Dear unknown Icelander,
My name is Yannis and I identify as a able-bodied, cisgender, gay, male individual. I am 35 years old and married to Themis a 30-year-old, able-bodied, cisgender, gay, male individual and this is our story.
We were both born and raised in different parts of Greece. We have spent most of our lives there, we went to the university, we worked and we still have our family and friends there. We met each other in 2010 and after a casual sex date we kept in touch for the next 2,5 years before we meet again. The second time our meeting led us to a relationship and finally marriage.
Before we left Greece I had my own private practice as a Speech and Language Therapist. Themis had worked in the Greek Filming Industry as a Second Assistant Director and had been studying at the University of Athens. For both of us things had been going bad financially due to the economic crisis.
On the other hand we had been together for more than a year. We were happy but socially things were limited. At that time there was no formal recognition of the same-sex couples, partnership or marriage. There is now in the form of a limited civil partnership. However that was the least of our social problems. While we were both out to our families and friends, things were more difficult and dangerous in the society and our working environment. Imagine that one of the first professional advice I got when I entered practice was to be careful not to look or act “gay” because some Greek people still associate gay men with child offenders. It was impossible to be out and safe.
Nevertheless, Athens is a big city that gay people live relatively free and happy lives but not without a cost. Hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people were on the rise because of the rise of Fascism/Nazism in Greece due to the Financial Crisis. There had been attacks at the Athens Pride Parade, personal attacks (physical and verbal) against couples who were holding hands in public and violent demonstrations against gay-themed theater plays. Those incidents had made our social lives and sense of security worse so we started thinking of moving out of the country.
“one of the first professional advice I got when I entered practice was to be careful not to look or act “gay” because some Greek people still associate gay men with child offenders … Hate crimes against LGBTQ+ people were on the rise … There had been attacks … so we started thinking of moving out of the country.”
It was August 2015, when Themis came back from a night out with friends, he brought up the idea of moving to Iceland. We have been looking for other options but we didn’t want to move to another European country while fascism is on the rise. Themis’ friends seemed to be excited about the “Icelandic Financial Miracle”, the sense of security and gay rights. He stayed up all night looking up information about Iceland. He really appreciated how peaceful Iceland seemed to be and that gay couples could adopt or get married. Even though we are not religious the right of gay people to get married in a Church was striking to us that had lived most of our lives in a conservative Christian Orthodox Environment. Following the excitement we starting looking for job opportunities.
We started applying for jobs the following days and I got a job offer a week later. After that point everything happened really fast and none of us, including our families and friends had time to process their feelings. To most of them that decision was a shock but our closest friends realized the need of that change. Not only did we need financial stability – as everyone in Greece – but also needed a stable, secure and supportive environment for our gay lives. Unfortunately people still believe that the only reason we migrated to Iceland was financial reasons. For me, that view clearly demonstrates how much people in Greece don’t realize or deny the everyday struggles LGBTQ+ people are facing. Sometimes even LGBTQ+ people themselves.
I arrived in Reykjavik on October 4th 2015. Themis arrived in Iceland 1,5 months later, earlier that we expected because we did not want to spend more time separated. Since then we found an apartment downtown and have been living there ever since.
By far the best experience for us is the social inclusion of gay couples. Coming from a possibly dangerous environment we tend to be scared and hide our relationship and our affection in public even now. Our first positive experience was being able to rent an apartment as a couple without being judged or declined the offer just because we were 2 men living together. Later we had the chance to meet other gay people and for the first time in our lives we met married gay couples with children and people who had such an established relationship that were discussing their retirement plans! Themis still remembers his first visit to the hospital when he said to the doctor that he had a male partner and the doctor responded that he was lucky to have a man to massage his back. Even in his first job a colleague apologized when she took for granted that Themis was straight! Later Themis went to the University of Iceland where he continued to have positive experiences being able to openly discuss his relationship and sexual orientation and even make projects and presentations about it.
“Our first positive experience was being able to rent an apartment as a couple … Themis still remembers his first visit to the hospital when he said to the doctor that he had a male partner and the doctor responded that he was lucky to have a man to massage his back.”
Personally I remember the stress we went through to buy our wedding rings. We were about to sign a civil partnership in Greece but buying wedding rings there seemed impossible. So we decided to buy the rings from Iceland. We were afraid of a negative or aggressive behavior so we discussed the possibility of going separately to check on the rings. Finally we decided to go together and we were amazed to see how we didn’t even get a single strange look from the salesperson as if we had asked the most common thing. Since then I feel we are even more relaxed to be ourselves here in Iceland.
Months after our partnership in Greece, we decided to get married in Iceland too. We got married last March in the presence of our best friends from Greece. Being addressed as grooms was such an emotional moment that we will always remember.
These experiences changed our lives for the better and have strengthen our relationship even more. That is not to say that Iceland is a LGBTQ+ paradise. Strangely I still miss the variety of the Greek gay scene with the gay coffee houses, bar and clubs. Personally, I am glad I came with a partner cause the dating scene seems limiting too. Interpersonal relationships is still an issue and we feel more lonely than we felt in Greece. The language barrier plays an important role but also the cultural differences and the daily struggle make it difficult for us to keep up with our social life.
Even though all of the above did not come without personal sacrifices, yet I still consider our story to be a privileged story. We happen to hold an EU passport, had friends who could lent us money, family who supported us emotionally and we will always have a place to return to if things don’t work out. Not even our fellow LGBTQ+ Greeks share these privileges with us just because we live in Iceland now. I can’t help but think what really happens to all of those people, LGBTQ+ especially, who do not share those privileges? How is our life limited, degraded and threatened just because we were born at the wrong place at the wrong time? And finally how should we treat those in need when they ask for help in our countries?
Icelanders should feel proud that they have created a society that provides a safe space and a growing place for LGBTQ+ immigrants like me. For that I will always be grateful. On another note I wish you would remember after this reading that among you there are people who have been forced (directly or indirectly) to leave everything behind and they need your support in order to survive and grow in a place far from what they used to call home.
Yannis & Themis
Note: The story of Yannis & Themis is a part of stories that were originally read at an event called Distant Voices, during this year’s Reykjavík Pride, and are now published on GayIceland’s with the permission of the authors and help of the event’s organisers.