Let’s call her Juliet. This young woman is one of the few who accepted to tell her story, under certain conditions of course: no mention of her name, not even her first name, of her studies or her former university.
“During my Masters, the relationship between my thesis supervisor and I gradually worsened. At first, it was fairly cordial, even friendly. Then, over the months, he started asking me personal questions, told me I would be prettier if I showed more cleavage. He greeted me with kisses on the cheek and once got too close to my lips”, she remembers. “I talked about it to my parents and I sent extremely firm signals, even if it meant getting a poor grade.”
This professor had a reputation for such behavior. The university administration turned a blind eye.
When sexual harassment is mentioned in French higher education, the topic encounters two obstacles. First the taboo, then the impunity, which is increased by various judicial and administrative procedures specific to French higher education that complicate the recognition of facts and the conviction of perpetrators.
The particular relationship that develops between professors and students makes harassment at university different than in companies or administrations. “There’s a special bond between a tenured professor, whose rank is unquestionable and unquestioned, and a PhD or Master’s student,” a Ministry of Higher Education official says. “It is a bond made of complicity and intellectual seduction.”
“A risky duo”
In addition to this intellectual proximity, there are meetings to talk about how research is progressing that often take place in cafés, because of the lack of space in crowded French universities. Some professors think this practice should be banned. Others brush this consideration aside, claiming the only relevant question whether or not the relationship is ambiguous.
Vincent Berger, president of the Paris-Diderot University, is radical: “The student-professor duo is a risky one,” he argues. “More than the intellectual intimacy, there are the mental conditions of the intellectual influence the professor has. He represents knowledge and is therefore in a position of intellectual supremacy.”
The PhD student entirely depends on the thesis supervisor to be granted a scholarship or find a placement as a teaching assistant, “and this dependence can last a very long time.”
Sexual harassment in higher education is a well-known issue; but universities often ignore it under the premise that such practices cannot exist in such a exalted context. On the one hand, no one can imagine that a professor, in charge of passing on knowledge and respected among his peers, could indulge in reprehensible behavior. On the other, how can women (the main victims) who are well into their higher studies and aware of their rights, not do anything about it?
The topic surfaced for the first time in 2002 when young PhD students founded “Clasches”, a feminist group devoted to stamping out sexual harassment in higher education. Ten years later, in November 2012, a Ministerial circular was sent to university directors to draw their attention to preventive measures and the action that must be taken when they are informed of sexual harassment-related incidents. Few universities took action.
“Hinted or explicit”
Yet, the problem most certainly does exist: “Verbal abuse, comments on their private lives, remarks on their bodies and how they should dress sexy (…), hinted or explicit sexual propositions”, the National Feminist Studies Association details in a White Paper entitled Gender in higher studies and research.
But in the absence of quantitative surveys, it seems complicated to grasp the magnitude of the problem. “There is no count of the complaints registered to university directors, of the procedures opened and even less information about any sanctions levied,” says Christelle Hamel, research director at the National Institute for demographic studies.
“For fear of retaliation – the risk of the thesis not being published, threats of slowing down the professional carreer, delays in the visa renewal applications for foreign students – a sort of code of silence is settling in to the benefit of the harassers,” says Clara, a member of Clasches.
The risk is even greater for the victims because internal university procedures remain stacked against the students. “Requests have to be filed to the director, the only one who can decide on the call for a disciplinary sanction. There’s a filter in the treatment of complaints that employees in the private sector don’t have to face,” says Sylvie Cromer, sociologist at the Lille-II university and president of the National Feminist Studies Association.
Other incongruity: the cases are handled only by the presumed harasser’s peers, his work colleagues. In this small world where everyone knows each other, ensuring neutrality and fairness is complicated at best. Worse still, investigations and sentencing are not separated. “Those who build the case and investigate are also those who give the verdict,” Cromer notes.
A movement for real reform is starting to brew. During the French Senate’s vote on a bill for equality between men and women, an amendment was passed: in the case of legitimate doubts on a disciplinary sanction’s fairness, the victim will be able to request the transfer of the case to another board. The decree implementing a simpler method for this new procedure is currently being studied at the Ministry of Higher Education.
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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