Elizabeth K. Lee is the United States Consul General in Thessaloniki
Serving as an American diplomat for over 14 years has been a tremendous honor – and a tremendous responsibility. For me, this job is not just a career, but a calling. I’ve had the privilege of representing the United States all over the world, including in Seoul, Jerusalem, and Baghdad. And as U.S. Consul General in Thessaloniki, I feel incredibly fortunate to live in this beautiful and historic city while further strengthening the security, economic, and cultural ties between the United States and Greece.
When I was a young girl, I never could have imagined having opportunities like these. That’s because when I was about 10 years old, I discovered I was gay.
It was in the late 80s, and the AIDS pandemic was still raging in the United States, with nearly a 100% mortality rate for those infected. My family and I were Korean American immigrants living in California, I remember watching the news with my mother and seeing an image of two men with their backs turned towards the camera, walking with their hands in the back pockets of each other’s jeans.
“Wow, they must be really good friends,” I mused aloud.
My mother, in a tone that I had never heard her use before, said, “No, they’re homosexuals.” This new tone wasn’t a nice one; I heard disgust and derision. Fear.
Nevertheless, I pressed on, asking her, “What’s a homosexual?”
“It means a man who is attracted to other men.”
My own immediate, visceral reaction was, “Ewwwww!” Then, mid-stream, I caught myself. I realized that “homosexual” described me, too. I think I had known I was gay for a very long time, but I hadn’t known the word to describe it until then.
That was when I began to feel afraid, not only of people’s reactions, but of myself.
I found a psychology book in my father’s library. The book said that same-sex attraction was a phase that everyone went through, but that if it didn’t go away by age 12, then I really was gay. I took the book as gospel, and I started praying every night for two years for my feelings to go away by my twelfth birthday. I desperately wanted to be “normal” – the alternative was beyond imagining.
The night before I turned twelve, I barely slept. I hoped that something magical would happen the moment the clock struck midnight, like in Cinderella. But when I woke up on my twelfth birthday—nothing. I still didn’t like boys. I was still gay. I asked myself the questions I hadn’t dared to until now: What would my mother and father think? Was I a bad person? Why was I born this way? Would my family and friends reject me? And the scariest question of all: Would anyone ever love me in this lifetime?
This was well before the internet, and I didn’t know any other gay people or how to find them. I felt overwhelmingly, incredibly alone.
But on that twelfth birthday, from the depths of my fear, a decision slowly surfaced – the first important one of my life: “Fine,” I thought. “Maybe no one will love me in this life. Maybe my friends and family will reject me if I tell them. But even if society tells me that I am bad or defective, I know myself, and I know I am a good person. Even if others reject me, I will not reject myself.”
Even though I did not live through the horrors of war like my parents, who lived through the Korean War as small children and experienced deeply traumatic events, I was determined to survive.
The scared young girl that I was over thirty years ago never thought she would find acceptance or love, or one day have the privilege of representing her country abroad as an openly lesbian woman. It’s amazing to me the progress we’ve made since then, in the United States and all over the world regarding LGBTQ+ rights, including same-sex marriage in my own country. I’m proud that the Biden-Harris administration has committed itself to protecting the civil rights of every LGBTQ+ American, enabling all qualified Americans – including transgender Americans – to serve their country in uniform, ensuring that all Americans can be leaders at every level of the federal government.
This Pride Month, the United States reaffirms that no one should face discrimination or harassment because of who they are or whom they love. We still have much work to do, in my own country and around the world. I’ve learned that people and societies can change, sometimes at a breathtaking pace, but change does not happen on its own. It takes people standing up for themselves, and for others, sometimes over and over again.
I’ve been so impressed by the resilience of Thessaloniki’s LGBTQ+ community over the past year. The pandemic has been difficult for all of us, but I know that it was especially hard to postpone last year’s EuroPride until 2024. As a symbol of our support and solidarity, the U.S. Mission is proud to fly the Pride flag in Athens and in Thessaloniki for the first time this month to celebrate the diversity and contributions of the LGBTQ+ community in Greece and around the world. The U.S. Mission and I will continue to partner with Thessaloniki Pride and other local LGBTQ+ organizations in our struggle for a more just and equal future, and I look forward to celebrating with you in person this September.
Happy Pride, Thessaloniki!
This first appeared in Greek in Parallaxi Magazine. It has been republished in The Pappas Post with permission from the magazine, as well as Consul General Lee.
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