With Achilles and Patroclus, Alcibiades and Socrates, Alexander and Hephaestion, and the world’s most famous lesbian poet, Sappho, Ancient Greece has traditionally been viewed as the birthplace of gay culture. As such, you’d think Greece would have a long and tolerant attitude toward homosexuality. But, you’d be wrong.
The Sacred Band of Thebes is one example of how the Ancient Greeks used homoerotic relationships between soldiers to boost the fighting spirit of their militaries. These bonds, inspired by episodes from Greek mythology, such as Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad by Homer, were thought to enhance morale.
Homer himself, however, does not explicitly describe a sexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, although it can be implied by their interactions separate from the rest of the Greeks and then Achilles’ intense reaction to Patroclus’ death, which leads to tragic end of the story.
Yet while this type of relationship was sometimes lauded by military writers of the time, it was definitely denounced by philosophers and politicians.
In spite of all the stories of open homosexuality in Ancient Greece, the reality was that Ancient Athens had the most repressive anti-gay laws of any democracy in history. There is a reason why the famous gay lovers in the history and literature of Greece only alluded to their love. To do otherwise would result in exile or death.
In the 18th and 19th centuries British travelers, such as the poet Byron, would gravitate to Greece fed on these ancient stories that seemed to promise a grand gay culture in Greece. What they found was a very harsh patriarchal society that detested any form of homosexuality. Many of these ‘Grand Tourists’ were beaten and left Hellas black and blue.
A tour around the islands of Mykonos or Lesbos during the summer months today would persuade you things have changed in 2500 years and these places have well-earned reputations as centres for gay tourism. But outside of these islands and the larger cities of Athens, Thessaloniki, and Iraklion there is little tolerance in the Greek mainstream for openly gay lifestyles.
When Greece joined the European Union, it was forced to accept EU pressure to liberalize laws regulating homosexuality. Homosexuality is now no longer criminalized in Greece. But discrimination still exists. Homosexual prostitution is illegal, heterosexual prostitution is not. Vague references to “moral standards” have also been used to discriminate against gay men and lesbians when it comes to military service, and adoption. In 2000, the Greek government flatly refused to discuss the EU suggestion that civil unions be recognized, but by 2005 The Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) under party leader George Andreas Papandreou began work on a legislative proposal for recognition of unmarried couples, homosexual and heterosexual, following the French example of ‘Le pacte civile de la solidarité’. It has yet to pass.
The International Lesbian and Gay Association, has derided Greece’s discriminatory laws and has appealed to the EU to penalize Greece for violating its charter. However, the Greek Orthodox Church maintains a strong influence on public policy and there is little broad public support to change laws.
The Greek media is monitored by the National Council for Radio and Television (NCRTV), which is considered very homophobic by most people. The Council has banned any showing or display of gay or lesbian shows and has fined TV shows for presenting real homosexual characters, and in two cases levied huge fines when networks aired images of same-sex kisses.
Gay bars are open in Athens and on the islands Mykonos and Santorini but are much harder to find in other areas of the country. Lesbos has a lot of lesbian tourism but does little to cater specifically to lesbian tourism.
So while Greece is perhaps looked at as the birthplace of gay culture and has a long and stories history of homosexuality it still has a long way to met even the minimum standards of tolerance expected in the rest of Europe.