Thousands Rally After Shocking Attack on Trans Couple Rattles Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Greek LGBTQ Community Defiant: ‘We Are Not Afraid’

UPDATED: A crowd that swelled into the thousands took to the streets of Thessaloniki Sunday night, one day after a shocking attack on a transgender couple rocked Greece’s second city and rattled filmmakers and guests at this year’s Thessaloniki Documentary Festival.

Waving rainbow flags, carrying banners denouncing homophobia and transphobia and chanting protest slogans, the mostly peaceful demonstration wound through the streets of this seaside city just hours after costume-clad revelers thronged the roads ahead of Thessaloniki’s Carnival celebration next weekend.

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The crowd began to gather before 7 p.m. in Aristotelous Square, which was the site of the terrifying episode on Saturday night, when a mob of close to 200 black-clad youths cursed, spat and threw bottles as they pursued the young couple. The duo ultimately took refuge in a nearby restaurant until the police arrived on the scene. At least 21 suspects have been arrested so far.

On Sunday night, a stirring coalition of LGBTQ activists, women’s groups, student organizations and others showed their defiance, their chants echoing through the streets in a protest that only seemed to gain momentum as the night went on.

Despite a heavy police presence, the demonstration largely proceeded without incident. Tensions briefly flared outside the historic Olympion theater, which hosts red carpet premieres during the Thessaloniki doc fest and its sister event in November, and where moviegoers filed past riot police to attend the world premiere of “Unclickable,” by veteran Greek filmmaker Babis Makridis.

The director and several members of the filmmaking team were escorted through a side door as a confrontation escalated between police and protesters, with one officer taking a blow to the face before order was restored. Elsewhere, at least two seaside restaurants were vandalized during the march.

Thessaloniki Documentary Festival protest
Riot police were on hand as moviegoers arrived at the Olympion theater.

Saturday’s attack — which took place in front of packed restaurants and cafés in a square that is the heart of public life in Thessaloniki — has shocked and outraged attendees of the festival, which has a spotlight on queer cinema as one of the focal points of its 26th edition.

“I thought some things would have changed, but now I wonder, have things changed?” says lesbian activist and filmmaker Maria Katsikadakou, also known as Maria Cyber, adding that she was “angry and terrified” about the brazen assault.

“Greek society is abusive. It is a society that feeds on hate, and this isn’t going to change any time soon,” adds conceptual artist and filmmaker Fil Ieropoulos, whose documentary “Avant-Drag!,” about the Athens drag scene, plays this week in Thessaloniki following its Rotterdam premiere.

This year’s edition of the Thessaloniki Documentary Festival includes a wide-ranging tribute to queer cinema, “Citizen Queer,” while an honorary Golden Alexander award is being bestowed upon Greek filmmaker Panayotis Evangelidis, whose work has long focused on the visibility of the LGBTQ community.

In a statement provided to Variety, the festival said it was filled with “anger and repugnance” over the attack.

“The festival unreservedly and explicitly condemns any act of homophobic and racist violence, sending out a loud and clear message of tolerance, inclusivity, acceptance and visibility through the full scope of its actions,” the statement read. “As we have repeatedly stated, the festival discards any acts of hatred and violence and the extremist voices of intolerance and racism, serving as an open platform of art, inclusivity and dialogue.”

Thessaloniki Documentary Festival protests
Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Thessaloniki on Sunday night.

The incident took place just weeks after the historic passage of a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in Greece, a first for an Orthodox Christian country. While that legislation has been widely praised as progress in the struggle for equal rights for Greece’s LGBTQ community, activists and filmmakers who spoke to Variety expressed their skepticism about such “top-down” legislation, which provides important and necessary legal protections for queer Greeks but doesn’t address the underlying threats they face in daily life.

Saturday’s episode, notes Ieropoulos, reflects “what Greek reality is for queers.”

“With these new laws, we are at a crossroads and we’re going to see what all this really means for Greek society in the next few years,” he says. “I don’t personally think these laws reflect where Greece is as a society. And if anything, this event shows that the fact that some people may benefit from the new laws does not change Greek reality in general and especially for trans people.”

“Things have changed. But the changes, you see in Athens,” says Katsikadakou, recalling the virulent homophobia she faced on her last visit to Thessaloniki five years ago. “The rest of Greece is full of Orthodox, right-wing, patriarchal people. The macho culture is in their DNA.”

Thessaloniki Documentary Festival protests
At least two seaside restaurants were vandalized during the largely peaceful protest.

On Sunday, the mayor of Thessaloniki, Stelios Angeloudis, condemned Saturday’s attack, insisting that it went against the pluralism on which Greece’s second city — a historical crossroads of East and West — was built.

“We condemn in the most unequivocal way the vulgar, homophobic attack in the heart of the city,” he said. “Acceptance is a sign of culture and democracy. In the colorful, inclusive Thessaloniki of respect for diversity there is no place for racist attitudes.”

Local activists are now looking ahead to June, when the city is slated to host EuroPride, a pan-European LGBTQ event held in a different European city each year, that’s expected to draw several hundred thousand visitors to the city for concerts, parties, events and a parade.

Katsikadakou, who helped curate the festival’s “Citizen Queer” tribute, expressed her hope that “we flood the city with angry queers [who] will have no fucking tolerance for fascist, homophobic, racist acts…[and will] come with force and put these stupid people back in their caves where they belong.”

Meanwhile, organizers of the annual Thessaloniki Pride event insisted they would not be cowed, posting on the group’s Facebook page: “It is up to all of us to mobilize and show solidarity, so as not to let fear return to Thessaloniki! We are not ashamed, we are not hiding, we are not afraid!”

The Thessaloniki Documentary Festival runs March 7 – 17.

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