“This Monday I have chemotherapy, so I’m busy 12 to 5 p.m. I hope after I will be kind of okay, what time are you free?” wrote Maria “Cyber” Katsikadakou when I asked to interview her in her hometown of Athens last month.
Maria Cyber, as she’s nicknamed, is a pioneering Greek activist with a list of accolades so impressive that last October she was awarded with the highest distinction of the French Republic, the medal of the Knight of Letters and Arts, for her contributions to the rights and visibility of LGBTQ+ people and those with disabilities.
Through various mediums – photography, videography, journalism, stand-up, debates, festivals and workshops – Maria has changed the lives of countless people. Having arrived on the LGBTQ+ scene at the age of 16, Maria is now regarded as one of the first and most seminal lesbian activists in Greece. She’s also spent the last two decades fighting for equal recognition and state-support for those with diabetes and those who need hospice care.
Now, at the age of fifty-two, she’s battling for her own life: two years ago, Maria’s doctor diagnosed her with an aggressive case of lung cancer, suggesting she could have only three years to live.
Despite Maria’s willingness to meet just after chemo – a carpe diem attitude that’s charged her activist career – we decided to wait a couple of days; time for Maria to rest, time for me to stock up on N95 masks, while getting tested and re-tested for Covid.
It was raining chair legs (the Greek equivalent for raining cats and dogs) on the day Maria and I met. Her mother, who is now her primary care-giver, opened the door to Maria’s apartment. In true Greek mom fashion, she stripped away my damp coat, put me in a pair of slippers, gave me a big slice of homemade cake, and settled me into a chair in the corner of the room. Maria sat in the center of her apartment a couple of meters from me, on a big sofa in comfortable clothes, a heater roaring at her shins.
Maria relayed tale after tale of her abundant life, highlighting the countless times she’s been inspired by progress elsewhere – be it quality music at lesbian parties in Berlin, hospice care in Oslo or state benefits for those with disabilities in London – and brought it back to Greece. By creating and proliferating visual and social media, Maria tries to spread awareness, “like little seeds in the public, so that voices will grow, multiply, and maybe one day, we have it in my country too,” she says.
Maria’s voice is deep and completely genderless in tone: an apt outward expression of Maria’s identity. Having never felt fulfilled by the terms ‘lesbian’ or ‘dyke,’ Maria recounts the profound experience of reading Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” when she was younger. “I started to cry, I couldn’t stop my tears, cascades running down my face, when Hall writes – and I still feel [like I want] to cry – when she writes of ‘the desert land between two genders,’ I felt this in my cells, in my blood… it was talking to my heart.”
Her baritone voice frequently cracks as tales merge with tears; the mighty activist is very willing to show her tenderness. Perhaps this tenderness is unavoidable at this time, when illness calls for your constant contemplation of life and death. “Somebody said we have two lives, our second life starts when we realise we have one,” says Maria, referring to a quote attributed to Confucius, “so I am in my second life now.” Though she releases the odd pained sigh and groan, Maria is bursting with life, always bringing such insight, frankness and mirth to her stories.
“When I die,” Maria says, emphasising the ‘when,’ as she, alongside so many, pray she wins this fight like she has so many others, “I want ‘I WILL SURVIVE’ written on my headstone.” Her trifold reasoning: “it’s a gay hymn,” she says. “Second, I cannot tell you how many times I have felt this song with all my heart, tears, blood, after a break-up. And thirdly, it will make somebody laugh. I still want to make people laugh when I’m no longer here.”
Maria’s apartment, which doubles up as her office, is overflowing with memories of Maria’s life as an activist. Stills from the countless short films she’s created, clips from articles she’s written (Judith Butler is amongst her interviewees), boxes upon boxes of Maria’s photography that she, until now, hadn’t had time to look through. The space is peppered with flyers from campaigns: Safe Sex for Women, Trans Women Are Women, promotions for her Gay and Lesbian Radio Show and for the first lesbian party in Greece, Cyber Dykes, which Maria birthed in 1995 (“Don’t Fuck With Life – Fuck With A Glove,’” reads a set of the flyers).
Nestled among this queer paraphernalia are leaflets depicting pricked fingers that read in Greek, “Do Not Be Shy. Speak Openly About Your Diabetes.” Though Maria’s spent much of her life creating iconic events like the Gay & Lesbian Pornographic Art Film Festival, the Outview LGBTQI+ Film Festival, and the revolutionary portal lesbian.gr back in 2000, she has also been an instrumental voice and adhesive for the diabetic community of Greece.
In 2007, when she was diagnosed as Diabetic Type 1, she saw that the diabetic community was “very introverted and in the closet,” she says. When she told friends that she had been diagnosed, Maria was shocked to have countless people welcome her to the diabetics’ club. “I’m like, are you serious people, why don’t you say you’re a diabetic?”
Maria goes on to explain that diabetes is one of the leading chronic diseases on the planet. “I didn’t know anything about it before I was diagnosed, and I think most of the population doesn’t know. But it is so easy and so essential to know how to save somebody that has, right away, a need for orange juice, for sugar. Everybody should know these things,” she says. So Maria proceeded to work her magic, “copying what I did for lesbian visibility, to make for diabetic visibility.” She created glykouli.gr (‘sweetie’ in English), a virtual space for those with diabetes to share resources, connect and organise get togethers. She also produces a diabetic talk radio show, panel discussion, workshops, and short films. By publicizing the heavy weight the disease bears, Maria attempts to eradicate the added weight of silence and discretion.
Even now, with Maria’s diagnosis, she’s looking to launch important projects for those with cancer. “In every period of my life, what I am, I make it public. I strongly believe and practice the motto of the old feminists: ‘the personal is political.’” This philosophy gives Maria’s activism a certain spontaneity; she rises to meet the waves that come her way. “I never realised what I was doing. I never counted what I was doing as important, I didn’t realise how much I helped to change the things in Athens. I could cry for this,” she says, lowering her gaze. “It was about doing what felt right… I didn’t know that this would help so much.
“And it’s only now I realise,” she continues, “it is like you dressed up in your room everyday, but you don’t have time to tidy or organise so it is a mess. And you just keep throwing and throwing clothes. With the cancer, I just saw the room and all these pieces abandoned there, all of my pieces.” She sighs deeply. “And I’m like, ‘somebody has to tidy the room.’ So that’s what I’m doing now. You need to do it when facing death.”
I sit with Maria for hours that afternoon, the rain pattering heavily on her skylight as she candidly recalls the challenges and achievements that have marked her life. With glee, she shows a handful of her short films on a theater-sized flat screen. Notably, “Friends With Benefits,” about a punk from Camden Town, who’s got multiple sclerosis, and yet seizes every day, every night out, every can of lager and every toke of a spliff, and “So Quiet: The Performativity of a Pussy,” an 8-minute short film about, yep, you guessed it. Pussies dancing, quivering and basking in the limelight, which Maria describes as her statement about, “the need to give space to the pussy, to give visibility to the pussy. Dicks are everywhere, they’re loud, taking up so much space… you must pay attention to the pussy. You’re going to learn another way of living,” she says.
Lost in talk of punks and pussy, it’s easy to forget the almighty battle Maria is currently embroiled in. “I really wish I make it,” she says, “because this time, not all the time but at least half of it, I’ve had a wonderful time. I know it’s crazy but to work through your traumas, to realise things, to have loving people around you,” she says, referring to her family and friends, her mother pottering around the apartment, her girlfriend – who arrived during one of our film screenings – preparing vegan snacks.
“To actually be present in yourself,” Maria continues, “and present in the time, not to be all over the place. This presence gives such happiness in your body and mind. There are times, without cortisol – because the cortisol makes me very hyper and very optimistic – but without cortisol, there are moments I experience so much happiness, I cannot take it,” she says, as those beautiful, tender tears fill her eyes once more.
Although it’s customary for GO to identify individuals by their last names, we refer to Maria Katsikadakou by her known moniker, “Maria” for “Maria Cyber.”