Zak Kostopoulos funeral: Gay activist, killed in mob attack, buried in Greece

Greek gay activist Zak Kostopoulos, who died in the streets of Athens following an apparent mob attack, was buried on Tuesday in the village of Kirra where he grew up.

The funeral was attended by his parents, friends, locals and members of the LGBT+ community who made sure Kostopoulos’ burial celebrated the way he lived and his role in queer advocacy.

It is tradition in Greece to throw handfuls of dirt on the coffin, but mourners threw glitter instead. “In the end the grave wasn’t brown anymore, it was pink and blue and purple, shiny glitter everywhere, tiny gay flags everywhere,” Kostopoulos’ friend and journalist Christina Michalou told PinkNews. “Some drag queens threw their wigs in the grave too.”

Kostopoulos often performed as drag queen Zackie Oh and appeared in a Vice Greece video exhibiting his routine, as well as starring in short film about living as an HIV-positive man and another about LGBT+ life in Athens, titled Faster Than Light, which has yet to be released.

The 33-year-old died on Friday (September 21) in circumstances that are still under investigation. Footage shared on social media and broadcast on local television news appears to show Kostopoulos trapped inside a jewellery store, attempting to break free.

Two men, who have since been arrested, can be seen kicking him as he attempted to exit the shop by crawling through an opening in the shop window, in one instance striking a blow to his head.

Zak Kostopoulos often performed as drag queen Zackie Oh (Aggelos Barai/Facebook)

Police initially described Kostopoulos as entering the store “armed with a knife” with the intent to commit a robbery, but his friends and family disputed that account. His father Efthimios Lekkas noted in an interview with a local publication that his son entered the store in broad daylight without concealing his face—no robber would behave that way.

A friend of Kostopoulos claimed he had entered the store to seek shelter from a brawl that had taken place across the road. It is still not known whether the knife reportedly found in the story had Kostopoulos’ fingerprints or DNA on it.

Lawyer Anna Paparousou, who represents Kostopoulos’ family, told Omnia TV on Monday that while the coroner’s report failed to identify a clear cause of death, it reported brain swelling, the origin of which still needs to be determined. She added that no eyewitnesses have come forward to testify and that the police has failed to record the beating in its report of the incident.

Paparousou credited the existence of the video with bringing the mob attack to light. “If the video did not exist, the case might have been closed. No violence would have been recorded by anyone,” she said.

The actions of the police during the attack against Kostopoulos are also subject to scrutiny, with authorities accused of failing to protect the man from the mob.

The distrust in the police is due to a history of authorities failing to investigate crimes against minority groups, as a 2014 report from Amnesty International highlighted. In one instance, police failed to investigate a 2012 attack against a 26-year-old transgender student at an evening school in which a pupil and his friend poured gasoline on her and attempted to set her on fire just outside the school premises.

Tributes were left in memory of Zak Kostopoulos in front of the store were the assault took place on September 21, 2018. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty)

Friends remembered Kostopoulos as someone who “loved to help” others and a pioneering advocate for the acceptance of HIV-positive people in Greece. “His actual name is Zacharias, coming from the greek word ‘zachari,’ which means sugar. His name was literally sugar, and he was the sweetest person I’ve known,” Michalou said.

Kostopoulos began talking publicly about being HIV-positive around six years ago, after he was diagnosed in 2009, to challenge the stigma around the disease. In one of his projects, he made himself available to anyone who had questions on the topic as part of a “human library” project.

“Zak was the first one to come out as HIV-positive and attempt to educate people on the subject, risking to lose friends and relatives from his life because of that,” Michalou said.

“His life was far from easy. Many times people would not shake his hand or would even avoid being in the same room with him because they thought they could get AIDS by breathing the same air or touching him. We always admired him for his strength to go through this nonsense again and again.”

Friends remembered him as someone who “loved to help” others. (Zak Kostopoulos/Facebook)

Despite being born in the US, Kostopoulos grew up in the small village where he was buried and struggled finding his place growing up, feeling like he couldn’t express himself as he wanted. But the community embraced him on Tuesday to say their final goodbye.

Michalou said that Kostopoulos would have been touched to see such a gathering of different people, from all walks of life. “Once, Zak said his biggest dream was to create a time and place in which everyone would coexist in absolute peace and union, even for a little bit,” she said.

She added: “That was his funeral. Conservative parents, drag queens in huge heels, people who just met him, new in the community, barely 19 years old, old villagers who used to know him as a child, people expressing their grief in strict black and people expressing it in rainbow dresses, transgender girls holding hands with grandparents who never left their tiny village in their lives.

“All these people, so different, with absolutely nothing in common, and they all kept hugging each other, overseeing what makes them different to unite in what makes them the same. Zak.

“I really wish he could see that. I really wish he could know his dream came true.”

Christina Michalou paid tribute to her friend Zak Kostopoulos in a drawing (Courtesy of Chrsitina Michalou)

Tributes to Kostopoulos from LGBT+ activists from Greece and further afield continue to pour in on his Facebook page.

Kevin Maloney, a US-based HIV-positive activist, shared a video Kostopoulos recorded—in full drag—for his non-profit RiseUpToHIV and wrote a message in solidarity.

“I run RiseUpToHIV. We are sad, angry, and heartbroken to learn of Zak’s murder. I remember the day, I opened my email with this video from him. It was a submission he sent in for a campaign I was running called ‘What’s Your Positive Message’. Listen to his words: We are HUMAN.

“We send our love to Zak’s family, friends, and all who we’re inspired by him around the world. Rest in power, Zak. You will not be forgotten.”

Italian activist Leonardo Dongiovanni‎ shared the memory of when the two met and expressed his grief over the news. “I still remember with great joy the week spent in Thessaloniki in 2013. You looked right away like a tough guy—as well as being a beautiful person,” he wrote.

“I just learnt of the news and I am still shocked. What happened to you is terrible and I hope truth is established as soon as possible. I share the pain of your loved ones and the Athens LGBT+ community and I hope justice is done as soon as possible.”

Bisi Alimi, a LGBT activist in Nigeria who, too, had met Kostopoulos, also shared his condolences on the Facebook page: “This world is a sad and crazy place…. He was a fierce and passionate advocate. Rest in power!”