 years, all my subsequent sexual experiences, whether they were one night stands or relationships, the vast majority were with men, with the exception of three times when I tried to do something with a woman – well, with different women – it didn’t work out. So in my next long-term relationship with a man, I realized that what makes me happy, and who I really am is inseparable from my gay identity.
I can say that I have been very, very lucky, at least unlike other cases of some gay people I know, because from the first moment I came to Athens, no matter how much I tried to limit myself to half truths, and when I say half truths I mean that I had the habit of speaking generally about my relationship without ever specifying the gender of my partner. When I came to Athens, which was in November of 2007, I was already a member of the Synaspismos youth organization. My political colleagues understood right away that this vague relationship I was talking about was a same-sex relationship. So despite my fear and my hesitation, I found myself in an environment that was very supportive. From the very first moment, having understood what was happening in my sexuality, in my relationship, and therefore in my everyday life, my political partners explained to me, “you should not be afraid of who you are. You must accept who you are and not only that, by being involved in the community, it is our duty to try to bring about some changes that will improve the lives of LGBT people and make society more inclusive.” So yes, in this gray area in which I was living I was very lucky, because it was my political colleagues who pushed me, firstly, to accept without fear who I am and have the courage to speak freely and publicly about my identity and secondly, to help me set a bigger goal. That is, as a member of the youth at that time, to work toward the common goal of addressing discrimination anywhere it may be experienced in the pursuit of an inclusive society.
I won’t deny that, the first time I spoke publicly about who I really am, I was so nervous. I was scared out of my mind because I didn’t know what the reaction of the audience would be after watching a gay person talk about their sexual identity and all the things that need to change, for example, marriage equality, adoption and parentage rights, health changes in work, education and so on. By the time I finished — I still remember it and I’m very moved — I faced this huge auditorium, packed full of people, who were all applauding, and my then-partner bursting into tears. All this acceptance, all these supportive messages that I received at that moment made me feel very lucky. I was able to speak out freely and be supported, and I realized that I had been wrong to be afraid of who I was for all those years.
I felt that since I had such a strong level of acceptance in my life, I had the obligation to take the lead, along with some others, within the party, which was then called Synaspismos, in order to bring some changes. I wanted this egalitarian, supportive environment to become the norm, and not an exception that happens in some organizing areas only.
Ιn November 2013, the Democratic Left party submitted a proposal for civil union and two days later, SYRIZA submitted a corresponding proposal. At that time, the government was composed of New Democracy, the right wing party, and PASOK, the socialist party. Unfortunately, the parliamentary debate for these proposals happened at the time that parliament was focused on the proposed anti-discrimination bill, which stated that all people living in Greece should be able to live free from discrimination on the basis of race, language, national origin, religion, and political belief.
I say unfortunately because all the reactions, mainly from the New Democracy party, were extremely negative, despite the fact that our country had recently been condemned by the European Court of Human Rights because it was not possible in our country for same-sex couples to attain legal recognition of their relationships in any way. Unfortunately, civil unions did not become available to same-sex couples until after the elections of January 2015.
So here we were in November and December 2014. The anti-discrimination bill was passed. However, there had been amendments to the anti-discrimination that included the civil partnership law and those amendments did not survive. This was mainly due to the opposition of the hard right members of the New Democracy party, as well the vocal opposition of the Greek Orthodox church. They said that the bells would ring mournfully if our country accepted legislative equality in marriage. At the same time, the extreme right organization Golden Dawn had grown and as was confirmed officially later on, there had been discussions between parts of the New Democracy and the Golden Dawn. All of these factors contributed to the failure to pass the civil partnership agreement in 2014.
Then came the elections in January 2015 and SYRIZA won a historic majority. In December 2015 there was a huge joy, the first big victory for the Greek LGBTI community happened. For the first time, a groundbreaking law for the LGBTI community was passed: the civil partnership agreement. This was a moment of recognizing human rights and ending legal discrimination. For the first time, same-sex couples in Greece could attain legal recognition and gain some–but not all– of the rights that married couples have.
Right away, of course, those of us who support the rights of the LGBTI community felt that SYRIZA had the obligation to go further and proceed with other issues, such as civil marriage for same-sex couples and legal protections for family formation, and the legal recognition of gender identity. Therefore, the hard work continued. And two years later, if I remember correctly it was in October or November of 2017, another emblematic bill was passed, thanks to efforts, mainly of the transgender support organization SYD. For the first time in our country, transgender people gained the right to change their legal gender without having to go through medical procedures or meeting a set of imposed criteria. There were also a few court decisions in the preceding months that concurred with the legislation in supporting the right of trans people to change their names and gender markers. This is a process that is extremely important for transgender people because unfortunately, even today they are still among those who are most marginalized. Unfortunately there are even many gay, lesbian, and bisexual people who find it very difficult to understand the difficulties that a trans person may face, whether we are talking about challenges that may arise at home during childhood, or in school, and in the workplace. This move was therefore a second huge victory for the LGBTI community in Greece.
In the meantime, more legislation addressing equality had also been passed, such as the law on equal treatment. However, this law still had some gaps, because discrimination in the field of education was not addressed and neither was discrimination in the service industry or in housing. So it was still possible for LGBTI people to face bias in shops or struggle to find accommodation due to their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Another important bill that was passed during this period concerns the right of same-sex couples who have established a civil partnership to serve jointly as foster parents. Fostering, of course, compared to permanent adoption is different in the sense that the legal status of the child does not change. In foster care, a child may at some point be reunified with their family of origin. Foster situations can be very emotionally difficult; imagine a foster family raising a child for a period of time, and how they must feel when that child is reunited with their family of origin. I think that’s why foster parents draw on a profound feeling of solidarity with fellow human beings who are experiencing a very difficult phase of life.
Of course, I want to be absolutely clear that the law on the legal recognition of gender identity also has some negative aspects. The positive aspects are that, at least for adults, there is no obligation to provide certain psychiatric diagnoses, as the Council of Europe’s own recommendations stipulate. However, unfortunately it’s not possible for people under the age of 15 to change their documents. What do we make of this? This leads to very specific forms of discrimination. Imagine a child in a school environment in which the gender on their records does not match their identity, and therefore teachers and classmates are not respecting the child’s social gender.
Another problem with the existing legislation is that the procedure it outlines for trans people in Greece to change their documents is very difficult. It requires a judicial process, instead of an extrajudicial process as exists in many other countries. A judicial procedure requires hiring lawyers, whose fees can be more than one thousand five hundred euros. Therefore if a person lacks this financial capacity, they cannot immediately change their documents.
Unfortunately, when the legal recognition of gender identity law was being discussed in parliament, not all political parties had a positive reaction. All of us in the Greek LGBTI community remember the transphobic statement given on the floor of the parliament by Kyriakos Mitsotakis who was then the President of the New Democracy party and is now the Prime Minister of Greece. Mitsotakis did not hesitate to use the most transphobic words that someone could use. In his keynote speech he told an extremely transphobic anecdote of a child who had supposedly been convinced to pursue gender transition after meeting and conversing with an alien. This offensive speech made an absolute mockery of trans people, to put it lightly.
And we can’t ignore that the New Democracy party has two openly gay politicians, Yatromanolakis and Patelis, which is the first time that this has actually happened. Likewise, it is also positive that some human rights issues have garnered a parliamentary vote, even in the form of an amendment, because even though it is not the same as bringing an issue for discussion as a main topic in the Greek parliament, it is still important to try to gain human rights even through backdoor strategies for a group like the LGBT community. So it is really important that the abolition of blood donation for homosexuals was able to happen under the right wing New Democracy government, and some legislation including hiring incentives for transgender people has been passed in the past three years. Of course, it is important to stress that unfortunately this particular policy has not, at least to date, been widely accepted. So far it has only been used in two cases of trans people.
Of course at the same time we see that there are important needs concerning protection in the family, the protection of children’s rights, discrimination in medicine and in education, and these needs are not getting enough political attention.
In 2019, SYRIZA had already stated that it would include the rights to civil marriage and to adoption for same-sex couples in its core commitments for the next four years. This promise was confirmed recently, in June 2022, when for the first time in our country, a draft law was submitted defending the rights of all people to access the institution of civil marriage and of adoption. This legislation supports the conviction that the right to create a family beyond two people is universal, and should apply to all people regardless of sexual orientation, identity, expression or other characteristics.
New Democracy could take advantage of this opportunity that SYRIZA is providing to propose a corresponding legislative proposal for marriage equality. Yet, due to the far-right core that still drives their agenda, New Democracy has refused to even bring the marriage equality proposal to debate in parliament. So it is a huge blow for us here in Greece that there is currently a proposal for marriage equality on the table yet it has not been debated even after five months, and it appears that it will not be debated in the coming months because New Democracy is stuck pandering to its far-right audience. It is stuck on the fear of losing votes, it is stuck on the reactions of a certain circle, for example the conservative voices within the Greek church, who say, “once you vote for gay marriage, we will never vote for you again.”
Advocating for human rights should not be about whether a party gains a majority government again or not, it should be about championing equality first and foremost, the human being itself, the rights that every child should have. Let us not forget the fact that there are already families in Greece formed by same-sex parents. In these families, whether they are formed through adoption or assisted reproductive technology, only one parent can attain legal recognition, even when we are talking about two-parent families.
I believe that it is very important for all political parties to support human rights and to do so at every moment, whether currently in government or in the opposition. And to prove this commitment, a party must take action, submitting legislative proposals whenever the opportunity arises. So it has to be a common goal, and here I am referring to people who may be members of different political parties, that if you really defend the rights of the LGBTI community, it is your obligation both to submit legislative proposals and, if you are given the opportunity by other political parties, push your leaders, push your decision makers, to discuss those legislative proposals. If these proposals are not discussed, if they are left in the trash, it is unfortunately as if you yourself, who claim to defend the rights of the LGBTI community, are throwing us LGBTI citizens into the trash. And in that case any other efforts you make are clearly insincere, just a PR trick to make you seem like a supporter of LGBTI rights.
We understand that as long as LGBTI people experience discrimination, with every day that passes in which we do not work to eliminate that discrimination, it multiplies. We do not have the luxury in the present circumstances to say that now is not the time. If now is not the right time —now, when there are so many children in institutions, and families with same-sex parents who can’t access equitable parenting rights—when is the right time?
And let’s say OK, the next time that SYRIZA is voted into majority government, these changes will be implemented. But even if this happens one year from now, one year is still a significant delay. The legal discrimination must be addressed as soon as possible in order to establish protection for LGBTI people and their families, and also to ensure that all people have the right to access the protections offered by the legal institution of civil marriage.
The leader of SYRIZA, Alexis Tsipras has stated that his party, in addition to its six commitments to address the issue of poverty and the challenges of the labor market, has also added a very basic pillar to its platform: the defense of human rights. Therein, SYRIZA has committed to implementing marriage equality for all couples with full rights, including adoption rights, and to institute a robust legal recognition of femicide when the party next gains a ruling majority.
This past summer the LGBT contingent of SYRIZA worked to raise awareness about marriage equality by creating and distributing a short film. In my personal opinion, this video captures the heart of the matter in the most appropriate way. It depicts the experience of a same-sex couple raising a child, in which one parent has all the rights and obligations that come with legal parentage and the other parent is denied that opportunity. I think it’s very touching and does a good job of educating people about these issues. I’ve been so happy that people of all ages who have seen it have said the most positive things. One striking example I have is of a 19-year-old who recently spoke to his mother about the fact that he is gay. His mother had seen this short film and was so touched. She told her son, “My dear, if you really want to build a family at some point, just as you are, as a homosexual, and be with your partner and have children, it is very important to me that you have the opportunity to do so.”
Of course, things don’t begin and end with marriage equality. There are so many other changes that need to be made. First and foremost, in the domain of education broadly, at all age levels, so that school textbooks are indeed inclusive, so that they reflect the diversity of modern society, even in Greece. A school that treats children as equals in practice and in everyday life sets the foundation for every child and every student, whether he or she is gay, bisexual, lesbian, or transgender, or has LGBT parents, to see themselves as equal members of society. It is so important for young people to understand that there isn’t anything wrong with them in all of their diversity. If there are no changes in the education system, then unfortunately we will continue to be too far behind as we are today. It is education that creates our society, it is education that shapes our citizens and, in fact, it is education that, if it is as it should be, lays the groundwork for us to achieve equality in the workplace, in our social environment, and in our family environment. So yes, change in education too. Yes!
What do we mean by change in education? Inclusive textbooks, properly trained teachers, in collaboration and conversation with LGBTI communities. Turning to the very people who have been involved and know at their core what problems children may face, in order to prevent more cases like the harassment of Vaggelis Giakoumakis. This is a case that ended so tragically with a young person losing his life. We must stop allowing people’s lives to be destroyed in their own school environment as well as out in society. If we want to break taboos against LGBTI people and come to a state of equality, changes in the education system are important and necessary.
In addition to seeing changes in education we need to create positive incentives for hiring people from marginalized groups, at least until there is an end to discrimination. I am referring to quotas, special bonuses that can be given to employers, so that LGBTI people themselves can have real, equal access to the labor market. Also, there are still so many challenges trans people face in health care facilities. We need appropriately trained health care providers and full access to necessary care. So all of these areas are key priorities for the LGBTI movement.
One of the basic demands of the LGBTI community is that any treatment trans people may need — such as hormone therapy, gender confirmation surgeries — should be covered, through the public health system in our country, free of charge to every single person. To that end, a committee had already been set up, back when SYRIZA was in power, that included experts from SYD, the Association for the Support of Transgender People, as well as legal advisors such as Vassilis Sotiropoulos. Unfortunately, the current government, as soon as it took power, left the committee’s recommendations locked in a cupboard, refusing to address all the necessary improvements. So, for three years now there has been no improvement in public healthcare for transgender people.
While we’re seeing legislative changes that defend human rights and, in this particular case the rights of the LGBTI community, I am also very pleasantly surprised that we’re simultaneously witnessing changes in film, in television series, and even in advertising as far as LGBTI visibility and inclusion. And speaking as someone who has been particularly involved in the last few years with the LGBTI organizations, I believe that one of the things that Greece should do, as other European countries have done, is use the European funding resources that exist so that we can do a more methodical job.
Now, apart from my political colleagues, who, as I mentioned earlier, helped me a great deal in accepting my sexual identity, I have also been very lucky to have a supportive family. When I was in my first gay relationship, one of the first people who happened to learn about my relationship was my older sister. I was very nervous to talk to her about it, but it went well and as soon as I had confided in her I felt so much freer. In that first conversation she told me: “Vangelis, if this really makes you happy, if you really feel that what you are doing expresses yourself, and it gives you joy, and it is part of your identity, you should keep enjoying this very beautiful relationship that you have, and I am very happy that you told me. Don’t be afraid of anything.”
So, inspired by this conversation I had with my sister, I want to encourage the people who are listening, whether they themselves are queer, or wether they suspect that someone in their family is gay, lesbian, or transgender… Talk to your children, talk to your siblings. Give them the opportunity to tell you who they really are, because this opening up is perhaps one of the most important elements of every person’s daily life. It is so important for us to know that in addition to our friends, our own family accepts us.
I had more or less the same experience with my mother. At first it seemed strange to her. In the beginning she was in a state of shock, quite unpleasant I can say, but she got past her reaction very quickly. After that, in all my subsequent relationships, it was extremely important that she accepted my partners with great warmth. Accepting my relationships is an important component of accepting me, her child. It is so important to maintain the trust that you have with your own parents. We need families that talk openly, families that support their children. If we really love our children, if we really love our brothers and sisters, we love them for who they really are, and not the idea of who we want them to be. Every person has their own uniqueness, their own identity and if they are truly happy, then yes we should be completely supportive of them.
When someone is completely accepted, they can stop living with all the self-doubt that comes from living in a conservative society. There has to be confidence, there has to be love, there has to be care, there has to be concern, so that our lives continue to be as full as they should be. It is very unpleasant when we do not accept our brothers and sisters, when we do not accept our children. It takes a psychological toll that can lead to very self-destructive behavior. Family inclusion and acceptance really is so important.
I can’t say that all my relationships have been perfect, of course they all had positives and negatives. I’ve been in relationships in which my partner wanted to control my self-expression and tried to bring me into their own orbit, making demands that under different circumstances I might not have followed. But I have also found people who are truly loving, caring, and concerned with my well-being, people who are trying to do the best they can for me and for our relationship.
I also want to mention another person that I met who became very important to me. The first thing he said was, “Vangelis, you have all the necessary tools. If there’s one thing you should do to help yourself, it’s to talk much more openly about who you are, whether it’s with your friends, your family, or with a psychologist. Because for LGBT people, many things that we have experienced in the past, whether it’s discrimination that may be in our school environment, or in our own family, when we break these barriers, when we unravel these knots and talk freely about experiences that we have had, then we really get to know ourselves much better. And then, our lives can have a much better balance, even just how we exist in the rhythm of everyday life. How we wake up, how we plan our day, how we treat our desires, what goals we set.” So, yes, I will say that the therapy that I’ve been doing recently has improved me in so many ways and I’m glad. Whether I’m talking to people in my family or my best friends, to people who have known me for several years, they witness a new calmness in me, they see the ways in which I am taking more care of myself in my daily life, and they see that I plan things much better.
As far as the younger generation goes, I can share a very pleasant surprise that I have found in my own family, which is the relationship that I have with my niece. For many years I hesitated to talk about my sexuality in front of her. However she realized, when she met me at some point with one of my partners in Athens. After a few days she asked her mother, my sister, “Is Vangelis gay?” and her mother replied that I am. Since then she has been my best friend. I can discuss everything with her and it’s very encouraging that the young generation, I’m talking about a girl who has just started university, treats diversity itself as if there is no issue, and as if other people are equal, just as they should be in a modern society. So yes, our family, our friends, our colleagues, should be the first people who, if they really love us, should accept us just as we are! That’s it.