Tomas Diafas is the founder of the Thessaloniki Queer Arts Festival. This grassroots initiative aims to alter deeply entrenched misconceptions and prejudices toward the LGBTQ+ community through artistic and cultural practices. Here, he discusses the festival’s origins, what it is like to live in Greece as an LGBTI person, and how vital educational and artistic programs are for changing societal attitudes regarding sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).
Can you start by telling me a bit more about the Thessaloniki Queer Arts Festival? What led to its foundation back in 2018?
The festival’s creation was a personal need to show more art in Thessaloniki, my hometown. Compared to Athens, I thought the art presented there was almost nonexistent, and I realized that people like me, queer people or gay men, weren’t interested in queer art.
I think that the problems Greek society is confronting — regarding racism or any kind of discrimination — should be healed through art. So I thought that maybe I should combine my two identities as an artist and as a queer person to create a festival that aims to educate the people who discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community. So it began not as a festival directed towards the LGBTQ+ community, but the theme was to create a series of interventions in schools. This is why, in 2019, we proposed an educational program that focuses on how education dedication increased in Thessaloniki and how the church and the police are dealing with LGBTQ+ community issues. For example: What are the laws? Do all police officers respect the laws? How come the church has such strong opinions against the LGBTQ+ community publicly? Are these schools, are the educators in Thessaloniki applying the recently voted laws for sexual education, and, if not, why? It was a kind of investigation because we wanted to know what thoughts, issues, and misconceptions are in these people’s minds. It was a great experience.
That being said, I see an absence of willingness for people to participate in workshops. I would say the parties have more people than the workshops. People don’t get the importance of participating in the workshops, of being educated. Maybe it’s our fault that we haven’t done everything correctly. Still, I would say that even though the first aim of the festival was to create a series of workshops, we ended up having exhibitions and other events because we wanted to inform people and find alternative ways to educate people less strictly.
Can you tell me more about the educational project? Are there any findings you can discuss regarding the state of LGBTI education in Greek schools right now?
Last year, we hosted a workshop on the idea of identity and privilege with Margarita Gerouki, who is teaching in a Greek school in Finland. She created an award-winning handbook with a team of educators, artists, researchers about teaching gender issues to kids. I saw recently that some people — I don’t know if they were priests or politicians — publicly spoke out against this book and this educational process. Unfortunately, there is a lot of fear in Greek schools. Even though the law says you are free to teach whatever you want, when parents learn that their kids were taught something about LGBTQ+ issues or sexuality, they go to the school and say, “don’t you ever dare tell this to my children again.” The educators have the right to tell the parents, “I’m sorry, but this is the program, we cannot change it,” but there is this fear and the complete understanding that you can’t deal with the parents who attack you. It’s tough. There are some schools, though — for example, the Rainbow School — trying to promote initiatives, and they have a great program, and they are really inviting. Still, if it doesn’t come from the government, if it’s not obligatory to teach in school, it will be a struggle for the educators on a personal level. Every teacher should have enough power to go to their work and fight against all the prejudice.
What is your role in the festival and the focus of your work?
I came up with the idea for this festival, but I was looking for collaborators from the very first moment. Basically, I started as the artistic director, but really I’m just the person who is the mediator between the people who want to collaborate and the people who wish to participate. In other words, I am the liaison between the people who want to host our events, the people who are organizing these events, and the people creating these events. I would also say that I am the education program’s coordinator. I focus more on that because I prefer it, and it’s going back to the original need that I had.
I read that Thessaloniki was chosen as the festival’s home to influence the rest of the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East. Can you tell me more about your strategy to address prejudice and resistance to queer inclusiveness in neighboring societies?
When we started, we really hoped that we would have collaborators all over the Balkans and Turkey, but there is so much work needed to be done in Thessaloniki that we don’t have the time to do things in the Balkans. We got information about the Balkans from people that visited the festival. They told us that Thessaloniki is the safest place and that they come to Pride in Thessaloniki because it is safer than other countries. It is definitely safer than Turkey. People we meet are against the Turkish government due to its discrimination against LGBTQ subjects.
We’ve tried to get funding to create events in other cities and countries, but it is tough since we are not an official organization. Next year, we really want to create an official body to get funding and organize more events. We have also created the Balkan Queer Network on Facebook. We invite people to join and start a conversation around these topics in the Balkans. However, it is all frozen because it is too much work to be done by four or five people unpaid.
What types of art are included in the festival?
Every kind of art. However, in the last two years, we only had digital art due to the Covid-19 pandemic. I think that from now on, it will be more focused on live art when it comes to the public program. We plan to change the art we are hosting in general; all art presented at the festival should be available to all audiences from 2022 on. This will affect for sure what kind of art we will host — for example, if there is a film accessible to all, we will have films; if there is a sculpture, we will have sculptures. Maybe even some kinds of art that haven’t been invented yet, because I think the future is really creative and that the artists are really creative. Once we announce that we want to turn in a direction that focuses on accessibility issues in queer art, I think the artists will definitely create something new.
What is the process for choosing a festival program?
I selected the festival’s theme this year, though it was not only up to me because I’m not imposing ideas on the group. Instead, I’m the one who proposed the first theme, “What is queer,” back in 2017, and then in 2018, we had the exhibition. Because I am the coordinator, I speak with many people and get a clear sense of the community’s needs. We get a new question each year based on our discussions. For example, “What is diversity” is going to be next year’s theme. We need to include more people because we think that queer art is mainly represented by white, gay men. We are constantly trying to find new audiences. Last year, we invited Thessaloniki trans women to present their work. Each year, we’re trying to find, let’s say, parts of society that still are in the dark.
When I used to be the curator of the festival, I remember from the conversations we were having that it was essential to find how the narratives created by these objects are being presented in the best way possible and in a straightforward manner. There is always a need for us to have a political or an activist side of the piece. I really like political art. If someone watches our program, they will definitely understand that we like political art — we like activism, and we like when art is speaking to an audience more politically. But when I say political in this sense, I do not mean the way the artist is political, but rather the connections between the self and the state. In other words, how my personal experience relates to the experiences other people in society are having. It is important to connect queerness with other subjects, even though they are not queer, and to use this term to connect yourself with other people experiencing the same type of discrimination. For example, sometimes, you can see issues about racism for non-queer people, and we need these voices as well.
Do you receive any support from the government or local businesses to put on the festival?
I would say no, from the government, no for sure. We are not an NGO, and we are not an official company. This creates some problems because it is not so easy in Greece, there are a lot of taxes. Things are constantly changing, people are moving, so it’s really hard for us to decide who will pay the taxes and who will deal with money. What we do is once we have the projects ready, or even before preparing the festival, we find places like the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOMus) to collaborate with — we’ve worked with them since the festival’s second year. So we get some money, but this money goes to the artists; this is how the artists are getting paid. But it is very basic stuff. I personally don’t like that we are still struggling with these things. In 2019, we got a fund from the European Cultural Foundation for the educational program I mentioned before, but otherwise, we don’t know what will happen each year. In previous years, we have collaborated with shops or bars in the city, where they funded the events that they hosted. We are planning to do the same this year, and there are some people who are really interested in funding next year’s festival. However, it’s pretty sad that the curators, the media team, and the coordinators haven’t gotten paid yet. It’s really sad.
What was it like organizing an arts festival during a global pandemic?
It was really tiring! When you are fighting with other subjects in society, you realize that you need a lot of power — you have to be persistent, but you feel tired, you struggle, and you want to give up. Now that we had to deal with the government and a pandemic, it was too much. There were too many enemies, too many ideas or people to confront, which created a lot of psychological effects. From my personal experience, the subject “What is fear” and the pandemic made a great combination. I don’t know if great is the best word, but the combination made me realize why we need this festival and why we need to insist on creating this festival and organizing it. Even though we were in a bad mood and having a bad time, we really wanted to create this festival. Everyone had their ups and downs, but we managed to do it, and it was quite successful. I wouldn’t say that it was difficult to coordinate or curate the festival; I think it was more the external references we had related to what we were experiencing in the festival. The art was really connected to what we were all experiencing.
Can you go more in-depth about what it is like to be LGBTI in Greece?
I don’t want to be really philosophical. I want to explain things more academically, but the lack of knowledge or the misconceptions that exist due to mass media is so big that normal people in our everyday lives don’t know what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and queer. Queer is not a Greek word, so it’s kind of strange to understand it, and neither is trans, but being lesbian and being gay is in the Greek tradition. People can understand it as a sexual practice, but the rest is kind of blurred. At the same time, the only access people have in their everyday lives to a person who is not heteronormative is through horrible theories that promote a very specific model of the human being: materialistic, narcissistic, and uneducated. We have this stereotype of how a queer person can be, so when they meet a person who is not like this, they are surprised that other kinds of people exist and that there are other kinds of human beings. But at the same time, I think being non-heteronormative in Greece — and especially if some Greeks can perceive this in your appearance that you’ve chosen to wear or do something to your body that’s not acceptable — it will be challenging.
It’s also the government that is promoting these ideas. The government that we have now recently changed its team. We have a fascist minister of health, and more of the ministers are fascists who promote these models and whose public speeches are primarily racist, homophobic, and transphobic. Some years ago, when the government was going to vote on changing the gender identity laws — at the time, you had to have surgery to get an ID with your real name — our current Prime Minister said that we don’t have to accept all trans people because I know a person who met an alien who told him to change his gender and this is what most trans people do. When someone like this is running the country, you can understand how the rest of the country is. When the head says that someone has been told by an alien to change their gender, whatever activists do, there will still be problems. It’s very poetic and beautiful to think that change starts from society, but I have realized in Greece that if the government doesn’t change and doesn’t take the first steps, the people will not accept any kind of diversity.
Have you seen any changes in society since you first started organizing the festival?
I haven’t seen people transforming from enemies into allies. Still, I’ve seen people who are not necessarily queer understanding the things that connect us and perceiving their existence more holistically. We had some discussions with some cis straight women who were participating, and they were saying they found the project interesting and that they realized all these things, all these issues that we are dealing with, they have things in common. And we responded, yes, of course, because it is human nature. This was my goal from the very first moment — to make them understand that we are the same. Our anxieties, our insecurities, our traumas are the same. I saw a completely different gaze from their side, I would say. Every time we meet them in the city, we have a great time discussing other problems that some people in our society might have. I would say we made them more sensitive; they perceive more information now. They understand how they can change and how they are personally involved in these societal problems.
How can readers support you?
To be honest, for next year, we are working on accessibility. The festival theme is “What is diversity,” so we are making an open call directly to people who work with accessibility issues in art and would like to invite them to collaborate with us. Otherwise, there is a donation link on our webpage, and it would be kind if they could support us to form a more official group and become an NGO or another type of organization. We also would love people to visit the festival, participate in the workshops, and promote our work. We have also promoted the festival in other cities, so it would be amazing if they want to do something during the festival’s dates — which I think will be in April — in their cities. We want to create events all over the world. For example, as I am in the Netherlands right now, I will definitely arrange something here. If there are people who would like to do this in their countries, they can contact us directly.
Is there anything else you would like to tell the readers?
I will listen to my body, and I would say that it is really tiring and it causes a lot of negative feelings and loneliness to be an activist and to be an artist on planet earth. So, when people see group initiatives or individual initiatives, I would like them to support those initiatives. Even though these people are strong and constantly producing new ideas and fighting the huge monsters of the world, they really need feedback and support. Just to hug them, literally or not. So, this year, after Covid, it’s imperative to support more non-institutional organizations — it’s really time to help small groups and individual initiatives.
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