It may deservedly be the world’s number one lesbian holiday destination, but even in this apparent idyll, prejudice still rears its ugly head. Julie Bindel urges us to visit Lesbos and help rid it of homophobia.
Two years ago I travelled to Eressos, a town on the Greek island of Lesbos, to meet with the many lesbian tourists and residents there. I was writing a feature about a court case in which a man had tried to introduce a law preventing us from calling ourselves lesbians (the word is derived from Lesbos, birthplace of Sappho). This man had taken offence at the fact that his sister felt embarrassed at referring to herself as a ‘Lesbian’ when speaking about where she was born.
In Eressos I interviewed a number of lovely women seeking a holiday away from the usual crowds of marauding men and screaming kids. It felt a bit like Greenham Common or Hackney-by-the-sea, but the warmth and camaraderie of the place made it a relaxing and fun place to be.
When it was time to leave, both myself and the (straight) photographer wished we could stay longer. The shimmer of the deep blue sea, the beautiful sunsets, the divine food and wine, and the welcoming approach of bar staff, tourist agents, shopkeepers and the holiday makers helped us both fall in love with this glorious holiday destination. I pledged to return and am making plans to re-visit as I type.
I was therefore particularly horrified to hear a story from an acquaintance of mine – an intrepid traveller and lover of Lesbos – who felt badly let down when her son and his friend were viciously attacked by racist and homophobic local thugs.
Andrea, who had rented a house in the town for a year last winter, has been holidaying in Eressos for 16 years. One evening in July, her son K and his friend J, both of whom are mixed-race and were known to be the sons of lesbians, visited the local nightclub. A group of local boys began to harass them, shouting that they were gay, and trying to set J’s hair alight. K and J were then set upon by a gang of more than 25 youths, sustaining serious injuries in the process.
The police in the next town (oddly, Eressos has no tourist police) refused to arrest the perpetrators – one of whom, incidentally, was the son of one of the officers. When challenged, said officer repeated the allegation that K and J were in the club naked from the waist down, trying to have sex with the boys ‘from behind’.
The victims and their mothers left Eressos and have no plans to return until they feel it is safe to. But things can only change if both the resident and visiting lesbians begin to challenge the anti-lesbianism which exists in every tourist destination the world over. “We need to stand together and report any attack on us,” says Andrea, “as in my experience this is not an isolated event.”
According to Andrea, Lesbos is a beautiful place but has a dark side. When I visited I interviewed many locals, some of whom were fine about lesbians living and holidaying amongst them… and some of whom were firmly against the idea. When I mentioned this in my article I received some quite heavy criticism from a few resident lezzers who did not want any dirty laundry aired in public. But denying a reality does not make it go away.
Andrea was hugely reassured by the amount of love, care and support she and her son received in Eressos after the attack. However, she is keen that it should be recognised as part of a wider problem of homophobia on the island, and not simply an isolated incident.
“I have lost my home and the way of life I had built up in Eressos,” she says. “I loved living with women and volunteering with animals. But I can’t live with racism, homophobia or violent attacks. We need somewhere to get help.” Tourist police would undoubtedly be a start, but what would also be helpful would be a universal recognition that however much we consider Lesbos to be our spiritual home, hatred and prejudice exists on this beautiful island just as it does elsewhere. Let us continue to visit Eressos, as we all know there is strength in numbers. We need to tackle homophobia head-on, bonding together to ensure it does not take root forever.