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The ambiguity of being Greek, gay and religious

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Saints Sergius and Bacchus. Photo: WordPress

13 October 2017

Tom is, perhaps, the closest equivalent to Noel Coward that a Greek Australian could ever hope to be. Even his Greek, which is perfect, is inflected by Cowardian enunciation. His speech is playful and peppered with assonances, rhymes and glorious exaggerations. He is charismatic and professional, for he enjoys a high-powered career. He is stylish without being foppish, erudite without being overbearing, generous without being needy and immensely pious, possessing an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the history and practice of the Orthodox Church. One of my oldest and dearest friends, he is also gay.

Tom rarely speaks of his sexuality because on the rare occasions that he has confided in me, he states that this aspect of his life is intensely private and he refuses to be defined as a human being by it. He lives with his mother, in a house festooned with icons and fragrant with incense. The shelves of his study groan under the weight of tomes concerning church canon law, the lives of the saints, studies in theology and a mouth-watering selection of antique, rare Bibles. He is seldom to be found without a komboschoini in his left hand, while his right hand is usually enclosed around a glass of the finest scotch. If he could wear a smoking jacket while enjoying a dram, he would, but his mother is elderly and constantly cold. As a result, their home usually is maintained at the temperature of the sweltering Nitrian desert.

For Tom, the current Australian debate about expanding the definition of marriage in the Marriage Act is deeply distressing. This is because he feels that the debate has polarised the community into two distinct sections: pro-church (and hence NO voters) and anti-church (and hence YES voters, but also all gays). In his opinion, this polarisation is harmful when trying to understand the Greek community because it does not take account of the significant number of gay Greek Australians who find comfort and solace within the Orthodox Church, and strongly identify with it.

In answer to the question: "How can you identify with an institution that does not accept who you are?" Tom is dismissive. In his view, he feels that the Church accepts him and everyone else for who they are, for all are made in the image of God. As he sees it, the Church encourages its members to divest themselves of those things that keep them tied to the world in order to seek a higher, more substantive reality. In that process, the practice, though not the presence, of his particular sexuality is a hindrance. In keeping with his understanding of that teaching, he explains, therefore that he now lives a celibate lifestyle and believes that this is the only acceptable path for Orthodox "like him". Unconsciously, as he speaks about this, he grimaces, and one can tell that he has only arrived at this position after years of pain, guilt and soul-searching. He has voted 'No' in the current postal ballot because he believes that marriage is a religious institution, and that any form of union, whether heterosexual or otherwise, existing outside the Church, cannot be called marriage. His mother informs me in her village accent that Tom is now too old to get married and that anyway, he will never be married as he prefers men. Tom winces with embarrassment.

George is exuberant, flamboyant and sporty to the point where his constant play-punches and faux-football marks scored off one's back become slightly disconcerting in the way they intrude upon conversation. He lives with a partner who is non-Greek and has converted to the Orthodox Church. On the wall of their home, they have framed Cavafy's poem In Church, with its majestic verses:
"Whenever I go there, into a church of the Greeks thoughts turn to the great glories of our race."

They attend Church every Sunday, armed with interlinear translations of the matins and the liturgy which they print from the internet. They follow the service line by line and when they return home, they excitedly discuss passages or words in the text that stimulated their interest. Frequently, they line up for communion. George relates that he has loved going to church ever since he was a small boy and that being immersed within the liturgy gives him an immense feeling of serenity and belonging. He recalls that the first time he 'came out' it was as a teenager to his former parish priest. The priest, shocked, turned his back on him, stating: "I have nothing more to say to you." George is quite certain that his current priest knows that he and his partner are living together as partners, but he is never denied communion.

"If they were to deny us communion, they would have to deny it to the entire congregation. After all, didn't the Boss say, let he who is without sin cast the first stone?"

George's partner exchanges recipes with his petherá (mother-in-law) as he calls her, for tsoureki, fasting food during Lent and his Pascal lamb, basted with indescribable sauces is a vision of culinary Paradise. Both he and his partner have voted 'Yes' in the postal vote and would, if given the opportunity, marry. They provide me with books that argue that only certain types of sexual acts are prohibited by the Orthodox Church, and that these apply to everyone, whereas certain others can be enjoyed across the board. When I express my doubt at their interpretation of the Church's position, as I understand it, they launch into a meticulous and lengthy deconstruction of the relevant verses, cross-referencing them to theological commentaries and expositions about grammar. They also point me in the direction of diverse websites such as 'Orthodox and Gay', whose content informs their convictions.

George and his partner do not feel rejected by the Church, nor do they feel it is opposed to them or their lifestyle. In their opinion, the correct interpretation that will reconcile the issue has not yet been revealed and they fervently hope and pray that it will soon, so they can marry, within the Church. After all they say, "Love, is love". They point to the slow and careful way change is made in the Orthodox Church as proof of reverence and correctness of doctrine. Above their dining table they have gay Franciscan friar Robert Lentz's 1994 version of the icon of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, first displayed at Chicago's Gay Pride Parade, and who, they maintain, were an openly gay couple during Byzantine times.

Maria and her partner, who is an Orthodox from the Balkans, live together and have a child. Maria's partner freely admits that she has been estranged from her family and the Church she was raised in ever since she came out to them 20 years ago. The revelation of her sexuality caused her to be completely cut off from her community and support network and she was also the victim of domestic abuse as a consequence. As a result, she harbours hostility both towards the Church and what she describes as "traditional communities". However, when Maria told her that she wanted to baptise their child in the Orthodox Church, she agreed, believing however, that such a thing was not possible and that they would be turned away.

Maria did not go to her local parish to baptise her child, for as she says, she wanted to avoid "scandal". Instead, she found another parish.

"When we arrived at our appointment," she grins, "the father looked us up and down. His countenance was impassive. He opened up his book and said: 'Right, make sure the godparent is Orthodox. What date suits?' I truly was astonished because I thought that he was going to send us packing."

Maria and her partner frequently attend church, primarily for their child to take communion. Maria will often line up to take communion herself. Her partner never does, for she is still angry but she concedes that though the odd glance is cast their way by elderly parishioners, they have never been treated with disrespect and those same parishioners will often hold their child and ruffle its hair. Both of them have voted 'Yes' in the postal vote and cannot understand, why in their view, the Church cannot accept them for who they are. Voicing their opinion in this regard to their parish priest one day, they were surprised to hear him respond: "But we do. You are here, aren't you?"

Peter, in his early 20s, plausibly could be called a religious fanatic and a zealot. If he lived in Biblical times, then surely he would have been a Pharisee, for he takes great delight in keeping every single abstruse ritual or custom he has read or heard about, in relation to the Orthodox Church and criticising others for not being so observant. Peter's parents are irreligious and he came to Orthodoxy through the internet. He has learned the Psalms of David by heart and quotes a Church canon stating that all bishops should know the aforementioned Psalms by heart in order to impugn their piety and legitimacy. Peter is extremely conflicted by his sexuality, for he is attracted to people of the same gender and periodically engages in cross-dressing, but believes that this is wrong. He goes through periods of agonising repentance, punctuated by Church observance, fasting and prayer, alternating with periods where he trawls the relevant nightspots in search of a partner. Consumed by guilt, for he believes that he is susceptible to possession by the demon of lust, after each bout of illicit, in his view, lovemaking, he confesses his transgressions via telephone to his spiritual father, who abides in a monastery in Greece. Peter confides that the spiritual father has given him dispensation to sleep with a woman, out of wedlock, in the hope that he will prefer the difference. He has voted 'No' in the postal vote and is a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage as he believes that this will compromise the doctrinal purity of the Orthodox Church. He is currently considering travelling to Mount Athos to become a monk, because the Greek community is too godless.
As the Orthodox Church, up until recently, has been inextricably interwoven within and has informed, the traditional understanding, articulation and practice of 'Greek' culture and identity by Greek Australians, it follows logically that the manner in which members of that broader community relate to their faith, its practice or culture, are, as the above examples suggest, complex and emotive, transcending considerations solely, of sexuality and gender. Conversely, the manner in which LGBTI members of our community negotiate their way within the structures and institutions of that community and respond to challenges outside it, also entail considerations that are not only informed by sexuality but also, by an agglomeration of the cultural and religious background in which they have been reared, or which they have chosen to espouse. The fact remains that a significant proportion of the LGBTI members of our community still have meaningful contact with the Orthodox Church, experiencing and relating to it in diverse ways. Any insightful analysis of the current marriage reform proposals, and their relation to the Orthodox Church and the broader Greek Australian community, is incomplete, unless it provides a forum for their voices to be heard and considered.

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ALTHOUGH I am not homophobic, conservative/right-wing, or sinless, I would like to note the following: *This article is disgraceful in that it scandalizes readers with a religious conscience deeply. *Regarding the allegation there are priests within the archdiocese communing homosexuals well aware of their sexually active lifestyles is deplorable. I presume this is happening in Sydney or Melbourne, but most likely the former considering there are much more younger (and progressive) priests there. The archdiocese should investigate if it really believes in the message it has been spreading these last few months on SSM. *Regarding the claim the pictured saints were homosexual is blasphemy. The gay couple arguing this is deranged if it thinks the Church, which is infallible, canonized two men who were sexually active between themselves. *Regarding the telephone conversations with the Mt Athos monk, confession is not done over the phone (only in person) and the only monks that are confessors are hieromonks (priests), not simple monks, who in no way are authorized to hear confession and read the prayer of forgiveness over the person confessing. TO those involved in making this article–the authenticity of which cannot even be proven–a reality, I say: Stop scandalizing the faithful with such deranged opinions and practices, these are not in line with Church tradition.

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