Queer life in cool places
Kevynís semester at sea
By Kevin Jacobs
Editor's Note: Kevyn spent Fall 1997 visiting twelve countries as a participant in the Semester at Sea (SAS) program. The group of 600 students left aboard the S.S. Universe Explorer from Vancouver, Canada, on 14 September 1997, and circled the globe. As part of his on-board studies, Kevyn prepared a comparitive report on gay subcultures. This is the conclusion in a three-part series of his journey. Read Kevynís entire report.
CYPRUS & GREECE
Because of the similarities in culture between Greek Cyprus and Greece, I am choosing to cover both of them in the same section. There are some differences, which I will point to below, but the gay subcultures of both countries are alike enough and share enough cultural heritage, in addition to a common language, to be described together.
There are currently no laws in Greece which prohibit same-sex sexual contact, thanks in part to pressure put on Greece by the European Union, which encourages its member states to be tolerant of homosexuals. The same situation exists in Southern Cyprus, which recently repealed its anti-gay laws after pressure from the E.U., of which Cyprus wants to become a member (Gmünder, pp. 505, 171). I have no information on the status of gays in northern, Turkish Cyprus (I can only presume they are similar to those situations in the rest of the Islamic world), and so when I speak of Cyprus, I am only speaking of southern, Greek Cyprus.
Athens is the center of gay life in Greece, and is a magnet for Greek gays from all over Greece. Likewise, Limassol is the gay center of Cyprus, and also is a magnet for Greek Cypriot gays. Both cities have the highest concentration of gay bars, and the largest gay subcultures of their respective countries. Limassol, however, as a tourist town, has a high concentration of foreigners, and consequently, its gay bars tend to be more targeted at gay European tourists who come to Cyprus. Gay bars in Athens tend to be more authentically Greek.
Both countries are European in their outlook on homosexuality, meaning they are relatively progressive in their tolerance of homosexuals, relative to the rest of the world. Compared with the rest of Europe, however, Greece and Cyprus are less open and accepting, as evidenced by their having to be pressured to drop anti- gay laws by the E.U. Greek and Cypriot culture, like most of the west, are in the midst of social change in regards to attitudes about homosexuality.
"The country as a whole is more accepting of it," I was told by Christos, 38, a doctor from Athens, "But individual families aren't necessarily so." Because of the tight-knit family-clan structure and the influence of the Greek Orthodox Church, many families are conservative and don't accept it when their gay children decide to do the "modern thing" and come out. Consequently, like in urban areas all over Europe and North America, the young gay men flock to the urban areas where they can be free to live a gay life, without family pressure.
"My family doesn't know," said Petros, 32, a hotel desk clerk from Limassol. "They wouldn't understand." And since Petros' family lives in Limassol as well, it is difficult for him to feel as free about his sexuality as his friends whose families live in other parts of Cyprus. Both countries have active gay groups, but Cyprus, having a smaller population is far less involved. Greece, on the other hand, has larger and more powerful gay groups, although it still lags behind the rest of Europe and North America. Much of this has to do with the oppressive dictatorship that controlled Greece from 1967-1974.
"Life was bad for gays then, under the dictatorship," Christos told me. "Only the most effeminate were tolerated, because Greek culture saw them as having been 'born that way'," and of it being a moral problem, as non-effeminate gays were seen during that time.
It wasn't until the early 1980's, according to Christos, that homosexuality stopped being a taboo subject. At that time, AIDS had hit, and people were forced to start acknowledging homosexuality. It wasn't until 1976 that the first gay bar opened in Athens. Today, however, in both Cyprus and Greece, homosexuality is talked about openly, thanks in large part to the massive information and education campaigns which have been waged in both countries to fight AIDS.
"Cyprus has changed since the mid-1970's, when I arrived here," I was told by Hank, 42, a Dutch expatriate living in Limassol. "Back then, the Islamic Turkish influence on Cypriot culture was much more prevalent. Straight men would flirt with you, even have sex with you. Today, however, the dichotomy between straight and gay is much stronger."
Greek and Cypriot gays are also optimistic about the future, with the cultural influence of the E.U. In both Greece and Cyprus, gays told me that they thought that the E.U. would eventually allow them to marry, a prospect that even many American gays don't see in the near future.
It is interesting to note that things are coming full-circle for Greek gays. Historically, Greece and its territories (like Cyprus) had thriving gay cultures. In ancient Greece, it was common, even expected, for a young, unmarried man in the upper classes to take a male lover until he married. Even Greek mythology has examples of this. For instance, Zeus, the king of the gods notorious for his sexual appetites, took Ganymede, a boy, as a lover. But the arrival of Christianity, and later the conquest of Greece and Cyprus by Islamic Turks, ended this golden age of tolerance. It is only now, in the 20th century, that these two countries are returning to a level of acceptance of same-sex relationships.
Sex between men in Spain is legal at age 16 (Gmünder, p. 765),
and of all of the countries we've visited on this voyage, Spain is the
most like the United States in its tolerance and attitudes towards gays.
In some legal ways, gay Spaniards are better off than their American counterparts.
For instance, the Spanish constitution, drafted after the fall of the Franco
dictatorship, guarantees sexual freedom on a par with religious freedom.
And while the constitution doesn't specify homosexuality, courts have interpreted
the sexual freedom clause to apply to homosexuals. Consequently, job and
housing discrimination against gays is prohibited, and Spanish hate crime
laws have even been successfully used recently to take on the Spanish Catholic
Church when certain bishops spoke out against homosexual equality. It was
very fortunate for my research of gay culture in Spain that we had Manuel
Gomez-Lara as our interport lecturer. Manuel is actively involved in the
Spanish gay liberation movement, and has been involved in academic circles
dealing with gay and lesbian issues. He recently participated in Spain's
first government-sponsored conference on gay and lesbian issues, and is
well versed in the subject. Most of my information about Spain came from
him. Spain has two primary urban areas with large gay concentrations, Madrid
and Barcelona. There are a large number of gay bars, restaurants, baths,
organizations and publications in both of these areas, as well as many
throughout the rest of the country. Spanish political groups are extremely powerful and self-confident, and are very close to having a domestic partnership law passed, probably in the very near future. Adoption of children by gay couples has come to the forefront of Spanish political debate, which shows how much more advanced Spain is in terms of gay liberation than any of the other countries we have visited.
Like gays in most of the western world, Spanish gays enjoy unprecedented freedom. Its membership in the gay-tolerant E.U. suggests not only that Spanish gay culture will continue to enjoy greater freedom, but also that Spanish gays will also be leaders in fighting for the rights of other gay Europeans, such as in Greece and Cyprus.
Spanish gay couples exist in numbers as freely as they do in the United States, and as mentioned earlier, have growing political clout. Curiously enough, a situation similar to Japan has started developing recently, especially in the area around Sevilla, where Spanish gays have started taking wives as well as having male lovers, and all parties are aware of each other. This may be in part due to the growing acceptance of homosexuals in Spanish culture, and in part to the tolerant attitude many Europeans have towards having both a spouse and a lover at the same time. While this may seem contradictory in light of the power of Catholic culture on Spain, it is important to note that the majority of all Spanish Catholics are non- practicing. TheCatholic Church still teaches against homosexuality, but it is clear that the church is diminishing in its ability to direct public policy.
The Spanish gay subculture has come a long way in the years since Franco. Under Franco, homosexuality was illegal and punishable by stiff jail sentences. With the reinstitution of the monarchy, Spanish culture has undergone a massive social change, and Spanish gay culture has reaped the benefits of this change.
An interesting side note to my study of homosexuality in Spain: I was discussing the attitudes of straight men and homosexual sex in the Islamic world with Manuel, and he informed me that this was also a "very Spanish" attitude as well. I asked him why he thought this was, and he theorized that the attitude came to Spain with the Moors, and remained even after other parts of their culture had been eliminated. Since similar attitudes about heterosexual males having sex with men also are common in Latin America - I've encountered the same attitude in Mexican migrant farm workers working in the United States - one can only assume that the attitude traveled to the new world with the Spanish and took root there. Thus, we have another case of culture spreading far from its origins, first through the Arab conquests into Spain, and from there into the Americas. American corporations with their marketing campaigns didn't invent the globalization process.
Homosexual sex is illegal in Morocco under Article 489 of the penal code, with a penalty of 6 months to 3 years in prison (Gmünder, p. 765). With our arrival in Casablanca, we were back in a sexually repressive part of the world, which was quite a contrast after sexually liberated Spain.
Because attitudes and gay culture in Morocco are fairly similar to Egypt, due to the influence of Islam, I won't repeat what I said there, except to say that both I and other male Semester at Sea students were approached sexually by (presumably) heterosexual men with offers of sex. In one case, in Marrakech, a young man (maybe 18 or 19) who wanted me to give him money for sex approached me (I was wearing an earring at the time) I tried asking him why he did it, but his English wasn't good enough to communicate more than what he wanted, and for how much (200 dirhams). I suspect that he was heterosexual, but like most young men in the Islamic world, not adverse to "getting off" with a gay man, and if he could make a little money off it, so much the better. A single male foreigner, walking alone in a tourist area, is seen as very likely a gay tourist.
Indeed, gay tourists appear to be common in the Islamic world, especially wealthy Europeans, who know that gay sex is easy there and travel there to take advantage of it. Increasingly, militant Islamic groups are making it known that the influence of these tourists are not welcome, and some attacks specifically targeted at gay tourists have taken place. (Gmünder, pp. 639, 189). In fact, the Spartacus guide warns that Agadir and Marrakech can be very dangerous places for gay tourists to be (Gmünder, p. 639) especially after dark.
I have attempted to demonstrate in this report that widely divergent attitudes exist about gay men, homosexuality, and gay culture around the world, and that gay cultures are at different stages of development in different countries. Neither norms of acceptance nor of condemnation are universal. In some places, like Spain, Greece, Cyprus, and Japan, homosexuality is accepted, if not tolerated. In others, like India, Egypt, Morocco, and China, it is repressed, sometimes brutally. Yet, paradoxically, sometimes when the repression is most brutal, the gay subculture continues to thrive, as in India, Morocco and Egypt. In some places the gay subculture includes heterosexual men, as in Morocco and Egypt, and in others it is more exclusive, as in Cyprus. In some places the gay culture is long established and stable, as in Japan, Morocco or Egypt, and in other places, it is undergoing changes rapidly, as in India, Cyprus, Greece and Spain.
I also have attempted to give a nice synopsis of gay life in each of
the cultures we've visited, the briefest of overviews of the status of
gay men around the world based on my own limited exposure and research.
It would be interesting to see the research that will come in the future,
as the fairly new field of queer studies opens up and invites scholars
to study more thoroughly the areas I have covered. Indeed, gay subculture
in any one of the countries studied could be the subject of research. But
that is for other scholars to do, not me.
Gmünder, Bruno Spartacus International Gay Guide '97/'98, 26th edition, 1997, Bruno Gmünder Verlag GMBH, Berlin.
Hekma, Gert At Home in a World of Strangers: Towards a Comparison of Gay Urban Cultures, Research project proposal to the Dutch Foundation for Scholarly Research, 1997, Amsterdam Gay & Lesbian Studies website, http://www.pscw.uva.nl/gl.
Lapierre, Dominique The City of Joy, 1985, Time Warner Books,