Growing up Greek and gay: Theodore's story

Theodore Tsipiras grew up in a typical Greek migrant family, an environment he felt suffocated him for most of his adolescence. As an adult, he's had to come to terms with not only his sexuality, but his experience with sexual abuse, bullying, drug addiction and living with HIV. This is his story.

Feeling Broken
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Theodore grew up in Sydney and experienced what he describes as a “really normal childhood” in a typical Greek-Australian household. When he started becoming sexually aware, life became more complicated.

"When I started to be sexually mature... I understood that when a woman and a man were walking down the street, I was checking them both out," he explained.

He struggled to reconcile his attraction to men with many aspects of the heavily patriarchal Greek culture. He couldn’t fit in and, being of a sensitive nature, he saw himself as “broken”.

“I took it all on by myself… and I had a lot of issues with that,” he said.

 

Self-Hate, Acceptance and Rebellion
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Coming to terms with his sexuality wasn’t easy. Theodore hated himself, remaining in denial for a what he describes as a "good amount of time" before he could accept that he was gay.

“In the Greek culture we are all palikaria [spirited, upright, stout young lads]; a man’s man, a manga [tough bloke]. It’s really frustrating to see that as an adolescent and look down upon yourself because you think you are not a man,” he said.

The challenge of accepting his homosexuality was further complicated by the sexual abuse he suffered between the ages of 10 and 14. He said he had discussed the abuse with his family in the years since, but still kept many of the details private.

"We have spoken in quite some detail about what happened - even though I will not disclose who it exactly was," he said.

Coming out to friends was liberating. Yet, it led him to rebellion. Theodore was angry, particularly with his parents. He felt they were absent when he most needed them. He said he rebelled by engaging in self-destructive behaviour; hurting himself to get back at them.

“[I did] a whole lot of drug taking by the age of 15.  Everything that your mum told you not to do… going against that,” he says.

 

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Sex, Drugs and Gay Men
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Theodore started abusing drugs and taking risks with sex at the age of 15 and ended up using crystal methamphetamine for approximately five years.

"Crystal meth made me feel like I could do anything I wanted sexually with a man. There were issues [in regards] to my confidence on the gay scene. It was just about popularity," he said.

"A lot of the time you would be getting ready for a party - or even at a party - and someone would be passing around a pipe.

"As someone who didn't know he was addicted, it pretty much enabled me to use more. I didn't know I was being pulled in."

He said sharing his story is about understanding the connection between the journey with sexuality, HIV, and being a survivor of child sexual abuse.

 

Russian Roulette
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Growing up in the '90s, Theodore didn’t have much of an understanding of what HIV was.

“You didn’t really talk about it,” he says.

“My first and most of my encounters with men were through unprotected sex.”

He compares his sexual encounters to playing “Russian roulette” and discovered he was HIV-positive when he was 21.

When the reality of his status sank in, Theodore went to confront the man he believed was responsible.

“He actually stopped me right there, because he would rather not know about his status. If he knew about it he would have to disclose his status to his sexual partners; I guess he wasn’t comfortable with that,” he said.

Theodore now works as a project officer for Living Positive Victoria, a not-for-profit, community-based organisation representing people living with HIV in Victoria.

"I help people over 50 talk about their status in public to their peers to help challenge stigma and bring awareness to the aged care sector," he said.

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"You Don’t Have To Do This"
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When he appeared on the SBS Insight episode “Keeping Secrets”, all of Theodore’s own secrets were forced into the open.

His past revealed on national television, he couldn’t talk about HIV without explaining the sexual abuse and the drug use. Everything had to be exposed.

 

“It changed my life. I held on to a lot of anger towards my family because they didn’t know and they didn’t really seek to understand and I thought they had a general idea of what was going on," he said.

"But it was legitimately a surprise and [a] shock to them… that it actually happened during the years when my mother and father were taking care of me."

He said his relationship with his parents today is far different.

"We're really close. Now that I've moved to Melbourne I talk to my mother once a day, non-negotiable. I feel like I can talk honestly to my parents and family. Thankfully we're all on the same page and [they've said] how proud they have been of the path I've taken to liberate myself from my past."

Reflecting on all he's been through, Theodore said he had a good idea of what he'd say to his younger self.

“If I could have sat there and talked to myself when I was 17, I'd have said, 'you don’t have to do meth to deal with this. It actually happens a lot more than you think, it’s just that no one talks about it.'

"I could have saved myself a lot of difficult work.”

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Keeping Secrets - Insight
Theodore tells his story to Insight's Jenny Brockie.

The Full Interview
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The Institute of Many has a harm reduction resource for gay, bi, trans men living with HIV who use crystal meth, available to download here.

The Greek & Gay Support Network provides support and social services to gay and bisexual men and women of Greek background. For more information, visit www.greekandgay.com.au

SBS ON DEMAND
Head On
In this brilliant and yet confronting film, Ari (Alex Dimitriades) is caught between his Greekness, his Australianness, his gayness and his city of Melbourne. Ari jams all his energy and defiance, pain and joy into one high velocity night of dancing, sex and drugs. Directed by Ana Kokkinos and stars Alex Dimitriades and Julian Garnier. (From Australia, in English and Greek) (1998)