Mathilde Farine and Céline Zünd
April 09, 2018
ZURICH — Ask any Swiss person if they think their country is cool and you're likely to get a raised eyebrow, maybe even a burst of laughter. Efficient? Sure. Switzerland is also safe, tidy. All that. But cool? That's just not the first word that comes to mind — unless you're Nicolas Bideau, director of the federal agency Presence Switzerland.
Bideau's job is to promote the country's image, which is his mind, has every reason to be considered cool. Take Roger Federer. He's "the king of coolness," in Bideau's opinion. There's also the "Nati," as the Swiss national soccer team is known. And so on and so forth. "The Swiss-made brand is so cool that everybody wants to copy it," the Presence Switzerland head insists.
Really? Federer's ageless heroics and the Nati's berth in the upcoming FIFA World Cup may certainly have improved the image of Swiss sports. But you still don't see hordes of young people rushing to Switzerland on EasyJet flights. Geneva isn't Barcelona, after all. Zurich isn't Berlin. Swiss cities are way too expensive to be cool.
Still, over the past two decades, Switzerland's image undergone a discreet transformation. It's been modernized, rejuvenated even. In 1998, after a settlement was reached in the World Jewish Congress lawsuit against Swiss banks, the banker country's reputation hit a new low. But what about now? How does its image stack up 20 years later?
For answers, we turned to experienced observers who live between Switzerland and foreign countries.
"Switzerland has expanded its horizons if not its borders," says Susann Sitzler, a Berlin-based German-Swiss journalist born in the Swiss city of Basel. "It has developed and diversified itself." In looking outward, the Swiss learned to assert themselves, she adds. "Faced with the Germans who speak loudly and say what they think, they've had to come out of their shell and they're more aware of their qualities."
Switzerland in 2018 is more confident than it was in 1998.
Sitzler has plenty of positive things to say about her country of origin— its gastronomy, its sense of innovation, and the high level of education "among the rich and poor alike" — but laments its perfectionism. "We still worry too much about what people will say," she argues. "It's incapacitating because we prefer to do nothing rather than make a mistake."
This keen sense of self-criticism also annoys Axel, an Icelander who has been living in Zurich for five years and for whom there is no cooler place than Switzerland. "Its architecture is interesting. "Its quality of life is fantastic. Access to culture is easy. How can you not find it cool to be able to jump on a train in the morning, ski during the day and return to town at night?"
But what does it actually mean to be cool? Two Ph.D. students in philosophy from the University of Geneva — Constant Bonard and Benjamin Neeser — have set about defining this notion, which is as vague as it is commonly used. In their opinion, coolness has two properties: some originality and a certain form of non-conformism. But above all, it's ephemeral, and is defined by an "elite."
The degree of coolness in Switzerland, therefore, depends on the size of this young, mobile, educated, world-oriented population. Little wonder that art schools, universities, polytechnic schools, all act as hubs. "By attracting international students, they forced the locals to compete, to compare themselves," says filmmaker Lionel Baier.
The country has gone through a process of "decompartmentalization" that's been amplified over the last 20 years, according to Baier, the introduction of the Internet and social networks, and the increase in university exchanges. Switzerland has no exoticism and hardly exists in the eyes of the rest of the world, the French-speaking director notes. But that's also an asset. "It makes you want to leave, to go see elsewhere, to confront yourself with other realities," Baier says.
"Look at the number of explorers Switzerland has produced. Ella Maillart, Nicolas Bouvier..." he adds. "The Swiss have the courage of the wealthy who have not experienced war. They are particularly good at adapting."
As a result, Switzerland has developed ambassadors in design, fashion or sport. Those export a form of aesthetics and a certain sense of know-how, which is no longer synonymous with outdatedness. Switzerland in 2018 is more confident than it was in 1998. Baier sees it as a "great talent incubator" and says it's especially good at fostering confidence amount the youth. "We let young people go with kindness, hoping they will come back," he says.
But if the cool-defining "elite" export themselves, what remains? For British journalist Haig Simonian, a former correspondent for the Financial Times, this is where the problem lies. He sees a whole series of advantages to Switzerland: efficiency, quality of life, beautiful landscapes, but nothing that fits into his own definition of "cool," like a musical or artistic scene that would attract young people.
"When my daughter was in boarding school in England, she was asked if she had a cow at home and if she had any cellphone service," he recalls. "You think that looks cool?"
Another foreign journalist, Tyler Brûlé of Canada, agrees that Switzerland has become far more international. "In some parts of Zurich, I feel like I'm in Berlin — in a smaller, cleaner, more orderly version," he says.
The editor-in-chief of the information and lifestyle magazine Monocle has reinforced his team in Zurich, where he plans to open a café and a shop soon. He feels much more welcomed now than in the past when he first settled down. "Someone slipped a note under my door reading, "Foreigners go home,"" Brûlé recalls. He also describes a change in mentality. In the past, young people dreamed of long careers in big companies, he says. But now — perhaps because of the economic and banking crisis of 2007 — "more and more young people are starting small businesses," the journalist notes.
"I'm not sure Switzerland wants the rest of the world to be aware of what it has to offer."
But like Simonian, Brûlé isn't quite ready to call Switzerland cool. "It doesn't produce anything very popular, unlike the Nordic countries, which resemble it. Why has Switzerland never produced a film like The Square? Or a hit series? Or a brand like H&M or Ikea? Where is Swiss pop culture?" he asks.
Except real coolness is separate from mass consumption, right? It hides in niches invisible to the general public: local scenes, ephemeral events, spaces of spontaneity. "One of the biggest surprises for my friends who come to visit me is summer by the Limmat river," says Charlotte Theile, a Switzerland correspondent for the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. "Relaxation, music, people jumping in the river. You don't expect so much coolness in Zurich. Many people don't actually know Switzerland. Zurich offers an incredible amount culturally, but it's not necessarily known outside the city's borders."
Why not? "I'm not sure Switzerland wants the rest of the world to be aware of what it has to offer," she says. "There is a form of self-satisfaction that leads to indifference"
For some, it is also a matter of generations. Faced with the modesty of their elders, the younger generations will know how to reveal themselves more. Perhaps they'll also manage to flip that script on that other oh-so-Swiss trait and take themselves a little less seriously. Because isn't that, after all, the quintessential quality of coolness?
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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.
October 19, 2021
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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