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Age May Be Just A Number, But Which One?

Age can be measured in more ways than one, say both sociologists and biologists. There is of course chronological age, but there is also cellular and social aging. The search for new definitions of old — and young!

Revved up at any age?
Revved up at any age?
Amanda Castillo

PARIS â€" Should you keep quiet about your age, or wear it with pride? The importance we attach to age is relatively recent. Just a few generations ago, it was a piece of information that was almost never mentioned. But these days, along with our occupation, our age is one of the two most-asked question when we meet someone â€" with the politeness that once forbade men from asking a lady's age long consigned to the dustbin of good manners' history.

Some see such an approach as a refusal to grow old, others as excessive vanity and others as a sign of narcissistic weakness. But oddly enough, few see it as the mark of a free spirit who doesn't want to be confined to a category that age creates.

French sociologist Bernard Ennuyer notes that age is a social construction that aims to classify and categorize people, and it begins early. Childrean are assessed based on whether they are "ahead" or "behind" their peers. (People tend to forget that Albert Einstein was wrongly diagnosed as mentally retarded because he couldn't talk by the age of four.) Beyond a child's behavior, age also dictates what emotions he's allowed to feel and express. Who hasn't been told as a child, "Crying is for babies."

Things don't get any better with adulthood. On the contrary. The list of things for which we become "too old" grows with every birthday. In this respect, sociologist Pierre Bourdieu observed that "age classifications always come down to setting up limits and producing an order all must follow, in which all must stay in their place."

Society's limits

For women, clothes are too revealing past a certain age, and long hair and bikinis are in bad taste. Thirty-somethings without children hear people warn, "Your biological clock is ticking." As for elderly people, there's no escaping common preconceptions.

"Very early on in our societies, the image of a curved age scale imposed itself, with an apex at around 40 or 50 years old before the irreversible and final decline in a depreciated old age," sociologist Jean Fourcart observes. "Of course, this diagram contains many variations and exceptions, but it profoundly and durably affects the psychology of elderly people, who internalize the degradation of their social status."

Some give up cycling and skiing when they turn 60 because most femoral neck fractures occur after 60. Others give up projects they enjoyed because they belive they're too old to be taking risks and setting challenges.

Wise people are right when they say life has many prisons, both physical and mental. Some may have seen the following on the Internet: "The founder of Facebook started his project at 19, founders of Whatsapp and Wikipedia at 35, Intel's founder at 41, Coca-Cola's founder at 55, the founder of KFC at 65. Morality: There's no right age to succeed, and there are no failures â€" only people who give up."

To these examples, we must add Francis Crick, one of the scientists who discovered DNA and died at age 88 during his career's most prolific stage. And there is 96-year-old Klaus Obermeyer, founder or Sport Obermeyer who refuses to define himself by age. This U.S.-based German swims a mile every day in addition to doing muscle development exercices, ski and aikido. "Being old is no excuse to be lazy," he says.

I was so much older then ...

It's interesting to note that the threshold for old has changed dramatically over time. In the 17th and 18th centuries, at least in the West, 40 was the magic number. In the 19th century, that limit was pushed to 50. Nowadays, several studies show that people consider old age to begin at 69, on average. People under 25 believe it begins at 61, while those over 65 say it's 77. And 8% of people say old begins at 80.

"This also changes as medicine continues to make progress," explains Francesco de Boccard, a physician who specializes in preventive and anti-aging medicine. "A baby born in 2016 has a great chance to live to see 2116," he says. "At 50 years old, he'll have lived half his life and will be considered young by all of his contemporaries."

Scientists actually differentiate between two types of aging. The first one, chronological, is obvious. The second, biological, depends on how our cells age. "Aging expresses itself in a different way from one person to another," Boccard says. "Some people start having grey hair and wrinkles at 25, others at 45. We're not all equal in aging."

It makes little sense to use chronology to assess a patient's age. "We calculate biological age using multiple criteria," he says.

The environment and food habits play an obvious part. A 30-year-old smoker's lungs and skin can be typical of a 50-something who doesn't smoke. But a healthy individual who efficiently protects himself from oxidative stress cannot always fight against his genes. For example, the length of telomeres, these little DNA structures located at each end of chromosomes and which become shorter when cells divide and age, vary from one person to another. An individual who's born with short telomeres could appear biologically older more quickly.

Ultimately, the most relevant answer to the question, "How old are you?" is in turn a question: "What age do you mean? Biological, social, chronological? And if you mean the latter, which calendar do you have in mind? Gregorian, Julian, Persian, Indian, Chinese, Hebrew, Muslim, Coptic, Ethiopian, Armenian?"

Isadora Duncan"s age varied depending on the circumstances. The American dancer refused to have her accomplishments assessed by how many times the earth rotated around the sun since her birth. So she spent her life losing her passport.

Dominic, who was born 60-odd years ago, has decided not to be part of the standard reality anymore, choosing a world and calendar of his own. When asked his age, Dominic says about 2,500 years. "I'm an old soul," he explains. And why would we contradict him?

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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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