Paola Revenioti – a Greek LGBTIQ rights icon standing in this weekend’s parliamentary elections – stepped out onto Syggrou Avenue for the first time when she was 16 years old. It was the mid-1970s, just after the fall of the junta that had ruled the country since 1967. Syggrou Avenue, which runs from the centre of Athens to the sea, was known as a main street for sex workers.
“It was amazing”, the transgender artist, activist and now 61-year-old MP candidate, recalls. “All of a sudden, people worshipped me – often the same people that would ridicule me, and shout “faggot!” at me during the day. Don’t get me wrong, things were rough. There were knives and things... But I could be myself. And I could survive”.
Survive she did. Over the years, Revenioti has campaigned tirelessly for human rights. In the 1980s she published a magazine of “revolutionary homosexual expression”. In the 1990s, she organised Greece’s first Pride festivals. This weekend, she’s on the ballot of MERA25, the Greek party of the DiEM25 European movement founded by ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
But it hasn’t been easy; she’s also been arrested more times than she can count. Revenioti met us recently, at a café opposite Athens’ central train station, and talked to us about the journey she’s been on, and the significance of her parliamentary candidacy.
This neighbourhood has a local reputation for petty crime, homelessness and drug use. But Revenioti, who lives nearby, points out that it is also rich in culture – with immigrants from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central Asia. “It’s one of the areas where you realise”, she says, “that Athens is now a multicultural metropolis, where we all have to learn to live together.”
Born in 1958, Revenioti grew up in Piraeus, a small port city near Athens. At 13, she enrolled in the Navy School for Boys, where she took her first foray into activism. After the junta fell, she wrote “United Left” – the name of the left-wing coalition in Greece’s first free elections – on every wall of the camp. She also had her first flings at this school, which she recalls as “tender and loving”.
On shore, she and other students would cruise the streets of central Athens. “People would also give me money [for sex] sometimes, that’s how it was. It wasn’t just me that did that, many kids went there for pocket money”. On one of these nights out, she met an officer in the Army Reserves who became violent. Revenioti shouted for help, and a passing police car stopped.
What happened next? “He was a man, and I was a faggot. So, they called the military police… put me in a cell, and shouted abuse at me for eight days”. Revenioti was discharged from the navy school, at 15 years old, “I’ll never forget it – for ‘acts unbecoming military office’... [and] when they let me go, as I was leaving the camp, a bunch of my mates grabbed me and threw me into the sea.”
He was a man, and I was a faggot. So, they called the military police… put me in a cell, and shouted abuse at me for eight days.
In Athens, Revenioti found work as a wallpaper fitter’s assistant, then as a door-to-door salesman, selling base stands for refrigerators and washing machines. But living how she wanted was harder. She recalls a “horrible landlord… who flashed his dick at me, and threatened to rape me. There was nothing I could do, you see, even if I went to the police, they would say: ‘You’re a faggot’”.
In another building, tenants gathered signatures demanding her expulsion. She had to move a lot. Then, a friend suggested they go to Syggrou Avenue to make money. “She gave me a headscarf to wear, and out we went. Suddenly, I was not a faggot, I was a goddess! Boys loved me”.
Revenioti describes discovering her sexuality as a young trans woman – while trying to survive financially and in society. Sex work, she says, “was the only way to feel like yourself, and also to have some control... Maybe if you were a famous model or something, you could find another way to exist, but if you were a poor faggot… there was no other option”.
In the late 1970s, supressing homosexuality was a state priority. Police raids were frequent and brutal. “They beat us up every other day”, Revenioti tells us. “Then, they’d put us in the police wagon, and then in a cell, a horrible basement cell, with whores, pimps, junkies, hustlers, transvestites, all packed together, and wait for us to give them our money, so they’d let us go”.
The government also introduced a law, ostensibly against venereal diseases, that included prison sentences for “all males wandering in streets, squares, public venues, or other places, with a visible purpose of soliciting males to engage in unnatural molestation”.
Opposition to this law invigorated the LGBT rights movement, and also forged relationships between it and other student, leftist and anarchist groups. AKOE, the Greek Movement for Homosexual Liberation, founded in 1976, organised demonstrations and a petition to the Council of Europe. Some prominent legal scholars and newspapers picked up the cause too.
The “venereal diseases” law was withdrawn in 1981, with the pretext of “further consultations”. Around this time, the dynamic between Revenioti and the police also changed. “Hands off Paola” was spray-painted across Athens, and prominent intellectuals spoke in support of her. She also started to denounce incidents of police abuse – repeatedly.
“I would file a report with the Minister of Public Order. And then another report with the Chief of Police. And then a complaint at the state prosecutor’s office. I must have done it countless times. In the end, they stopped bothering me so much”, she recalls. How did she find the nerve to do this? “Because, I thought fuck you, that’s how. I knew I was right”.
A friend took Revenioti to a coffee shop in Exarchia, Athens’ famed quarter of anarchists and dissidents, where she discovered a more tolerant “sanctuary”. She went to political meetings and protests. In 1981, she published Kraximo – named after a Greek way of saying to out and mock a gay person in the street. Above the title ran the words: “all work for profit is prostitution”.
This magazine printed stories from the streets, pictures of semi-clad young men, articles on gay rights. Its language was in-your-face – ”We, faggots” ran one headline – and it advocated unrestricted love and unapologetic desire. But alongside articles about the global AIDS crisis, for example, it also covered workers’ rights, social oppression, and radical political analysis.
Revenioti describes an organic but holistic, critical project. “People call me an activist, but I’ve never thought of myself as one”, she tells us. “I did what I wanted, it was creative, and it was fun. I never said I am the liberator of homosexuals, or anything. Besides, which homosexuals would I liberate?... I couldn’t pay my rent half the time”.
Someone like me in Parliament… that would be something
She is quick to acknowledge recent, positive steps for LGBTIQ rights in Greece – including the legalisation of same-sex civil partnerships, in 2015. Now is the time to push for more progressive laws on same sex marriage equality and child adoption.
These are not her first elections – in the early 1990s, Revenioti was on the ballot of Greece’s Alternative Green party. Years later she considered running again, but ultimately did not. Until the call from MERA25 came, she says she had no plans to get into mainstream politics. But she was impressed by the freedom this new party has given her to express her views.
While she lacks a traditional MPs CV, she stresses: “There are things I do know. I know what it is like to be poor. I know what it is like to be uninsured. I know what it is like to have the state against you. To be treated like you don’t matter by those who have power”.
When we met, Revenioti also described a recent, unpleasant experience travelling as a trans woman with a passport that lists a male name. Why hadn’t she taken advantage of the recent law, which allows trans people to change these details on documents? She reminds us that you must go to court for this. “I need to pay a lawyer, and I just can’t afford it”.
Regardless of whether she is elected this weekend, Revenioti’s candidacy is unprecedented. We asked Varoufakis for his comment. He told us: “Paola symbolises the resistance of a few people who, without any support, are subjected to violence and abuse, under the gaze of a hypocritical society that mocks the victims and embraces the perpetrators”.
Revenioti reflects on the significance of her candidacy in a more understated tone: “Someone like me in Parliament… that would be something”.