It’s October 2020 and I’m up against the wall, halfheartedly moving my body to Britney Spears inside a gay bar in Athens, which feels like it’s straight from West Hollywood. The only difference is that everyone looks like they could be my hot gay Greek cousin. We’re all screaming lyrics and gossip without masks on and I’m feeling anxious. I want to dance but I can’t. I’m so happy to be among my people but I also feel the risk of being here. My mind and body are unaligned, which has been my new state of being.
The next day, I tell my parents that I can’t see them until I get tested for Covid. They’re disappointed while my oldest sister is understandably pissed: how could I so recklessly put our parents at risk? I regress into a familiar role of defensive child; I’m the youngest of four and often feel like I have to justify my choices. I say that my mental health has deteriorated as I’ve been in Greece for months without a queer community and have basically become a floating head. I’m alone, sober, surrounded by straight people, and about to enter another lockdown in a country that’s almost my home but not quite. I’m disembodied, displaced, and disassociated in an old way that my family doesn’t understand. But I realize that during this pandemic, many others are feeling displaced in their own ways. So why was I – someone who is mindful and aware of others – willing to do something so irresponsible just to be in my community?
In the beginning of the pandemic, things weren’t remotely as bad in Greece as in the U.S., so on a whim, I went there to surprise my parents (I surprised them so well that they didn’t recognize me). I had intended to stay in Greece for only two months, but stayed for a year and two months. I reunited with an old friend, who became my girlfriend, and connected with my family (my older brother also lives there). In fact, my family became my primary, day-to-day community, which was a role my queer friends had played for years back in the U.S.
The last time I’d been in this situation – living in the same city as my parents without a queer network – was when I’d been a super-closeted teenager. Back then, I didn’t know what was making me feel so different or wrong. I lived in my head, where I fantasized about a better version of myself while my body did things I didn’t want it to, like gain weight and make out with men. It wasn’t until I came out as gay that the gap between my mind and body lessened. It also helped to meet LGBTQ+ folks who’d been through similar closeted experiences of fragmentation and were also finding a more whole sense of self.
In Greece during the pandemic, I found myself without a queer community. Greek culture is centered on the family rather than the individual (unlike the U.S., where culture is centered on the individual). Family is the foundation of community while the Greek Orthodox Church shapes society’s value system. So, LGBTQ+ folks aren’t yet fully accepted (although that’s changing) and for many – queer or not – the central ties of community can be with blood family rather than a chosen family. These long arms of both family and the church often turn the Greek mentality outwards: what will others (my mother, priest, neighbor who spies on me from his balcony every night) think?
During the pandemic, I met a handful of queer Greek folks (funnily enough, mostly through my straight brother) and nearly all of them weren’t fully out to their families because they’d heard “If you’re gay, it will kill me” (Greeks, the inventors of drama, can be very dramatic). It’s not a joke though — neither for those who say nor those who hear it — and it’s hard not to internalize that. As a result, many compartmentalize their lives.
I sensed that this compartmentalization translated into an absence of community. This isn’t to say there’s no queer community in Greece, or that there’s no queer visibility. But as some of my LGBTQ+ Greek friends shared, it can sometimes feel like everyone is an island there, existing separately; they also noted that this was their experience even before Covid isolated everyone. This is different from my experience in the U.S., where my queer network is deeply interconnected. Whatever thread I pull, I’ll find a group of people who are intertwined with each other. If I’m going through a difficult moment, one friend might spend hours compassionately listening while another brings me snacks and a different one calls to check in because that first friend had told them that I was having a tough time. Ultimately, it’s a network of varying degrees of care that flow in all directions and that care is the foundation of the community rather than something that needs to be asked for, simply because we’re so in tune with each other’s lives.
I knew the significance of my network in my mind but it wasn’t until it was gone that I felt its absence in my heart. In my queer American community, we would explore nature, have shirt-optional dance parties, and laugh until we cried. My experience with my care network is as physically embodied as it is emotional and mental. In Greece, that community became abstract. I tried to stay in my body with hikes and naked swims and sex (okay, that did help) but often times, I still felt disconnected, like when I was younger. My queer network in the U.S. moved into the virtual space, where it became both present and absent at once, much like me, who was between two lives: the one in Greece, where I was present with my family and my love and the one back home, where the shadows of myself flitted in the spaces of my community.
In the absence of queer community, I was lucky enough to connect with my parents and brother in surprising ways. We had conversations about identity, life, and Greek philosophy; my brother and I embarked on a creative project together that was totally exposing yet safe and also discovered the embodied joy of playing stickball under the Acropolis. For the first time, I could actually engage with my family in a way that was more in tune with myself, which I’d learned from my LGBTQ+ community. The experience of queerness isn’t something my family necessarily knows but I approached them as equals and with compassion.
The return to my family was a beautiful gift but it coexisted with the loneliness I felt without my LGBTQ+ community. In Greece, my visibility shifted from the public to the private, which felt painful because I’d worked hard to accept and put myself in that public space. This shift felt palpable during that night at the gay bar, where I was surrounded by my people but unable to engage or perhaps unsure of how to do that. By the time I went to the gay bar, I’d reached my breaking point. I’d been in Greece for three months and my friend, who would eventually become my girlfriend, wasn’t yet in a place to be present in my life, so I was alone. As I wrote in my journal about that night, I “stood on the precipice of joy and terror [because] I just needed some community. To be seen at all. I’ve felt so erased this year.” The absence of community plus the isolation of Covid made me and my queerness feel invisible, like when I was younger, and suddenly brought to light that “my old well of self-loathing is that full, that easily accessible.” Until my queer community was gone, I knew but didn’t really feel just how much it had been guiding me, both out into the world and back into myself and body.
After over a year away, my return to L.A. and my queer community was marked by an epic Alanis Morissette concert. As I screamed and cried my way through the entirety of “Jagged Little Pill” with two friends, I felt like nothing had changed: we were back together, dancing, singing, laughing. And yet, so much has changed. After a year without my queer community, I’ve changed. Or been revealed, rather. My community has long given me the tools and space to not only be embodied but to see myself. To be seen. Without them in Greece, I had to find these things for myself, particularly as I realized how close I remained to my old self-loathing and shame. This meant not journaling when I was feeling down (it’s taken many years to realize that it’s not worth it to put self-hatred in writing), affirming myself and my accomplishments the way my queer friends do even though it feels uncomfortable, spending time with my parents and brother to let them see me as I let my friends see me, and walking to the Acropolis every day to gaze upon it and let its light and energy soften some of those jagged edges inside. So in spite of the pain of my friends’ absence, I’ve found a strength and trust in myself and in taking care of myself that I bring back to L.A., where I feel ready to discover new embodiment and more wholeness with my queer community.