“We have to be out there in public”: Star Air pilot about being gay in aviation, Pride and company support

As Copenhagen this week celebrates Gay Pride, Fagbladet Luftfart speaks to pilot and FPU member Philipp Agrafiotis. He tells of his own experience as a gay pilot, how company support matters, and why it is still necessary to take to the streets to show the rainbow colors. 

Philipp Agrafiotis’ career at Star Air began in 1999. He joined the ranks at the age of 30 at a time when he had not yet disclosed his sexual orientation. When the German pilot was invited to the company’s summer parties and Christmas lunches, he would usually invite a female colleague along so as not to sit alone among the heterosexual couples.

“It was not because I was afraid because Denmark was very liberal, but it was different 20 years ago and I was not really out in my life as well. I was a little late realizing it. I’m from a generation where there was not much information available,” says Agrafiotis, who is based in Cologne, Germany.

However, an encounter with a new colleague, also a pilot at the Maersk-owned Star Air, prompted Agrafiotis to open up about his sexuality.

“Our new colleague was openly gay. At first, I was surprised when he referred to living with his boyfriend but then I said ‘Okay, that makes two of us in this company.’  We became friends and we would go to events and on double dates, and I realized I had no reason to hide. I came out and lived openly. When I met my husband 14 years ago, I began posting pictures on Facebook and Instagram and all my colleagues saw it and that’s how they knew.“

Pilot Philipp Agrafiotis wears a rainbow colored Maersk keychain when he flies. It serves as reminder that the company he works for supports the gay community.

Being gay was never a problem in aviation

For Agrafiotis it has been very positive working for a Danish company. His colleagues at Star Air, which was recently rebranded Maersk Air Cargo, have been open-minded and often curious, asking what it was like to live two guys together, and he has felt acceptance from the company.  

“When you talk about the gay community in aviation, most people think of cabin crew because many people from the community work in the cabin, but being a gay pilot in aviation was never really a problem. It took a little time for me to come out, but when the company noticed, they just accepted it,” says Agrafiotis.

These days, when Philipp Agrafiotis is at work, he usually wears his ID card in a rainbow-colored Maersk keychain. He has bought a few of them on Maersk’s corporate branding website.

For Agrafiotis, displaying the rainbow-colored keychain during flights is more than just a personal statement, it’s also a reminder for him that his company is dedicated to diversity.

“It’s important that you feel your company cares about you and that it doesn’t make a difference if you’re gay or not. It’s important that they show it to the employees,” says Philipp Agrafiotis.

Agrafiotis recalls how the former head of HR at Star Air once changed her email signature so that it was Maersk colors with a rainbow to show support to the community. And it matters, says Agrafiotis, when he sees this type of corporate support whether it be a rainbow-colored Maersk container or a Pride t-shirt that combines the company’s logo with rainbow colors.  

“We’re not where we want to be with rights so it’s nice and pretty cool for the company to show the rainbow colors, and that some companies are courageous enough to show that they are proud to support their people. We have a diversity group that organizes meetings and events, and they talk about development and have political discussions,” says Agrafiotis. 

Still many issues to fight for

Agrafiotis recently participated in the Pride celebrations in Cologne with his husband and their friends. His husband was part of the parade and big German companies such as Mercedes, Lufthansa and Telecom had trucks. The weather was perfect, DJs were playing music, and it was a joyous occasion, but it was also an important political statement, says Agrafiotis, because it has not all been progress recently.

“If you look at the US or Poland, some groups are prohibiting talk and books about sexuality. It’s unbelievable in the 21st century that we’re going in the wrong direction. Even in Germany. We just had 1.5 million visitors for the Pride in Cologne, but we still read in the news afterwards that there had been verbal and physical attacks on gay people,” says Agrafiotis. 

He explains that he and his husband do not openly display affection when in public together. While part of the reason might be that they are of an older generation, he also thinks that news of attacks on gay people affect their behavior.

“My husband and I don’t walk hand in hand on the streets. Maybe we’re afraid if people would…,” he leaves the sentence unfinished and tries to explain something that has become a delicate issue in Germany.

“We have had a lot of people coming to our country in the last couple of years with different beliefs, and there’s a big conflict going on here in Germany. Some of them don’t accept that in our society women can walk around in short skirts or that men can get married. In Cologne, it’s still okay but in Berlin you hear about gay people being attacked in the street. I’m happy that I’ve never been attacked, but it does affect us. Sometimes when I see straight couples on the street holding hands or kiss, I think: ‘Why can’t it be normal when two guys or two girls do the same?’”

That’s why events such as Pride matters, Agrafiotis explains. Besides his appreciation of companies making political statements about supporting the community, Agrafiotis was also happy to see parents bringing their children when he was at the Pride in Cologne.

“We have to be out there in public. Parents can show their children the happiness and that it is normal that two guys or two women love each other. Pride comes from the courage of coming out and showing the world that we want to live our lives. I can’t understand why some people are against it. What does it matter to them who you love? It’s nobody’s business.”

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