I was at a bar in Gazi, the gay-friendly neighborhood of Athens, when my friends started talking about Ilias Kasidiaris, the spokesperson of the extreme right-wing Golden Dawn party, who had slapped a woman on live TV. My gay compatriots had gone to university, had jobs (most of them), and voted liberally--or so they said. Still, they chuckled over Kasidiaris's half-naked photos, his street-fighting body, tattoos, and tight black T-shirt.
"Did you see the neo-Nazi swastika on that shirt?" I asked. "Have you read about Golden Dawn's immigrant abuse? The anti-gay statements on their websites?" I yelled, partly dumbfounded, and partly to be heard over Despina Vandi, a Greek singer, belting out her hit "Suffering" in a club-beat remix.
"You're so American."
With unemployment at 23%, unprecedented crime, immigrant bashing, the first Greek slum emerging in Aspropyrgos (a suburb of Athens), and paramilitary organizations popping up -- and just as European negotiators were heading to Athens for yet another exasperated round of negotiations to avoid national bankruptcy -- I was scolded for my political correctness.
"I'm suffering, I'm suffering," Vandi kept pleading through the club's speakers, and I wondered if it was not merely our financial doomsday that had made Golden Dawn attractive, but some kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Were we perversely attracted to our offenders?
"Gay bashing has not happened...yet," Grigoris Vallianatos, the Larry Kramer of Greece and the grandfather (his term) of Greek gay activism, told me a few days later at an Athens hotel. "But that does not mean that the Golden Dawn can't strike at any moment, the way they did with immigrants before Xenios Zeus swept anyone with dark skin." He was referring to a law enforcement raid that alarmed human rights groups. "The American embassy is running overdrive to deal with their tourists' arrests," he said.
I told Vallianatos about my night out in Gazi.
He smiled. "First of all, it's the Golden Dawn's moment. Given the chaos that previous governments left Greece in, it was easy for extreme nationalists to pick up phrases from ancient Sparta and the Greek Orthodox Church and sell them to desperate or fed-up people--not that far from your friends in Gazi. Are they out?"
I had to think about this. Although my friends lived gay lifestyles, none of them were out to their families. Or at work. "To some extent," I said.
"Of course they're not," Vallianatos said. "There are absolutely no role models. No one's out. Racism and homophobia are constitutional here because the church is behind every state expression. Our constitution begins with 'In the name of the holy and consubstantial and indivisible trinity.' "
"So you're saying that the fear of the queer -- foreign, you name it -- comes from the church?" I asked Vallianatos. "I believe it grows from hunger and anger," I added.
"The hypocrisy of our organized religion supports both fear and hunger," Vallianatos explained. "Christodoulos, the late, insanely popular archbishop, backed LAOS, the first far-right-wing party in parliament, and argued that condoms don't protect kids from HIV. At the same time, monks in Mount Athos staged the biggest financial scandal ever in Greece while they ran gay sex tourism in the monasteries."
"Come on..." I replied.
"Go to the aphrodisiac hospital at Syngrou and see the monks there waiting for their HIV prescriptions," Vallianatos said.
At an Athens coffee shop not far from the Golden Dawn's headquarters, I met Paola Revenioti, a famous Greek transgender activist, prostitute, and poet who fought in the queer wars in the '70s and '80s by launching Kraximo, the first gay magazine, and staging the first Gay Pride in Athens.
"Nobody will ever come out in Greece," Revenioti said. "Because before globalization, everybody was more or less gay." That got my attention. "When you Americans came up with all these terms -- gay, top, bottom, bi -- Greek men stopped fucking each other because they didn't want to be labeled," she said.
"Of all people, I'd expect you to value fraternity and identity, and call things by their name," I said.
"Camaraderie here is different," Revenioti said. "I'm not saying you shouldn't be proud. We just talk a different talk. The first two words a foreigner learns in Greece are malakas and poustis. Both have different meanings than they did originally. Poustis meant 'faggot.' Poustia means 'snitching, fraud,' as well as 'pleasure' and 'intensity.' 'I'm so hungry I'll eat a like poustis,' guys say all the time. 'How does a poustis eat?' I ask them. 'With pleasure. They know how to enjoy it,' they answer. Greeks always liked fucking guys. They just can't talk about it."
"What about the guys who used to get fucked? Can they talk about it?" I said. "Coming out is important for self-respect. It is self-respect."
"Are you out?" Revenioti asked me.
"Here? In Greece?"
"Yes--" I took a moment. "Though I didn't come out until I left Greece," I said timidly, as if being caught cheating on an exam.
I got in touch with a paramilitary expert who asked to remain anonymous. He named a half-dozen Golden Dawn "cousin" organizations, some with even more hard-core mantras, that were initially established as gyms or hiking clubs, fronts by right- and left-wing fanatics to "arm, train, and brainwash 20-year-olds that some kind of apocalypse is coming," he described.
"Who are these kids? They can't just be uneducated," I said.
"They are repressed. They are so submissive that they ask Mihaloliakos [the head of the Golden Dawn] before they get a girlfriend."
"Could there be self-hating closeted homosexuals there?" I asked.
"Are you kidding? The first thing a person attacks in another is what he perceives as his own shortcoming," he replied.
He introduced me to a twentysomething who used to belong to one of these groups and now writes about the broader ethnic front under a pseudonym.
"I believe in nationalism," he told me, invoking numbers and theories: 6 million immigrants among 10.5 million Greeks, crime-tourism from Romania, arsons by foreign spies.
"Are these documented?" I asked.
"Don't be naive. They're covered up."
"Let's talk about what I found on your party's website," I said -- "ex-party," I apologized. I began translating: "People with alcoholism, drug addiction, epilepsy [and other conditions] must be sterilized. Homosexuality is a socially degenerate state. Natural selection, sterilization, and euthanasia are the right choices when combined with legal guarantees, responsible medical monitoring, and bioethics." I stopped for a reaction. Nothing. "Do you endorse any of the above?"
"I've no problem with what people do in their homes, in their beds. I just don't want them to provoke me."
"How do gay people provoke you, exactly?" I asked.
"By advertising their homosexuality in public," he replied.
"So a gay couple kissing in public is sexual provocation, but a straight couple doing the same is not?" I said.
"For me. Communists feel the same. Anyway, the things you cited need updating. Intellectuals must join the ethnic front."
My ultimate fear.
Yannis Triantafyllou, author of The Last Greek and a member and ambassador of the Golden Dawn, joined the party when he was 17 to "protect the honorable." He seemed genuinely pleased to meet me, and for 20 minutes he went on about the damage Greeks have inflicted on Greece since World War II.
" 'History would be a wonderful thing, if it were only true' -- that's Tolstoy," I said. "Your party uses violence against immigrants and women."
"I am against any form of physical violence. I believe in the violence of the argument," Triantafyllou replied.
"You believe in bullying?"
"Traitors like Kaneli [the woman Kasidiaris slapped on TV] have turned Greece into Uganda. They should be intimidated."
"It sounds as if you're not very fond of Uganda or Greece," I said. "According to your stories, we made our bed. So, why the nationalism?"
"In Golden Dawn, we still believe that Greeks come first."
"The head of your party does not recognize someone who's born here as Greek. He wants Greek blood for a few generations," I said.
"I'm working on the Golden Dawn's makeover."
"Are all Greeks equal?" I asked.
"Gay Greeks?" I said. "Absolutely equal," Triantafyllou replied. "Though they shouldn't have children, because nobody asked the children."
"As opposed to straight couples, where children are consulted?"
Triantafillou smiled. "You're challenging me," he said, and signed his book "with respect and synchronicity around fairness." He talked briefly, nostalgically, about how the high school we had both attended--though we didn't know each other then--had deteriorated. I recalled nostalgia's original meaning, which differs from homesickness; it means the comfort of a familiar pain, the welcoming of pain. The art of suffering, often self-inflicted, goes back thousands of years here. Ancient Greece, Byzantium, Orthodoxia -- all of which battled each other -- have dramatized our psyche, the way seduction has shaped public and private lives in France, or sensuality and spirituality those in Brazil. I know I want to change my providence, but I don't know how.