Nation, Diaspora, Homeland, TRANS
By Yiorgos Anagnostou
Zak Kostopoulos, in memoriam
With deep respect for the tragic loss of this human being, I would like to bring attention to the Greek/American aspect that defined the life of Zak Kostopoulos, an American-born gay activist and drag performer who recently died after brutal public beating in Athens, where he was residing. Although he often mentioned his Greek American–ness as significant in shaping his life, this facet is also entirely missing in the conversation about the various forms of violence that were inflicted upon this individual. It is as if there is an aporia in the society regarding the role of the Greek/American experience in Zak Kostopoulos’s tragedy.
The TRANS aspects of Kostopoulos’s life that were discussed are all in relation to recognizable categories of communities/groups, and therefore relatively intelligible to the wider public: gays, sex workers, drug addicts, drag queens, individuals with HIV positive status, etc. However, one particular TRANS dimension is missing from this conversation, and the reason for this absence is that it does not fit to any norm, even a transgressive one: this individual literally lived a TRANS existence between Greece and the United States, nation and diaspora, and homeland and immigration. His hybridity, as a result, posed a threat to both elements in each pair.
TRANS hybridities like this one have no public community. Individuals within this space belong nowhere, they are not accepted either “here” or “there.” This explains why the conversation about Kostopoulos neglected, both in Greece and the United Sates, to engage with this particular TRANS hybridity, the Greek/American one.*
An aspect of Kostopoulos’s subjectivity was shaped in relation to his personal routes between the United States and Greece as well as in reverse, Greece and the United States. More accurately, these routes were mediated by his extensive family. The repatriation of his immigrant parents brought young Zak to Greece, whose society Greek/American Zak found unbearable. Upon his insistent request for his own repatriation to the United States, his parents acquiesced and sent him back to live with close relatives. But when in turn the situation became unbearable in his immediate environment there, he sees under pressure a return to Greece as an escape route. Transnational movement, the back and forth between the two countries, between here and there as well as there and here were constitutive components in his life.
The back and forth in this particular case is a back and forth of displacements. It is significant to focus in the particular social spaces within the wider transnational space in which this drama unfolds. In Greece, Zak feels like a stranger, he did not “like it here.” His actual encounter with the country was alienating, but his personal experience is no exception. According to Anastasia Christou’s ethnography, a host of young Greek Americans experience their repatriation in Greece, the homeland of their immigrant parents, as a nightmare. In their effort to integrate they cannot tolerate realities in a society, which up to that moment, animated their imagination as a magnificent place. It is apt to recall at this point the film My Life in Ruins, in which the repatriated heroine, Georgia, originally experiences rejection as a nonauthentic Greek in Greece. Zak’s insistence to return to the United States underlines the discomfort that hybrid individuals experience when forced to operate in a culturally homogeneous space, the challenges associated with belonging in a society that stresses both homogeneity, and, among other things, the patriarchal family.
Let us note that Zak’s desire for returning to the United States as the preferred homeland carries significance beyond the level of the individual. It introduces a rupture in the national narrative claiming the diaspora as an integral component of the nation, as sameness with the nation. A multitude of individuals in the diaspora carry multiple identities, challenging the ideology of the diaspora as a “pure” and continuous extension of the nation beyond its borders.
But even in the United States, the nation, in its traditional expression of heteronormativity (and expectation for intraethnic marriage), is not far away. It is lurking at the center of the American suburb where Zak’s relatives, “instead of being Greek Americans of the 00ss, have remained Greeks of the 1970s.” It is not an accident that Nia Vardalos, in her film My Big Fat Greek Wedding, places at the center of her satire–a satire originating from the perspective of the second generation–the authoritarian patriarch who functions as the carrier of oppressive tradition. In Kostopoulos’s real life the traditionalist relatives discover the homosexuality of their nephew and set in motion a cruel process of surveillance to discipline him into heterosexual conformity. Gut-wrenching, the following autobiographical fragment by Kostopoulos testifies and indicts the violence of the controlling heterosexual discourse and practices of his relatives:
So that’s that [the family was exclaiming upon the discovery of Zak having a male lover]. Our own Zac, our own kin, no way we will take this. “Do not dare to see him again, otherwise an ‘accident’ may happen to him like it could happen to any person [they were threatening] (and an ‘accident’ may happen to you, I thought). They tricked you, you are not made of this stuff [you are not of their kind]. You will surely adjust back to normality.” And from that moment I was always chaperoned. Never allowed to hung out with my own pals. They took my cell phone away, locked the land line. They only allowed me to call my parents, once or twice a week, and this in their presence. Depression.
If the repatriation to the United States ruptures the Greek national narrative, Zak’s experience in the suffocating grip of a traditionalist immigrant family creates additional cracks, this time in relation to the Greek American narrative of success. The excessive obsession with economic and social distinction leaves untouched various structures where sectors of Greek America are failing, including lack of acceptance of a range of differences within the group. These failures shake the foundations of the narrative of ethnicity as success.
Ultimately, Zak manages to “escape” to Greece where he strives to create new spaces for the expression of a range of alternative identities, including his identity as a gay man. He becomes an activist, turning his personal ordeal into a political one. He fights to materialize alternative personal and collective homelands in the midst of a homeland that alienates him.
If Zak’s life was a series of displacements, scorn, slaps, and stompings on his multiple identities, but also a series of countering back and resisting, as well as his successes and failures–like those of any human being–let us not forget to take into account the particular Greek/American facet that enters into the multifaceted TRANS experiences of Zak Kostopoulos. Because, among other issues, the loss of this human being brings us face-to-face with the question, what kind of nation we wish to become, what kind of public sphere to sustain, what kind of diaspora to animate and narrate.
Yiorgos Anagnostou is Professor of cultural studies in the Modern Greek Program at The Ohio State University. He often writes about Greek/America.
* I thank Vassilis Lambropoulos,
C. P. Cavafy Professor Emeritus, University of Michigan