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Paola Revenioti

The Greek transgender activist on blowing up sexual taboos in the name of art

During the 80s, transgender Greek artist and prostitute Paola Revenioti published the trans-anarchist fanzine Kraximo. Funded by her own prostitution, the zine pioneered the fight for gay and trans rights, combining interviews with Greek poets and intellectuals alongside Athens street hustlers and her own photography, since compared to the work of Larry Clark and Walter Pfeiffer. Today she continues to work as an artist and activist, making Athens-based documentaries with her "Paola Projects". This interview is taken from the May issue of Dazed & Confused:

“I was born in 1959 on the Greek coast in Piraeus, a historic place. There were old captains and merchants from the Aegean islands gathered around the big port in neoclassical houses, while on the other side of town was the Trouba neighbourhood with its old brothels, cabarets and cinemas that played erotic movies after sunset. The American navy was moored off the coast. My father was a factory worker, my mother a hairdresser. 

If you remember the character Tadzio, from the movie Death in Venice, that’s how I looked then, with my long blond hair. Boys there were nothing like the self-indulgent Athenian boys. They knew how to seduce you. I remember my grandmother showing me a piece of land one summer and saying, ‘This will be yours’ – a small yard, but a forest in my eyes. But for my father’s family it was a legacy I didn’t deserve; I was a ‘faggot’, shameful to them. I wanted to be independent and escape that family environment, so I joined the navy. I never had the opportunity of a proper education. In life I met extraordinary people and educated myself. 

I was in my 20s when I moved to Exarchia in Athens. It was an oasis of painters, poets, musicians and intellectuals. A revolutionary neighbourhood. Most of the friends I made back then became famous for something. We wanted to change the world. I got officially involved with politics – as the first transvestite to run as a candidate for the Alternative Party of Ecologists. My beliefs were closer to anti authoritarianism and anarchism. We occupied universities, held demonstrations. 

I began running my own pirate radio in Exarchia with money from prostitution. I’d go to work around nine in the evening and by 11pm I’d had about 25 customers, so I was making enough to run the station from midnight till 5am. I always played hard with the police. I was arrested twice for the station – the first time I hid the equipment with communists living next door. The whole of Athens was listening to ‘crazy Paola’. I’d receive live calls, start philosophical conversations on air, even arrange blind dates. I was evicted from my flat because every night dozens of boys would hang out on my doorstep, making too much noise.

I started my magazine Kraximo because there was a need for another voice to be heard. They were tough times: the police would arrest transvestites for fun. When it’s illegal to be yourself, you have no option but to fight back. I published police brutality reports – remember there was no internet then. In slang, Kraximo translates as ‘gaybashing’. Those were conservative times. People would scream names like ‘whore’, ‘scum’, ‘antichrist’... I wanted to guide people afraid of their sexuality and values, create something fresh and revolutionary. I gathered articles, paid friends to write or translate, spent hours creating the layout, blackening my fingers, copying and cutting. I remember one issue sold out in a single day. It was like an action movie, getting unique interviews with intellectuals and combining them with artists and photographs I took of boys around Greece. once I needed signatures to help a case about a murderer who was being accused, not for his crime, but for being a homosexual. Many journalists and politicians helped the campaign.

Kraximo was not easy to fund. Pseudoactivists who pretended to be friends never helped when bigots were suing me – I was dragged to the courts for Kraximo four times, for silly causes like nudity or blasphemy. And it wasn’t easy to get advertising with my content. Prostitution was the only way, even if I never saw it as a job, but more as a challenge, a stance, even a way to have fun. I’d chase cultural figures to support me. But the truth is I was publishing it by bending in the dark, spending nights on cheerful but tough roads.I remember one incident with a cop – I was waiting for a customer, and a man in casual clothes asked me to get in his car. I refused – instinctively I didn’t like him. He tried to violently force me to get in. I started screaming and my friend Boubou came round the corner, we started beating him, he was pulling our hair, slapping our faces. A priest came to help the guy, and they took us to the police station. All-night cops were cursing and spitting at us, ‘So you’re the bitches who tried to beat our fellow officer.’ So we found the metallic cap of a Coca-Cola bottle and scratched our hands and necks, blackmailing them that if they wouldn’t let us out, we’d accuse them of torture. 

I never thought I was documenting my city, I was living my city, wildly. I wish then I could have imagined a future as an artist. My first camera was a Soviet brand called Zenit, bought in a market. later I met a junkie who sold me a – probably stolen – Nikon F20 for $50. I’d photograph these ordinary but sexy boys who were spending time with me. Besides the erotic pictures, there were political ones, photos inside the court where some anarchist friend or lover was being tried, photos of policemen I knew beating up trannies, photos from the first organised political acts for gay and trans rights. I wanted to force public opinion to listen and change its views. Today social media plays a big role in protests. Back then we only had our nerves and freedom to sacrifice.

“The police would arrest transvestites for fun. When it’s illegal to be yourself, you have no option but to fight back”

The first attempt at gay pride in Athens in the 80s was a failure. Nobody came. Homosexuals were afraid to shout it out loud. I restarted gay pride after 1990. They weren’t commercialised then, they were like Dionysian festivals. Many people came: aristocrats, soldiers who knew me well, straight people. Of course they were all getting laid in the bushes. The parties took place in the Athenian woods, known as ‘cruising parks’. I took to the streets with a bucket of glue, pasting my posters, ‘Miss Paola Presents’, on every wall. I arranged bands, raves. Imagine sleeping in a hypocritical, conservative city and one shiny morning, waking up to that. 

Today, the economic crisis means I’m scared to count my money. Before, I’d spontaneously escape the city, cook for friends. We used to share because we had plenty, now we share because we have so little. I’m not optimistic, but I know it’s usually in dark times that the arts explode. 

With my Paola Project I make films about migration and politics, or male prostitution in Athens. I travel long distances in my broken car, pay the extreme price of gas, but now they even watch my videos in Uganda, where homophobia is such a problem. I do films on ancient Greek history because it’s being manipulated by Golden Dawn, the Greek neo-fascist party, as some kind of sick branding. Sometimes I feel afraid – I live next to their offices. But I’m ashamed of these modern Nazis, who are probably uneducated psychopaths with erection problems. Our politicians are using the fear of immigrants as a scapegoat, without finding a solution to this financial crisis. 

I’m 54 years old, and I’ve lived my life on the edge. But looking at my pictures now, I find them nostalgic in a sweet way. Some subjects have died, others have families. Time changes all of us. I feel full of love, sex and experiences. If I could have my own little house, I’d be the happiest person in the world.”