'Invisible' Same-Sex Couples Push For Civil Unions In Greece

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It's Sunday afternoon, and six mothers are sitting in a bright living room, drinking milky coffee and talking about discrimination.

"We are invisible in Greece," says Stella Bellia, who is raising twin boys with her Italian partner, Grazia-Haris Scocozza. "So we have to help each other."

Bellia is the president of Rainbow Families, a coalition of about 70 same-sex couples raising children in Greece. She tells the mothers that the LGBT Center at the University of Louisville has raised funds for the publication of the first Greek-language children's book that portrays families with same-sex parents.

"Our fellow Greeks are very critical when we choose to have children," Bellia says. "And legally, we don't even exist, so there's no image of our families anywhere."

Gay couples like Bellia and Scocozza cannot share custody of their children because they are not recognized as couples under Greek law.

Of the 19 states in the European Union that recognize some kind of civil partnership other than marriage, two reserve that right only for heterosexuals — Greece and Lithuania. So Gregory Vallianatos and seven other gay activists sued Greece in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

"Straight people have the possibility of a religious marriage or civil marriage, and of a civil union," Vallianatos says. "Three alternatives. We have none."

They won the case last November. Now they're trying to push the Greek Parliament to comply with the ruling and open civil unions to same-sex couples. Greece currently holds the six-month, rotating European Union presidency, so activists want to use the spotlight to push for equality.

"Within this Greece of crisis and poverty, this civil law victory in Strasbourg is good news," says Vallianatos, a chatty former TV host who's running for mayor of Athens in elections this May. "I believe this will influence the environment."

He likes to point out that ancient Greeks accepted homosexuality.

"If you see the vases, the poets, the plays, then you see that homosexuality was in bright light," he says. "And you see that people were calling each other names of love, and they were depicting and portraying it."

But modern Greece, he says, is shaped by the conservative Greek Orthodox Church and "we have still to prove to the church that we are decent individuals."

A Greek Orthodox Church spokesman told NPR that the church opposes homosexuality and same-sex unions, but won't weigh in publicly on the issue.

Only one rogue bishop, Seraphim of Piraeus, has threatened to excommunicate any politician who votes to legalize same-sex unions. The church spokesman says that won't happen.

Last month, some gay-rights activists tried to rattle the church by staging a "kiss-in" during an Epiphany service in Piraeus.

Savvas Georgiadis, a psychiatrist and campaigner against homophobia, says activists were also trying to rattle Greeks who are becoming intolerant because they believe the economic crisis is destroying national identity.

"We don't want someone who is 'different' to be in our circles, in our neighborhoods," Georgiadis says.

"Different" like Petros Sapountzakis, a 42-year-old elementary school teacher and former seminary student.

"In Greece, a man must always be straight," he says.

Ultranationalist thugs assaulted Sapountzakis and a friend in late 2012 as they left a gay-themed theater performance. More recently, Anna Piliou, a 26-year-old transgender woman, was abused by fellow students at the night high school she was attending. One student doused her with gasoline and threatened to set her on fire.

"The economic crisis has unleashed the dogs of the far right, so now there are attacks for the first time," Sapountzakis says.

He and his boyfriend of five years, a Ukrainian graphic artist named Alex Kantirov, say they're not afraid of street thugs — they just wish they could talk about their relationship with their mothers.

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