By Constantinos Psillides
The story of the gay movement in Cyprus reflects that of the gay movements throughout the western world: prosecution, followed by decades of civil right protests, opposition by society, reluctant acceptance and finally mainstream approval.
Cyprus’ first Gay Pride Parade that took place in Nicosia on Saturday is the first sign that the most religious country in the EU – according to the Euro barometer – has taken its first step towards the last stage of that journey.
In Cyprus the story of the gay movement has been closely connected with the struggle of one man, Alexandros ‘Alecos’ Modinos.
An icon for the gay community and the first openly gay activist, Modinos, now 81, almost singlehandedly brought about the decriminalisation of homosexuality and ushered in a new era for the gay community.
On Saturday, over 20 years since he took up the mantle of gay rights activism, Modinos saw for the first time the rainbow flag waving in the streets of his country’s capital.
“This is a dream coming true. I have dreamt for this moment for 20 years. Nothing can keep me from attending,” he told the Sunday Mail, congratulating the “younger generation for making this a reality”.
Modinos said that what made him most happy was that people who had nothing to do with gay rights would also attend.
“I was told that they were coming only because they believe in individual human rights. I have nothing but respect for them.
I think it’s a definite sign that our society is changing,” he said.
That journey to change, however, has been long and arduous.
Laws explicitly banning homosexuality were first introduced by the British in 1885. While homosexuality was also forbidden under Ottoman rule, under penalty of death, it was the British that first criminalised homosexuality by law.
The law remained in place unchallenged after the island’s independence in 1960, until 1987 when Limassol based architect Modinos officially founded the Cypriot Gay Liberation Movement (AKOK) asking for homosexuality to be decriminalised.
Modinos infuriated the establishment, which was still heavily influenced by the church, as he sought the justice he wanted not from a Cypriot court but from a European one.
In 1993 came the first, landmark victory for the gay rights movement. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) slammed Cyprus by ruling that the country was violating Modinos’ right to a private life and ordered that homosexuality be decriminalised.
By setting the island on a course where homosexuality had to be decriminalised, Modinos went from a quirky figure to a full-blown enemy of the establishment.
Archbishop Chrysostomos I (left), predecessor of the present Archbishop, Chrysostomos II, missed no chance to rail against homosexuality in general and Modinos in particular. Indeed, he would go on to use the word “Modinos” as a euphemism for “homosexual”.
In 1996, the Church of Cyprus was rocked by the scandal of Archimandrite Pankratios Meraklis, who was the favourite to become bishop of Morphou.
Chrysostomos indirectly accused Pankratios of homosexual behaviour, by claiming he was guilty of a “moral offence” and that AIDS would spread had Pankratios been elected bishop.
Chrysostomos famously said that had Pankratios had his way “all of us would become Modinos”. Needless to say, the activist had absolutely nothing to do with the election.
Despite huge support from his congregation who almost brought down the gates of the Archbishopric, the disgraced Pankratios left the church and now lives in isolation in a small village in rural Nicosia.
But while risking the wrath of the church was unthinkable for the state, risking EU membership was even worse.
The government found itself caught between a rock and a hard place when, in April 1998, the Council of Europe (CoE) made it perfectly clear that Cyprus had to comply with the ECHR ruling and decriminalise homosexuality.
“If the law is not changed by May there will be repercussions because the government will have run out of excuses for postponing it,” said Cyprus’ then permanent representative at the CoE, Thalia Petridou.
The news did not go down well with the Church.
“Only enemies of our nation would endorse decriminalisation of homosexual acts,” said the Archbishop upon hearing the CoE decision, adding that a fight against homosexuality was imperative to Cyprus’ national and religious survival.
“If we don’t stand firm and tell Europe this does not conform, not only to Christ’s religion, but also to the moral standpoint of our nation, eventually they will come and tell us to be homosexuals in order to be accepted into Europe,” he said.
But the House had no choice and finally decriminalised homosexuality in 1998. The amendment passed even though a large number of MPs walked out in protest and joined a large a crowd outside the House, demanding that the amendment was not passed.
While this was a historic moment, the activists weren’t ecstatic. The House might have decriminalised homosexuality but the new legislation included the offensive term “unnatural licentiousness” which the gay community strongly objected to.
It took the House another two years to amend the offending term, which they replaced with the phrase “intercourse between men”, and, true to form, many MPs again walked out in protest so they wouldn’t have to vote.
While Modinos and the whole of gay community were thrilled that they had won their struggle to decriminalise homosexuality, they now faced an uphill battle to secure equal rights.
First item on the agenda was civil partnerships.
The mantle of activism now passed to the younger generation, whose first step was to establish an advocacy group called “ACCEPT- LGBTI Cyprus”.
Taking a page from Modinos’ playbook, members of the LGBTI community (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender/Transsexual, Intersex) filed complaints with the Ombudswoman office, asking that the ban on gay marriages be lifted through legal means.
While reaction to the subject had somewhat subsided over the years, DISY MP Andreas Themistocleous brought the issue front and centre during a radio talk show in 2010.
Faced with the proposition that the state should allow gay marriage because gay people are part of the community, the DISY MP responded by asking whether the state should legalise the actions of paedophiles, necrophiliacs and those who engage in bestiality, simply because they exist in a society.
The comment sparked an immediate reaction from the LGBTI community, who proceeded with lobbying for a legal amendment allowing civil partnerships.
The lobbying seemed to bear fruit in 2013, when then Interior Minister Eleni Mavrou agreed to draft a bill allowing for civil partnerships. President Nicos Anastasiades also pledged during his election campaign that his government would establish civil partnerships.
But, once again, the state has elected to drag its feet. Present Interior Minister Socratis Hasikos scrapped Mavrou’s proposed bill a year after it was drafted, arguing that his predecessor hadn’t followed proper procedure.
The minister assured the LGBTI community that a bill would be introduced to the House, no later than April 2014. A deadline that has, of course, been missed.
In an effort to further promote their cause, the LGBTI community decided on February 5 to go ahead and plan the first ever Gay Pride Parade in Cyprus.
Inevitably, the news did not go down well with the Church.
Just last month, the Holy Synod issued a statement, calling homosexuality “an affliction and a moral downfall.”
Mirroring the views of the previous Archbishop, the church maintained that all homosexuals were “misled” and “confused” and that “their affliction should be properly treated”.
The Synod said homosexuality has led to a global lax in morality, which in turn has led to “tragic results such as an increase in divorce, paedophilia, people dying of AIDS, families torn apart, the unnatural adoption of children and many more.”
But whereas similar comments back in the 1990s barely raised the public’s eyebrows, the church’s statement this time backfired.
The statement was heavily criticised by the media and drew such a reaction from the public that Bishop Isaias of Tamasos had to issue a second statement the following day, on behalf of the church. The second statement still rejected homosexuality but it was far more “loving” than the first.
“While the church accepts everybody, irrespective of their passions, beliefs, and behaviours, and affords them the help they need, it rejects and condemns sin and that is why when God forgives a sinner, he advises him and tells him to go and sin no more,” said Isaias.
And what of Modinos? The activist has been hailed as a pioneer and in December 2013 he was honoured for his contribution to the struggle for individual human rights by the government and the European Union.
Then government spokesman Christos Stylianides said that Modinos had stood up for what was right in difficult times and liberated Cypriot society.
A teary-eyed Modinos sat in the front row while Cyprus and EU officials took the stand and explained how instrumental his struggle was for the promotion of human rights on the island.
“For me, the word Modinos brings into mind courage, a fighting spirit, gentleness, and the effectiveness of legal pursuit through the European courts. Alecos Modinos became the symbol of individual human rights pursuit against an oppressive state,” said well-known lawyer Achilleas Demetriades, who had represented Modinos in court.
With the Gay Pride Parade now a thing of the past, the struggle for equal rights still lies ahead.
Following civil partnerships, the next “fortress” to be taken is undoubtedly child adoption by same-sex couples.
At the moment society seems to be strongly against it and the politicians even more so. But if history has taught us anything, it is that when it comes to human rights, opposition always comes before acceptance.