When Pantos came out to his mother, she immediately took him to see a priest. Because growing up in a religious community, she was taught being gay meant going to hell.
How was your upbringing?
My parents were immigrants from Greece and I grew up in a conservative community. I was an altar boy in the Church. My parents owned a pizzeria so I spent most of my time helping my dad making pizza boxes. My three other siblings and I spent a lot of time in the pizzeria because my parents were working long hours so we would hang out there often. My father was always working twelve hours a day, so we would see him when he came home, on the weekend. He’s a hard working man. My mother is more sociable and people want to hang out with her all the time.
Although my parents were very busy they always made us feel loved. We have a big extended family that lives in the city nearby and they would come visit on the weekends so we’ve always had a strong sense of community. You could call it a very typical Greek immigrant story where there’s a lot of love, a lot of pressure but you always feel that it’s a strong community and there are people looking out for you.
However my parents divorced when I was 11 years old and that was a traumatic experience for my parents, siblings and for me. It set the stage for the rest of the story.
When did you realise you were gay?
I remember the first moment I had a feeling I was gay was in a grocery store. I was staring at this police officer and I didn’t know why I was looking at him, I was fascinated. I couldn’t stop staring and it was probably only a few minutes but it felt much longer. At that point I couldn’t identify exactly what I was feeling but with hindsight I probably was just attracted to him.
I was thirteen or fourteen years old when I could put words on how I felt and that I was gay. I was laying in bed thinking of how I was attracted to men. It was difficult for me to accept it. I just thought I had to kill myself because I didn’t think there was a future for a person like me in this community or in this world. I felt invisible and I didn’t want to belong here.
I gained a lot of weight as a result of this. I probably weighed 40 kg heavier (44 inch waist) surely to keep people away so I didn’t have to have any sexual experience or relationships. I didn’t have many friends at school, I was very shy. I cut myself off from the world, threw myself in the books, and studied as hard as I could.
For me, life was about studying and being the best student I could be, pleasing my parents and anything in regards to sexuality and relationships was to be avoided at all costs. I didn’t know how to integrate that aspect of myself into my life and how I could be a normal functional human being when the only example of relationships I had were married straight couples, Greek Orthodox with kids.
Were you scared about your parents finding out?
Scared? I was terrified of my parents finding out. I felt a strong sense of shame and that’s the last thing I wanted to bring to my family and parents. I always wanted to please them. I just wanted calm, peace and serenity.
Did you have any gay role models?
Growing up, no I didn’t have any gay role models. Television was a saving grace for me. The TV show ‘Will and Grace’ was probably one of the first opportunities I got see gay people. Although they were portrayed in a stereotypical way it was comforting that in the city a few hours away there were people having fun, living life, having sex and enjoying themselves. I could identify with these people and it felt like I wasn’t alone.
You came out for the first time when you were in university. How was your experience?
When I came out, my roommate who was also Greek and a good friend of mine, was furious about it. I had come out on Facebook by changing my status to “interested in men” and he had seen that. We were close friends. We would have lunch together and hang out, but at this point he was furious. I think he felt betrayed. He would call me a woman, saying he wasn’t comfortable being around me. He would sleep with heavy covers on top of him because he thought he’d be raped by me. My life was a living hell. He would call me ‘she’ to his friends and then he wrote the word FAG on the door with a marker.
However as difficult as this experience was, I was blessed to have a group of friends who took my sexuality as something normal, as putting salt on food. I remember coming out to a friend and she said ‘OK, what do you want for dinner?’ so having a group of friends like that was really important.
When did you come out to your parents?
I told them separately. I told my mother, first, when I was 18 years old. I had come back home after the first semester of university. I was sitting at the kitchen table waiting for my sisters and mum to get ready for a barbecue we were invited to. As I was sitting there I was thinking about how each day that went on, each month, each year it would be much more difficult to come out to them. I needed to get it off my chest and it felt like the right time. I was terrified because she’s a religious woman and goes to Church so my main fear was that she would reject me. I had no idea of how she would react.
I started crying uncontrollably and she looked at me and asked what was going on. I said I had to tell her something and the words just came out of my mouth: “‘I’m homosexual.’”.
She didn’t know what that meant so her first reaction was:
“Does that mean you want to become a woman?-No
Does that mean you fell in love with a man and a woman? -No
Does that mean you want to dress like a woman? -No”.
I think she was thinking of all the sexual deviances she could imagine and I just said:
“No, I fall in love with men.”.
Her first reaction was to know who I’d come out to, and I told her that my sisters knew and they had reacted perfectly well, that they loved me either way. So my mum ran up the stairs and asked them why they hadn’t told her. As a Greek family we have to deal with difficulties together.
So after that she immediately said we needed to find a priest to “speak to me” and “fix me”.
My sisters were supportive and didn’t understand why I would have to speak to the priest.
When she spoke to the priest he made it clear that I was going straight to hell, and that she needed to save my soul. She spent the next two years talking to the priest who told her that I needed to be cured but I refused to talk to him mostly because I felt a strong sense of shame and I knew what his reaction would be. I thought it would make me feel uncomfortable, doubt myself and my reality.
Do you understand your mother’s reaction?
My mother is an intense, powerful woman. Her reaction was loving. In her mind for many years she pictured me married with kids. When I came out to her it never felt like she was rejecting me in any sense. Sitting at that kitchen table the first thing she told me was that she wasn’t going to throw me out of the house. She just wanted to know who else knew.
I’m really grateful to have her because it was important for me to feel a sense of security. She didn’t reject me it was more how will we fix this. The priest was traditionally the answer in the community. It was more like having some sort of sickness and so the priest is the spiritual doctor who could fix this. She didn’t know any better and didn’t have the support. She recently said she’d spoken to a lot of family members, both in Greece and the States and many said that I needed to get a female prostitute, or that they just needed to beat me up so that I was cured, knock sense into me, and she felt very upset that some of the closest family members said to beat her son up.
I also think I’m very lucky that my parents moved to the US because in Greece it would have been much worse. Most of my Greek friends who grew up in Greece have not come out to their families. I don’t know many people who have even if they do it’s never spoken about again.
Did your mother end up fully accepting your homosexuality?
Eventually she spoke to a therapist who told her that it was OK to have a gay son.
But the priest was putting pressure on her to send me to a therapist who would cure me.
My mother found another group of priests who told her that I was one of God’s creatures, just like everyone else, and she needs to love and accept me. I think it was important for my mother to hear this, at least from one Greek Orthodox Priest. Once she heard that she could theoretically march in a Gay Pride Parade. It’s probably not the official line of the Church, but it’s what she needed to hear. That priest probably saw my mother in pain, and wanted to feel a sense of peace with reality.
Since then, I’ll never forget, my mother was on a treadmill at home, walking. I was probably 20-21 years old, and there was a TV program with Scott Bale on it and she said:
‘Do you think he’s cute?’.
And that to me was almost like saying ‘I accept you’. It was nice to have that sense of love and acceptance from my mother. It took a few years but we got there in the end.
She is now ready to come to the wedding. If anyone says anything to her in the community, she just tells them to mind their business. She’s made a progression and for her me being gay became completely normal.
When did you come out to your father?
I told my father a couple of years later and I think he didn’t understand homosexuality. It was quite complicated and we’d rather not talk about it, still today. It’s a taboo subject but he’s still loving. My parents are divorced and my stepmother is very supportive of me which is good.
Do you regret coming out to your father?
Not at all. Looking back it was a very brave decision. My life would have been much more difficult. I don’t like lies, I don’t like pretending I would have been in a situation where I had to invent stories, say I’m not ready maybe to do what a lot of gay Greek people do when they don’t want to come out saying they don’t want to talk about my personal life.
In my mind it makes it worse because your parents have no understanding of who you are, and I didn’t want to build a wall between my parents an myself. It was important for me to have a sense of integrity of who I am and not have some sort of barrier that I created with my family and my social circle. If I had to self-censure I wouldn’t feel a sense of authenticity and integrity. I didn’t want to feel like I was lying about who I am.
How should parents, especially religious parents, react to their child’s coming out?
I would hope and I ask that parents would go into any discussion like this with a sense of love and concern for their child. I know it’s a difficult conversation if you’re from a religious or conservative community but I think it’s important to have an open dialogue and to remember your child and your love for your child. I wouldn’t like to think that there are children thrown out of homes, rejected by their parents because of something like this. It seems to me like a lot of unnecessary pain and grief. We didn’t choose to be gay but we must embrace who we are and the more support we get, the happier we are.
With hindsight, what would you say today to your younger self?
I would say to myself to be strong and resilient. I would also recommend to find groups of people out there who can support you. You might feel alone, you might feel like there’s no one who can understand you. But there’s a whole world out there of amazing people who would love to get to know you and to be there to help and support you.
RuPaul has an expression, “we get to create our own families”. So if your family cannot deal with this , if they cannot handle the fact that you’re different, special, then go and create your own community, create your own family.
Remember, you’ll find a way.