On the Outside Looking In: Coming Out, Violence and Sexuality in Modern Greece

5 June 2020

Eirini Tzouma Durham University

I had the privilege to participate in the Modern Greek Studies of the 21st Century Conference organised by Oxford and Amsterdam universities, where I presented part of my PhD project, which I pursue at Durham University. The conference has been an excellent opportunity to meet fellow researchers in the area of Greek Studies and realise the variety of approaches and ideas that contribute to this interdisciplinary area of research. Most importantly, it created a warm and generous space for presenting our research, where participants exchanged feedback on thoughtful and engaging presentations and contributed towards lively discussions. I am very much looking forward to more events that will provide the necessary ground for such a network to flourish.

My paper revisited two foundational domains of anthropological enquiry, for the Mediterranean in general, and Greece specifically: kinship, and gender and sexuality, as they play out in ‘coming out’ stories. I argued that the act of coming out entails a ‘double violence’: on the one hand, there is the violent expectation that non-heteronormative sexuality has not really been achieved unless one admits it – not so much in public, but primarily in ‘private’, to one’s own family. On the other hand, there is, as is well-known, the violence with which this declaration is often met.

The argument I make in my work is supported by ethnographic material: specifically, interviews with two Greek LGBT+ activists, and extracts from two well-known Greek movies, ‘Nice Dress Yiorgo’ (Ωραίο το φουστάνι σου, Γιώργο μου) and ‘The Homosexuals’ (Οι Ομοφυλόφιλοι), both of which explore the relationship between sexual identity and kinship within the ‘Greek family’. By diversifying my ethnographic material in this way, I aim to achieve an integrated approach, illustrating the rich variety of ways in which we can explore the local meanings assigned to the act of ‘coming out’, as well as its polymorphous representations.

Despite the internal differences which distinguish these two ethnographic lenses, their main commonality is stark: the terrifying risk of claiming a ‘disruptive’ sexual or gender identity within a familial context, of ‘coming out’ to one’s own family. Often, coming out is used as a synonym for ‘going public’ with one’s sexual or gender identity, and received as a statement grounded in ‘choice’, celebrating one’s autonomy. However, I argue that ‘coming out’ often stands for the exact opposite: ‘going private’, in the sense of declaring a ‘deviant’ sexual or gender identity to one’s own family. In order to understand the subjective experience of this definitional shift, we need first to turn to current living conditions in a country that is still experiencing what is infamously hailed as the ‘Greek socio-economic crisis’.

One of the ways in which younger generations have been affected by Greece’s current environment of socio-economic precarity is their struggle for financial independence.  One clear marker of this is the re-emergence of a once-common phenomenon: that people live in their parental homes (even in their teenage rooms) well into their adulthood. Though this familial structure existed as normality in Greece until the 1970s, it has now reoccurred as a symbolisation of personal, and even national, failure of independence and modernisation. As a result, the Greek family has become simultaneously a shelter (from financial precarity) and a trap (since there is not a viable exit from it). It is in exactly these living conditions that LGBT+ visibility, which in any other case would be celebrated as an exclusively positive event and a political victory, has also resulted in an unintended effect: homosexuality has entered the realm of the thinkable. In other words, parental suspicion of their child’s sexuality (and gender identity) has increased in a context where parental control has become ‘justified’ by the child’s lack of independence.

More conceptually, there exists a multi-layered violence which can be seen to construct statements about sexuality within the context of a family that symbolises (and incarnates) a hetero-canonical cosmology. When we develop a discourse around sexuality, we are talking (mainly) about sex itself. And so, individuals who ‘come out’ to their family are compelled to face what I call a ‘double hubris’: that is, talking about sex in a context where it is perceived as inappropriate to do so, and talking of it in its supposedly ‘twisted’ forms. In other words, when someone reveals (a part of) their sexual identity, they open up a window for their parents/relatives into their intimate, sexual lives in ways that heteronormative people are not forced to endure. To exist as an explicitly sexual being in your parents’ imagination can be therefore felt as constant violence. This dimension of violence, associated with the act of coming out, is structural and even institutional, in the sense that family is a social force that leads to distress on a personal level. But, deriving from the family itself, violence expands to get almost complete control of the affective dimensions of entire lives.

I concluded my presentation in the conference by suggesting that contemporary connections between family, violence and desire are always-already haunted. Despite the (at one level observable and celebrated) changes in public perceptions and discourses around LGBT+ rights, visibility through the media, and improved legislation frameworks, Greek society and its institutions breed violence. At the same time, our national ‘efforts to catch up’ with (Western) modernity also breed their own form of violence: one that is inexorably connected with the pressure to become an ‘autonomous’ subject that has to master the arts of ‘self-definition’ and ‘self-proclamation’.

Attendants at the conference Rethinking Modern Greek Studies in the 21st Century


Eirini Tzouma is a first year PhD researcher at Durham University, based in the Department of Anthropology. She completed her MSc in Medical Anthropology at Durham, and gained her BA from Panteion University, Athens. Her PhD research explores the relationship between coming out stories and narratives of violence in contemporary Greece, specifically within the Greek family.