LARNACA, Cyprus – The newlyweds wanted to go all-out with their wedding celebrations. All the trappings of a traditional Cypriot wedding were on display; the huge line of well-wishers with cash-filled envelopes in hand, a band playing the latest Greek pop hits and the mandatory roasted pork.
Marios Frixou and Fanos Eleftheriades said they wanted it that way, a public declaration of their commitment to each other. Their hope is to offer other gay couples on the small east Mediterranean island nation the courage to be open about their love for each other.
Their union is the first public gay wedding in Cyprus, which has ranked low on an index of LGBT rights. It follows last month's first gay wedding but that was a low-key event involving an anonymous couple.
Late last year, lawmakers paved the way for the weddings by passing a civil union law that in effect recognizes gay marriage. It was a big step forward for gay rights in Cyprus, which only decriminalized homosexuality 18 years ago.
"We wanted to give courage to other couples and to all gay and transgender people to accept themselves and not to be ashamed of who they are," says Frixou. "We've gotten scores of messages from people telling us how much courage we've given them."
The wedding ceremony itself took just minutes — a simple exchange of vows in front of the Nicosia District Officer with the couple's two best women and a few friends on hand.
The reception was not so modest. Keeping with Cypriot tradition, Frixou's mother greeted the couple by handing both newlyweds a gold coin, old family heirlooms. The couple are set to dance to a violin rendition of the traditional wedding song.
Frixou — a 36-year-old former literature tutor who hails from the small village of Xylophagou in the island's southeast — isn't shy about being in the public eye. The garrulous prison guard has racked up several talk show appearances, authored five novels and is actively involved in charity work. He says some of the proceeds from the reception will go toward helping sick kids. Fanos, 26, works at an upscale store of a famous Italian clothier.
"The village doesn't see my as 'Marios the gay guy' because I was up front about who I am from a very early age," says Frixou.
The wedding caps a seven-year relationship that began when the two met through a colleague of Frixou's.
Frixou says the civil union law that paved for Friday's wedding bestows all legal rights to gay couples that heterosexual ones are entitled to, like a widowed partner receiving the pension of a deceased spouse. The only restriction is that the law doesn't provide for joint adoption of children for gay couples wishing to have a family. However, Costas Gavrielides, the president of gay rights group ACCEPT, said it does allow for one of the partners to adopt.
In spite of its ingrained conservatism, influential Greek Orthodox Church and Mediterranean machismo, Cyprus has made huge strides on gay rights in recent years.
"People are coming to terms with the fact that the rights of all people must be respected and actually enshrined in law," said Gavrielides.
"Same-sex couples have been given the opportunity to feel legitimized," he said.
The machinery of government has stayed in step; Gavrielides says a recent Interior Ministry memo instructed employees that civil union couples are entitled to the exact same rights as straight ones.
Not everyone has been so accepting. The Church and local religious groups have been clear in their opposition to such civil unions, but have not been as vocal against it as activists like Gavrielides expected.
"I won't judge these people," said Marinos Spetsiotis, president of the Pancyprian Orthodox Christian Movement (PAHOK), an organization that has vociferously denounced homosexuality as "an unnatural way of being."
"We've made our effort to prevent this from happening, but we're not going to act in a way that escalates the situation," he added.
What may also account for the attitude shift is an understanding that in an ethnically divided country where leaders preach respect for the rights of all that laws can't be selective about who's entitled to them or not.
For all the progress, there's still a way to go. Social stigma still keeps many closeted, like the 37 year-old man who married his 36-year-old partner last month in the country's first gay marriage.
The 37-year-old, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he hasn't told his parents yet about his homosexuality said he and his partner wanted to keep the ceremony under wraps because they weren't yet ready to come out.
He also said he's still wary of a "risk" from the possible reaction of work colleagues and employers if he were to open up about his sexual orientation.
"Cyprus has really made huge strides in a short time, but we're still not there yet," he says.