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Starving Syria, David Bowie Dies, Extraditing El Chapo

Starving Syria, David Bowie Dies, Extraditing El Chapo

UN TO RELIEVE STARVING SYRIAN CITY

The United Nations is expected to send an aid convoy to the Syrian town of Madaya, where at least 23 people have recently starved to death. About 42,000 people in Madaya have had little to no access to food for the past two weeks, after government forces sealed off access to the city, demanding that opposition groups lay down their weapons, according to Al Jazeera. The rebel-held town outside Damascus has been under siege by government forces and their Hezbollah allies since July 2015, and emergency food supplies that were set to arrive Sunday were delayed, the BBC reports. Residents have reportedly resorted to eating grass and insects to survive. The UN, along with other aid groups such as Doctors Without Borders, are set to send convoys to two other Syrian cities, Kefraya and Foua, located in the north and besieged by rebel groups. According to the UN, about 400,000 people in 15 Syrian locations have no access to the life-saving aid they urgently need.


FAREWELL, DAVID BOWIE

Photo: Ben Stevens/i-Images/ZUMA

Beloved British musician David Bowie has died at age 69 after an 18-month battle with cancer. “Very sorry and sad to say it's true,” Bowie’s son Duncan Jones wrote on Twitter. The singer’s official Facebook page said today that his family was with him at the end. Bowie’s latest album Blackstar was released Jan. 7 to coincide with his 69th birthday. Tony Visconti, Bowie’s longtime friend and producer, wrote in a statement that “he made Blackstar for us, his parting gift.” Iggy Pop, also a close friend, wrote “David’s friendship was the light of my life. I never met such a brilliant person. He was the best there is.” David Bowie’s career and influence span almost 50 years, starting with the album Space Oddity.


VERBATIM

“We still want all countries, both in Europe and the whole world, to join their efforts to combat these threats,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview published today in German tabloid Bild, expressing his wish for a global coalition against terrorism. “Yet this does not mean that it is us who should agree with everything that others decide on these or other matters,” he added. The interview is available in English here.


EL CHAPO TO BE EXTRADITED TO U.S.

Mexican authorities began U.S. extradition proceedings late Sunday against the world’s most prominent drug trafficker, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. He was captured Friday in northwestern Mexico after a manhunt lasting several months. He had escaped from a Mexican maximum-security prison in July. Rolling Stone revealed Saturday that actor Sean Penn met and interviewed Guzman in October while he was on the run. Mexican authorities, who want him to face U.S. justice for the tons of drugs he has exported across the border, say they helped plan meeting between Penn and Guzman, Reuters reports. Read more from Le Blog.


ON THIS DAY


The NBA’s “Chocolate Thunder” and the Grand Canyon National Park. We’ve got that and more in today’s shot of history.


COLOGNE POLICE PROBE ATTACKS ON FOREIGNERS

German police are investigating whether Sunday’s attacks against three foreign men in Cologne by a gang of about 20 people were racially motivated and retaliation for hundreds of New Year’s Eve assaults on women. According to the local newspaper Express, the attackers had arranged to meet via Facebook to start a “manhunt” for foreigners. The group reportedly attacked six Pakistani men Sunday evening, injuring two, before wounding a Syrian man a few minutes later. The New Year’s Eve assaults on women have now prompted more than 600 complaints. Authorities are focusing the investigation on asylum seekers in the city.


MY GRAND-PÈRE’S WORLD



WORLDCRUNCH-TO-GO

The boom of platforms for freelance workers, on the Uber model, presages a world where the wage system will no longer dominate. This will require new social protections for the good of workers â€" and the economy, Les Echos writes. “The trend isn't limited to low-skilled jobs: In the U.S., the platform Upwork claims 2.5 million freelance service providers working intellectual jobs (developers, lawyers, graphic designers, assistants, etc.). According to a study commissioned by the Freelancers Union, 53 million people are independent, or one in three working Americans. With rising online platforms, as many as half of American workers will be self-employed by 2020.”

Read the full article, Freelance Or Bust? Stitching A Safety Net For Workers 2.0.


GOLDEN GLOBE GAGS

Drink in hand, comedian and Golden Globe Awards host Ricky Gervais spared few last night. See the winners and the best Gervais barbs here.

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Coronavirus

Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."


Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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