Dina Tzouvala: Machismo, bullying and a suicide in Greece

painting by Nicos Kessanlis painting by Nicos Kessanlis
Please mind the gap: Or who failed Vaggelis Yakoumakis
Dina Tzouvala
I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me

Last Sunday the police managed to retrieve the body of a young man in the lake of Ioannina, a medium-sized city in Western Greece (For more: here). It was Vaggelis Yakoumakis, a 20-year-old man, who had gone missing a month earlier. While current evidence suggests it was a suicide, the facts that came to surface during the days of the police search draw a much more complicated and grim picture. Yakoumakis was studying in a Dairy School at Ioannina and prior to his disappearance and his tragic death had been a victim of consistent and cruel bullying, but also probably of criminal violence from his fellow-students. The Greek media was happy to reproduce chilling narrations about the torture and the degrading treatment he was subjected to, and it now appears that a wave of moral panic (See here in Greek) has overtaken the public, especially in Ioannina. Within this climate of collective hysteria the causes of his treatment are obscured. Yakoumakis was bullied by his fellow-students not just because he was a shy young man, but predominantly, because he was not considered ‘manly’ enough and his sexual orientation was ‘questionable’. Yakoumakis was not subjected to blind, irrational hatred, he was loathed for not confirming to the prevailing standards of masculinity, which in Greece remain quite traditional.

Aware of the fact that this is a sensitive issue, since it implicates aspects of the now deceased young man, we need to talk about this dimension as well. Otherwise, we appear to miss the point.

Apart from the evident machismo evolved in all cases of bullying, we need to keep in mind what the Greek society desperately tries to forget: Yakoumakis was the victim of homophobic violence and discrimination and not just of ‘childish cruelty’. Hence, sudden social concern for ‘bullying’, welcome as it may be in a country where complaining about such treatment is commonly considered a further confirmation of your weakness, is not enough. Greece is one of the last states in Europe not to provide any kind of recognition to same-sex couples (even though SYRIZA’s government has pledged to legislate for equal right to civil partnership), and this is just the tip of the iceberg in a deeply homophobic society.

That being said, not all LGBT people nor do all people not confirming with hegemonic gender stereotypes face the same extreme challenges as Yakoumakis did. He was in a particularly vulnerable position as the materiality of his existence was a blind spot both for the LGBT movement and for the Left in Greece. Let us elaborate on this statement a bit: Yakoumakis was a young man, coming from a rural background that was not studying in the university, but rather in a school of dairy product processing. Simultaneously, his behaviour and sexuality were not in conformity with hegemonic stereotypes that are particularly prevalent in rural Greece. This does not mean that urban centres are more progressive (or even ‘tolerant’) in any sensible sense of the word, but anonymity might help de facto to ease the pressure exerted upon ‘disobedient’ bodies.

The problem here is that the Greek Left has been consistently unwilling and unable to engage in depth with both questions of gender and with youths that come from rural, non-academic backgrounds. The latter is explicable in historical terms, to the extent that the Greek university had traditionally been a friendly space for the Left enabling it to renew its electoral and membership basis, while universities also provided a friendly environment for the development of radical social movements. On the hindsight, this meant that the real (eg not just electoral) connections between the Left and young people of the working class or of rural backgrounds remains negligible. Moreover, there has been a historic tension between pretty much all strands of the Left and the issues they (mistakenly) conceptualise as ‘identity politics’. The low participation of women in the new government’s cabinet is just a minor example thereof. Hence, the Left could not reach Yakoumakis. Despite commonly held fantasies and despite electoral links, the fraction of youth that never goes through third-level education will probably never get in touch with the political Left. Further, to an extent the Left has incorporated a false distinction between economic or class and ‘other’ issues neglecting the fact that it is precisely amongst the oppressed that issues of gender, sexual orientation or race can become extremely pressing.

Simultaneously, the LGBT movement (or its hegemonic fraction) could not have reached Yakoumakis either. Following the now well-established trends in the Western world our LGBT movement has opted for clearly prioritising the question of marriage equality. With all its acute significance, this choice was the result of and in turn accentuated the distinctively middle-class character of the movement. Indeed, we should not forget how the Athens Pride decided to invite KEELPNO, the agency responsible for the public humiliation of sex-workers only a few years ago. The sign was clear: nice, middle-class LGBT people will get the right to marriage equality forming an alliance with the liberal upper-classes but HIV-positive, drug addict, sex-workers simply cannot make it into this equation. A young man from a rural area learning how to process dairy is equally a stranger to this world stranger in both worlds, the world of the Left and the LGBT community.

All in all, we need to go beyond moral panic and acknowledge a simple yet painful truth: we (as in me, you, the people along with us that have fought for emancipation and equality) created a gap. And Vaggelis Yakoumakis fell in. Let’s hope he is the last one.
  • Translated by: Iraklis Oikonomou
  • The original text was first published on: Written for AnalyzeGreece!