THEO PANAYIDES meets an LGBTI activist who says there is still a long way to go to promote people’s rights in Cyprus, a country that lacks a gay public figure
Talking with John Zacharias Theophanous – the Paphos representative of Accept-LGBT Cyprus, among other things – we end up talking mostly about his parents. This is not so surprising. Even now, with society more accepting of LGBTI issues (maybe even especially now, when living as a gay man isn’t the nightmare it might once have been for Zacharias), coming out to one’s family and friends is perhaps the most fraught and scary part of making one’s way in the world. “Coming out is a very lonely process,” he admits, “you are going to walk the road alone”. There are no rules, except that one should never be forcibly ‘outed’. “People need to come out on their own.”
We meet two days before the fifth annual Pride parade, sitting down at the Home for Co-operation in Nicosia where he once attended a pioneering conference against homophobia in 2012, in his early days with Accept. Going in, I’m a little wary. Talking to an activist isn’t always much fun; they tend to harangue you. He does a bit of that, but mostly he’s good company: chatty, lively, candid about everything, peppering his speech with charming South African-isms (“I beg yours?” for ‘I beg your pardon?’) and Cypriot village sayings. He doesn’t seem angry, I note. “I’m not,” he replies; “I’m not angry.” His Facebook page, in addition to his two names (John is what Anglophones tend to call him; Zacharias, or Zac – which he prefers overall – is what Greek-speakers do), includes a nickname, ‘Zacharoyiannos’ or ‘Sugar John’, given to him by his grandmother. The nickname says a lot about his sweet, ingratiating nature; that he’s not embarrassed to put it on Facebook says even more.
He’s shaven-headed, not very tall, a few months shy of 40; his glasses have heavy black rims, his beard has stray flecks of grey. He’s a ‘ZBC’ (Zimbabwe-born Cypriot), though raised in South Africa. He speaks eight languages, and works as a software engineer. It’s quickly noticeable that his left eye wanders, as if the eyeball’s been loosened (he’s on a waiting list for a cornea transplant), a reminder of having been carjacked in Pretoria while stopped at a traffic light. “In South Africa you don’t stop at red traffic lights. You look, and if nobody’s coming you just go, you do not stop,” he explains. He made the mistake of stopping, and “they came, they threw me out of the car, they bashed me to a million pieces”; the attackers kicked him so many times, they permanently damaged his eye. ‘Why not just take the car?’ I wonder. Why all the violence? “It’s mostly – um, a retaliation against the ex-white regime. So they see every white person as an enemy, if you like”. Thuggish robbers fancying themselves as race warriors; a reminder – speaking of LGBTI rights, and rights in general – of the toxic legacy of oppression.
That was in 2004 and proved to be the final straw, prompting the family to move back to Cyprus. It was just the three of them, Zacharias and his parents, both of whom have since passed away (his dad died at 60, of kidney failure; his mum at 65, of a heart attack). Mum and Dad hailed from villages in Paphos, and both worked as costume designers at the South African State Theatre – an unusually bohemian profession, and indeed it was an unusually liberal household. His parents had black and Asian friends, long before the end of apartheid, and were never homophobic – but of course there were limits. “My parents suffered from what I like to call NIMBY,” he notes wryly. “Not in My Backyard. Which means everybody’s okay to be gay, except for their own son.”
Here, in a nutshell, was the situation. Zacharias went to an all-boys school, “a macho, rugby-and-cricket-playing kind of school” in the not just homophobic but “incrrrrredibly homophobic” South Africa of the early 90s. The school liked to mix the oldest and youngest boys, to promote school spirit, so it was that, in PE class, 12-year-old Zacharias found himself surrounded by 18-year-olds: “I saw a guy in a Speedo,” he recalls, “well, a couple of guys in Speedos, and I was like ‘Oh wow, cool. I like this. Whoa, what’s happening here?’.” That was his first vivid sexual feeling, and the explicit recognition of himself as gay – “as Niles Crane would say: I had an epiphany!” – but in fact he’d always known something was different. “Even in my primary school, which was co-ed, I wasn’t really interested in girls. I used to play with girls – but for some reason, maybe instinctively, they used to treat me as part of the crowd. They never used to treat me as, you know, ‘You’re one of the boys’. They were like ‘OK, come on over, let’s play”. Later, as an older boy, he’d rifle through his mum’s gossip mags and peek at the centrefolds – nothing sexual, just celebs in expensive fashions. When the picture was a woman, “I’d flip past,” but when it was a guy he’d tear out the page and put it in his drawer. “The nice ones that I liked, I used to stack them,” he recalls with a chuckle. “Hoping that my mother wouldn’t look.”
On the one hand, the dawning realisation of his sexual and emotional identity; on the other, the fact that – as he earnestly puts it – “I grew up in a family”. His parents never ate without him at the table; Saturday was movie night, Sunday was family day. The three were close-knit, and very affectionate; the family dynamic was also unusual. Zacharias is very clear on the Nature vs. Nurture debate – “I was born like this,” he affirms. “I didn’t ‘become’. I am, because that’s how I was born!” – but it’s still intriguing that he grew up with a quiet, sensitive father and a strong-willed, domineering mother.
“You know, I’d say the roles had been reversed,” he muses: “My mother was my father, and my father was my mother.” His dad always suspected that his son was gay – but Zacharias only came out to him on his deathbed (“He looked at me. He was, like, really ill, and he says to me [whispering]: ‘I know. It’s okay’”) just because his dad was so very sensitive, and he’d always been afraid of hurting his feelings. “I played two roles in my father’s life,” he notes astutely: “I was his son, but I was also the daughter he never had”. His dad always wanted Zacharias to hug him as he left home and give him a kiss when they met, and was deeply hurt if he didn’t; in the evenings, when they sat and watched TV, “I’d sort of cuddle into my dad’s arms, I would go into ‘daughter mode’ and he’d stroke my head and just sit there with me”.
His mum, on the other hand, was tough: “I call my mother ‘Hitler’. You know? She had an iron fist,” he recalls with a laugh. “Even as a child, if anyone did anything to me I’d never say anything to my mother, because if I did she’d go after them with a machete!” Needless to say, she was tough on him too: “Discipline was first. I mean, for a while – OK, she was also very affectionate, but she was married to the slipper for a while! You know, ‘You’re gonna get it’.” It was to his mother that the young man came out, towards the end of their time in South Africa – by which time he was at university in Pretoria, doing Computer Engineering and increasingly open about who he was.
It was only in his 20s that he first became sexually active; adolescence – that notoriously hormonal time – was frustratingly repressed. “I actually threw myself into my studies, that was my crutch if you like.” At school, he was bullied by the rugby-playing types (was he openly gay? “Um, no. But people could tell”), somewhat ironically since they were – and remain – precisely the type of guys he found attractive. He wasn’t beaten up, being good with his fists, but was mocked, felt up, called a “fag”. Coming out to friends was impossible (he and the other obviously-gay boys at school studiously avoided each other, so as not to attract attention); coming out to his loving, close-knit family was even more impossible. The only upside was that his sense of self-worth remained strong. “I never said to myself ‘This is wrong’. You know, never went down that road. I was like ‘Yeah okay, I like guys and that’s it’… The only difference was, I never expressed it, which came later. I never voiced it. I wasn’t the activist that I am now, if you like”.
That particular turning-point is a story in itself. Zacharias’ hands are covered in white splotches, as though the skin has been burned in a fire. This is vitiligo, an auto-immune disorder that began just a few days after his mother died. Not only was her death traumatic in itself (“I went home and found her dead on the floor”), they also had “unfinished business”, as he puts it. Coming clean about his sexual orientation had been only partly successful: his mum had burst into tears right away – like his dad, she’d always suspected; “She was waiting for me to tell her” – then spent many years ignoring the subject. When they moved to Cyprus, she told him “I’ll cover for you” (meaning she wouldn’t press him to get married), “just don’t tell anybody that you’re gay, especially the close family in the village”. By this time, of course, he was open with friends and employers, so “I had a dichotomy: different at home, different in social environments… So it was very exhausting.”
He was in Paphos, having moved from Nicosia when his father got sick. He and his mum were close, but bickered a lot; she pampered him, but also drove him nuts – and then she died, quite suddenly, in 2010. His skin broke out in vitiligo, the body’s way of expelling stress. One afternoon, while on bereavement leave from work, he attempted suicide: “I didn’t know what to do – because I’d had my parents, and then all of a sudden I was alone… And then I was like OK, I’m gonna end it. I don’t want to carry on anymore”. He grabbed two handfuls of pills, swallowed one handful, prepared to swallow the other – then, out of nowhere, “a very dear friend” came in through the unlocked kitchen door, having come by to check on him.
She pushed him, to make him drop the pills. He fell and hit his head, “and that made me unconscious. And then I saw visions of my mum and dad. My mum was talking, my dad wasn’t – as usual!… And she says to me: ‘I know that you’re gay, and I’m okay with it now. I wasn’t when I was alive, but now I am. I want you to carry on, and I want you to make a difference in someone else’s life. Educate people. I was wrong, I should’ve accepted you’… I woke up after two days and I just decided, you know what? I’m going to pick myself up, and I’m going to move forward”. This was divine intervention, he believes (Zacharias is religious, and laments the chasm that’s opened up between religion and the LGBTI community); if that lady hadn’t arrived, he’d be dead now. Soon after, he got involved with Accept and decided to work in Paphos “because it’s a small community, and people talk, and people feel uncomfortable – and I just decided, you know what? I’m gonna make a difference”.
For the past seven years, he’s tried to do exactly that: “I’m open. I’m loud. I’m there. I’m OK”. People have been supportive, barring one close relative who cut him off after he went public. Accept holds two “rainbow meetings” a month, aimed mostly at LGBTI youngsters (though not just youngsters; a middle-aged man came out recently) plus their allies and parents. He tries to give advice about coming out, trying to keep it realistic (he won’t push kids to tell their parents for the sake of activism; if the reaction is likely to be negative, it’s often better to wait till they leave home). He urges people – including heterosexuals – to get tested for HIV, and also answers their questions. “Are you ‘the man’ or ‘the woman’?” some want to know (“We’re both guys, we don’t always have roles,” he replies). One confused gentleman asked him “When’s the operation?”, having assumed that gay means trans. “But I’m glad they’re asking,” Zacharias adds fervently, “because the most important thing to me is education. And when people don’t ask questions, that gets to me. Ask! Learn! I will answer. As embarrassing as the questions are, just ask me.”
It’s easy, chatting so convivially two days before Pride, to assume that the fight is over. In fact, he says firmly, “there’s still a long way to go”. Civil unions are certainly an achievement, but adoption rights still require lobbying, and the situation with trans people (the ‘T’ in LGBTI) remains problematic: at the moment, in Cyprus, they can only obtain new documents after a complete sex-change, which many can’t afford or may not even want (Accept wants the criterion to be merely how they identify, as in many European countries). Above all, there’s an absence of gay people in public life – no openly gay MPs, or even local councillors. It’s as though the ‘problem’ only affects a sub-category of noisy but invisible misfits, hidden away in obscure homosexual lives, Them as opposed to Us.
How to make things better? Turns out there’s one final facet to John Zacharias Theophanous, this candid, voluble, sweet-natured man with the damaged eye and turbulent past. He works in Paphos but, unexpectedly, adores Nicosia, where he keeps a flat and spends every weekend; he loves its authenticity, the Levantine vibe of the old town. In fact, he has two websites: www.jztheophanous.lgbt/, where he talks about LGBTI activism – but also https://www.the-nicosian.org/, where he talks about his favourite capital! “I know it sounds like a very, very weird dream,” says Zacharias, “but I’ve got it as one of my goals: I want to be Nicosia’s first openly gay mayor.” He pauses, eyes aglow with the thought of this bold, supremely satisfying bit of public activism. “And I’ve even got my slogan,” he goes on, nodding happily: “‘A gay mayor with straight answers’!”. I wouldn’t put it past him.