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Gay People Living in Fear in Greece

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What was supposed to be a fun evening for Stamatis Peramatzis, turned out to be a nightmare. As the 39-year-old was walking out of a parking lot together with his partner in an Athens mall, a man out of nowhere appeared and screamed: "Faggots, we will kick you out of Greece and you will never come back".

"I tried to ignore him, hoping he would just go away," Peramatzis recalls. "But he didn't. He came back together with another guy, dressed in black, yelling they were going to teach us a lesson." But the two men were lucky. A security guard came to their rescue and the worst did not happen.

Peramatzis, who works for an international NGO in Athens, did not report the incident to the police. "My boyfriend was shocked and scared. We knew that the police would not do much to assist us".

Such is the new reality of being a gay in Greece today, where economic turmoil and a rise in national fervour has resulted in a spike in hate crimes against members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community (LGBT).

Last August, 25-year old Stefanos Agelastos, a science student and gay activist, was accompanying a friend to a bus stop when two men on a motorcycle asked them if they were gay. When Agelastos acknowledged he was, the men attacked them.

"Suddenly, they started punching and kicking us. We were shocked. I managed to grab my mobile phone and call the police."

Agelastos bitterly recalls that not one of the passersby came to their rescue. "People just ignored what was happening. Only a shop keeper from Pakistan and a drug user who was wandering in the street came to help". And though the young man reported the incident to the police, his assailants were never identified.

Although Greece has antidiscrimination laws protecting gays in employment, there are no hate crimes per se in its criminal code. Very few cases are being reported to the police because gay men and women fear further discrimination. At the same time the police remain poorly trained to handle increased homophobia and in most cases encourage the complainers to drop the charges.

Of four such cases filed since September in Athens, not a single case has been prosecuted.

"Homophobia is not something new. Greek society has always been profoundly conservative and oppressive," says Agelastos, who now lives in Spain with his partner. "Some years back, when I kissed my boyfriend in a public bus, passengers protested and verbally abused us."
This is not surprising. In 2003, a Greek television station was fined 100,000 euros for showing two men kissing, while in October this year, Greece's national broadcaster E.R.T. cut a scene of a gay kiss from the evening British television series Downton Abbey.

"Before the financial crisis, people were tolerant as long as things were not visible. This tolerance was superficial. People were just too selfish," says Elena Diamantopoulou, an activist at Color Youth, a non-profit LGBT organization, adding that the root cause of discrimination is the lack of education. "There is no sex education in Greek schools and no discussion on sexual and gender identity."

However, the situation has been aggravated with the financial crisis that has hit Greece hard over the last three years, activists say.

The official unemployment rate has reached 25%t and half of Greece's youth are without work. Wages have fallen by a third since 2009 and more than three million live in this nation of 11 million with less than 300 euros per month, while prices in basic commodities have skyrocketed.

This increase in poverty and political instability has given rise to the far right Golden Dawn party which until recently had been largely obscure, winning 18 seats in last June's parliamentary elections.

Legitimized by the media, Golden Dawn has since emerged as a 'player' in Greek politics by playing on real social anxieties and turning the country's most vulnerable into scapegoats to the current crisis. After beating up immigrants-or anyone they presume not to be Greek-along with stepping up their presence on the streets, Golden Dawn MPs are now leading gangs of supporters to raid and smash migrants stalls in the local flea markets.

In October, supporters and MPs of Golden Dawn, attacked a theater showing Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi - a play depicting Jesus and his apostles as gay men in Texas - and forcing the show to be cancelled. As the actors cowered inside, calling frantically the police, one Golden Dawn MP was filmed outside, calling the actors "little faggots" and warning that "your time has come, you little whores".

"Homophobic attacks have always existed in Greece. In most cases they go unreported, as there is a general fear of reporting them to the police," says Andrea Gilbert, a spokesperson of the Athens Pride, a gay rights organization. "However over the last year there is a clear increase in antigay attacks. The perpetrators now act in seeming impunity and although we are not always able to name them as members of the Golden Dawn, their attacks follow the same patterns of the Golden Dawn's attacks against migrants. These people hate migrants, gays, foreigners, women. They hate everyone".

So bad is the current situation that some have equated the attacks as similar to what happened in the early days of the Nazi party in Germany, when fascist gangs of uniformed men openly attacked gays, Jews, and others deemed socially undesirable.

"People are afraid to go out anymore. They don't dare hold hands in public. The attacks deprive them of basic human rights, such as freedom of expression or the right to walk freely in the streets," says Gilbert.

Earlier in November, a gang of 12 men dressed in black who identified themselves as members of Golden Dawn physically attacked and chased volunteers distributing anti-hate flyers in Gazi, a gay-friendly area of Athens.

"How can we ask our volunteers to go out and distribute flyers to the public? How can we send a 19 or a 20-year-old, out in the streets to raise awareness only to be physically assaulted by a gang of Golden Dawn supporters?" asks Gilbert.

But what is even more worrying now is the escalation of the attacks. Since August, there have been at least two homophobic attacks per month - and those are only the ones officially reported, although activists believe this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Today, gangs riding motorbikes and dressed in black, often carrying knifes, patrol the gay-friendly areas of the Greek capital, verbally and physically attacking those they assume to be gay, although the Greek police is not reporting any official figures. "If we look at the big picture, these attacks do not come as a surprise. The whole attitude of the Greek state and Greek society is racist," says Diamantopolou of Color Youth.

Only a few months ago, Greek authorities published photos and the personal data of HIV-positive sex workers, which resulted in a public outcry. The former Greek health minister Andreas Loverdos went so far as to propose the deportation of foreign sex workers with HIV saying that "the disease is transmitted from illegal immigrants to the Greek client, and consequently to the Greek family".

But, despite rising levels of fear in Greece's gay community, many remain resolute, noting that the recent attacks have actually made people more determined and unified.

"We will never abandon the fight and we will never leave the streets," says Diamantopoulou. "I will be there each day distributing anti-hate flyers and raising awareness. We came a long way, and we won't let a bunch of thugs intimidate us."

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