“My identity connects me with people across the border I have never met, by knowing that we all share struggles that LGBTQ+ people have to go through, since our societies both here and across the border have not yet accepted us.” Theo says. Under British colonial law, homosexuality was outlawed. While it is now legal to be queer on both sides of the island, it wasn’t until 2014 that the North legalised male homosexuality, and there are a lot of rights still to be won, particularly for trans people. Cypriots are fighting for LGBTQ+ rights on both sides of the divide, and often crossing the border to find solidarity or in order to feel more comfortable to be themselves.
Omar, who is north Cypriot and gay, was born in South London, but recalls fond memories of returning to Cyprus a few months a year throughout his childhood, mostly to Mağusa/Ammochostos/Famagusta, a harbour town on the north side. The island is special to him: “I walked for the first time in Cyprus.”
Omar is angry at Greece, Turkey, the UK and the UN for what he has experienced as their power grabbing that has divided the island. He tells me he is angry at imperialism for disrupting the native people of Cyprus.
For many queer and trans Cypriots in the UK, connecting to all parts of our identities can be a challenge. Growing up queer, non-binary, Muslim and Cypriot has been a challenge for me. It has been hard to find spaces where I can exist as my whole self. Omar shares this struggle, and we talk about how being Muslim, as most Turkish-speaking Cypriots are, brings its own challenges in Britain - where we often feel the claws of Islamophobia.
“As queer people, we’re always exploring gender and sexuality, I also feel like that about my Cypriotness”
For Omar, shame is a big part of it. “I changed my name, moved and cosplayed as a white person,” he says of his coming-out journey. When he realised he was gay, he tried to hide his Cypriot identity so that he could assimilate into the UK queer scene: “In my head, you couldn’t be Cypriot and queer. Being Cypriot is an identity crisis,” he adds. “As queer people, we’re always exploring gender and sexuality, I also feel like that about my Cypriotness.” After a while, Omar wanted to reclaim all parts of his identity. “Just because our culture is practised in a heteronormative way, that doesn’t mean we have to do that. We can reclaim it in a queer way. I can go to a wedding and enjoy a traditional testi dance. It’s ours as much as theirs,” Omar says.
Jas is nonbinary and grew up in the UK, but has lived in Larnaka/Larnaka/Larnaca in south Cyprus for the past 12 years with their Cypriot partner. Jas describes the strangeness of the island’s divide. “When there’s a political event, like elections, people have strong opinions about the border. But most of the time, people just want to know which side they can buy the cheapest petrol,” they say. Jas questions my use of the term “border” - “Should we instead call it a crossing point?” they ask.
Jas says language is another clear example of the divided nature of the island. Greek is a very gendered language, and that makes it hard for trans people - particularly if they are non-binary like Jas - while on the other side of the border, the Turkish language doesn’t have gendered pronouns.