COPENHAGEN — In the picturesque Danish capital, it's easy to overlook the men lying on public benches with a beer in hand, or assume they're immigrants from Southern Europe. Listen carefully, though, and you'll notice that they speak fluent Danish, a task almost impossible for foreigners. These men, it turns out, are Danish citizens; indigenous Inuit people from the Danish territory of Greenland.
Inuit in Copenhagen mainly live among themselves and are marginalized from broader Danish society, with its emphasis on gender equality and the welfare state. These men are from a culture very different from the one that surrounds them. Danes even have an expression for it: being "drunk as a Greenlander." The homeless Inuit who live on the streets of Danish cities are a symbol of Denmark's failed colonial policy that, although it never resorted to blatant violence, has been anything but successful.
Greenland has high levels of unemployment and suicide rates; life expectancy is 10 years lower than in mainland Denmark. The enormous North American island has significant autonomy, but the Danish central government provides 500,000 euros a year ($536,000) to Greenland and manages its security, judicial system, and foreign policy. Most jobs in Greenland that require training and education also require applicants to speak Danish, making life difficult for locals who don't speak the language. Such a requirement also contributes to a greater Danish presence on the island.
In 1952, the Danish government's Greenland Department went about implementing a radical set of policies to "civilize" the Inuit and to allow them to survive autonomously.
Eleonora is an Inuit woman in her 50s who lives in Nuuk, the capital of Greenland. Under these policies, the state shipped her 4,000 km away from her family to Denmark to study Danish. She was 13 years old at the time.
"We wanted to go and so did our parents. You have to understand that, in those days, we aspired to become exactly like the Danes: tall, beautiful, and efficient," she says. "Life was not too bad in Denmark. But it was difficult to be so far away from my siblings, and I was shy when seeing my mother again a year later. After returning to Greenland I never lived at home again, and we were placed in boarding schools with other children who learned Danish, so we spoke little Inuit."
They don't teach you how to hunt. They don't tell you our stories.
After attending university in Denmark, Eleonora returned home but things were never the same. "When I went to see my family in the summers during boarding school, often I couldn't understand what they were saying," she says. "We grew apart."
The Danish government's language policy was a key element in its plan to "open up" Greenland to the outside world. In the 1950s, Copenhagen also embarked on a radical experiment to create a Danish-educated Inuit "elite" who could act as a bridge between Greenland's population and the Danish government. In 1951, the government selected 22 children between the ages of 5 and 8 from Greenland — with varying degrees of consent from their parents — and sent them to Denmark to learn Danish language and culture.
The policy was a disaster and none of them went on to form an Inuit elite. Instead, they forgot their mother tongue and their cultural and emotional attachment to the island. Half of the children died in their youth, their lives destroyed by frequent moves between orphanages and Danish foster homes. In 2015, the Red Cross, which had participated in the policy, made a formal apology to the children and their families. The Danish government, on the other hand, has merely called the policy an "error."
In the 1960s, Copenhagen replaced the policy with one to two years of mandatory Danish language courses in Denmark for Inuit children aged 8 and above. This program, which Eleonora took part in, continued in different forms until the 1990s.
"The problem is that when you don't see your loved ones often, you lose your sense of family. I learned Inuit again while studying Inuitology at university in Copenhagen," says Eleonora. "My generation lost some of its identity because when you live with other children in boarding school you lose your roots. They don't teach you how to hunt. They don't tell you our stories."
Denmark's language policies caused a rupture in Greenland's cultural fabric and generated a social crisis that continues to this day. Today, children are no longer shipped to the mainland, but the island's pressing issues remain unresolved.
For Eleonora, the new policies aren't much better than the old ones. "Young people now speak Inuit well but traditional Inuit life barely exists anymore," she says. "And if they can't speak Danish well, how are they going to find a job in Greenland?"
Just like their parents and grandparents 60 years ago, people in Greenland today must still learn their former colonizer's tongue to succeed at home.
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.
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
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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