Fourteen years ago, on the far-flung and Lilliputian island of Tilos, two same-sex couples wed in a civil ceremony – the first gay and lesbian marriages ever held in Greece. It was an event that sparked outrage from the Greek Orthodox Church and large swaths of the conservative Mediterranean nation, even as it represented a historic step forward for Greece’s marginalized queer community.
The story of those civil marriages and the impact they had on the LGBTQ+ movement is the focus of “Tilos Weddings,” by director Panayotis Evangelidis, who offers a first-hand account of what he describes as a “heroic period” in the struggle for gay rights in Greece. Written and produced by Evangelidis, the film world premiered at the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.
A filmmaker and activist, Evangelidis joined the fight for same-sex marriage as a member of the Gay and Lesbian Community of Greece, an organization that had been lobbying for the extension of civil marriage to couples regardless of sex since its founding in 2004.
Four years later, the community found an unexpected ally in Tassos Aliferis, the outspoken mayor of the Aegean island of Tilos, who agreed to perform the first gay and lesbian civil marriages ever held in Greece. That victory, however, raised a pressing problem. “There were so many [gay and lesbian] couples, but they would never expose themselves [publicly],” said Evangelidis.
Instead, the Gay and Lesbian Community of Greece had to invent two couples who could serve as symbolic proxies. In the run-up to the weddings a media circus ensued, in which conservative pundits, legal experts and Orthodox religious leaders joined forces in an effort to prevent them from taking place.
On the morning of the civil ceremony, journalists were barred from the courtroom. “We were adamant about that, because we were against the media,” said Evangelidis. “Media, for us, played a very ambivalent role” in the inflammatory rhetoric around gay and lesbian marriage. “We had to rush, because we were afraid the state and the institutions would go against it, and they would drown it before it happened. We didn’t want any last-minute surprises.”
The weddings went off without a hitch, as the director followed the two couples over a whirlwind, 48-hour period. “I went back to Athens after two days of filming. We had hardly slept an hour,” he said. “I arrived in my house, I put down my equipment, I closed the door behind me, and a volcano erupted in me. I thought, ‘What was all this?’ It was the first quiet moment that I realized what we had done.”
It was, however, a short-lived victory: the marriages were annulled a year later, a decision that was upheld by the Greek Supreme Court in 2017. Since 2018, the case has been pending before the European Court.
Today Greece remains one of the few E.U. countries where same-sex marriage is not legal, although the LGBTQ+ community won a significant legal battle in 2015, when registered partnerships were extended to same-sex couples.
Looking back more than a decade later, Evangelidis admits he’s “not very optimistic” about the future of gay rights in Greece. “There are more bubbles that are open to more things. But these are bubbles,” he said. “Society at large has not really changed, has not really become open-minded or interested to learn about differences and embrace them. Because this is the thing: you embrace the difference, you understand it, and then we are a colorful society.
“That’s not happening in Greece,” he continued. “Especially with the [current] government, we have gone backwards. They want education to be more religious again. It’s going back to Byzantine times.”
Even at the time of the Tilos weddings, Evangelidis was pragmatic about what they could achieve. “I was happy that I was part of this, I was happy that we were doing it, I was happy to defend it with all my heart. But I knew this wasn’t going to dynamite things,” he said.
Instead, he considers the country’s first same-sex marriages a “step” that might someday lead to lasting equality for Greece’s LGBTQ+ community. And he considers “Tilos Weddings” a fitting snapshot of a more hopeful moment in time.
“We were drunk, because we were doing something,” he said. “We were fighting with all the powers that be. That was huge. It’s a great memory, and I hope the film conveys some of the joys.”