Hellenic, Viking or Jewish? A Genetic Quest For Our Origins

It's in your hands now
It's in your hands now
Nic Ulmi

GENEVA — Have you heard the story of the white supremacist who found out on live television that he's part-Sub-Saharan African? It happened on NBC last month when Craig Cobbs, who wanted to turn a small North Dakota town into an all-white enclave, agreed to take a DNA test. Broadcaster Trisha Goddard, a British woman with Dominican origins, announced the result: Cobbs is 14% black.

The racist was exposed to his ancient extraction thanks to genetic genealogy, or what we might call recreational genetics, a commercial extension of genetic science spreading thanks to a rise in people seeking to affirm their identity, and a more basic curiosity.

It's also being made easier and more affordable by technology. In the past, you had to look deeply into birth registers to explore family roots. But these days, it’s possible simply to send saliva samples to one of the many companies on the Internet, who will tell you your haplogroup (a group of human beings who have a common ancestor and share some genetic mutations), your “people of origin” and the migratory route your ancestors traveled.

“They told me that my group of ancestors traveled from Africa to the Middle East, and from there went to Central Europe before heading south to Spain and finally to Northern Europe,” explains Michel Goyard, a now-retired French engineer we met on the forum. “There’s a police-investigation feel to it, the challenge of discovery. There’s also, potentially, a redefinition of your identity.”

In September, a sanitary worker from Zurich found out that one of his ancestors was the mummy Ötzi — a man who died 5,000 years ago and whose body was preserved in the icy Alps. The news came by mistake when his father hired a Swiss company, iGenea, to learn more about his origins. “We started in 2006,” says company founder and geneticist Joëlle Apter. “Before that, we used to do paternity tests, but there were few growth prospects in that field. That was the beginning of genealogical DNA tests in Europe.”

The price of basic tests, which are done in a U.S. laboratory, can range anywhere between 199 and 1,099 euros. “The test shows three things,” Apter says. “First, the location of your ancestor of maternal or paternal lineage and what their prehistorical group was. Second, your people of origin during antiquity. And finally, the region where your genetic profile is the most typical.” This is more about ancestral origins than just figuring out a family tree. “At iGenea, only 30% of requests are genealogical. But in the United States, the proportion is reversed. It’s logical: In Europe, and particularly in Switzerland, we go very far back with classical family trees.”

Jewishness is genetic

People are authenticated as Hellenic, Viking or Jewish. Yes, Jewish. The suggested link between genetics and Jewishness triggered a backlash from Switzerland’s Intercommunity Organization Against Anti-semitism and Defamation in 2008 but, Apter claims there’s “nothing racist” about the designation.

“I am Jewish myself,” she says. In fact, her wish to confirm “Jewish roots” is shared by many clients and was even an important driving force for iGenea. “Tests show that this is a group we can genetically differentiate. It’s not just a religion. These genetic markers are due to the fact that Jewish people didn’t mix with other people and always had children inside their community. The same thing can be observed with people from the Basque country.” She stresses, however, that there is no absolute certainty. This is the kingdom of probability.

Genealogy tree of the Zawisza family (Wikipedia)

“We have various African groups on our lists, like the Berbers and the Bantu, or from Latin America like the Mayas or the Inca,” she says. “But if you’re part of a people that science hasn’t studied yet, there won’t be any result.”

Does that mean we can’t come from different groups of people? “We’re all the result of a great mixture, but this test only points to one people because it’s about finding one single ancestor: the male ancestor that passed down the Y chromosome if you’re a man, or the mitochondrial DNA for maternal lineage.”

Discovering the complete recipe of our genetic cocktail is trickier. “There are other tests with which we can set up a percentage of genetic code for each group, but these only go back five to seven generations.”

Pierre Darlu, a population geneticist who is head of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research, dedicated an chapter of his book to genetic genealogy, which is a “simplistic” vision of things. “First, if you go back 10 generations, your ancestors already represent over 1,000 people. Finding the trace of only one of them offers an extremely reduced indication on somebody’s origins,” says Darlu, who co-wrote DNA: Superstar or Supercop? with Catherine Bourgain.

Another issue is anachronism. “These companies use data on the distribution of modern-day haplogroups,” he says. “But actually, for them to be able to link you to a population in the past, they would need data banks of fossilized DNA. Or they should consider migration phenomenons, and only historians or prehistorians can give them this information.”

That said, some genetic genealogy websites do mention all these factors.

Categories of people

A sign of the times, the “fast genetics” trend reveals a strange and typically contemporary duality as it evokes both a great melting pot and a very simplified form of belonging.

“It shows that every individual is genetically complex,” Darlu says. “At the same time, it strengthens the idea that we can create categories of peoples or races. So you either tell yourself that you’re the result of mix, at the end of a genetic continuum, or you instead biologize your cultural belonging, which could lead you to believe that races exist in objective terms.”

Although they seem potentially insidious on a community level, the repercussions appear to be a lot more modest on an individual level. Michel Goyard is less impressed by the fact that his ancestor was born in Denmark 6,500 years ago than by the discovery he made through classical genealogy. “I have a Swiss ancestor. She migrated to Mulhouse in France between 1750 and 1800, because life in the mountains was difficult at the time.”

Small world.

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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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