BUENOS AIRES — Eduardo Roverano, 61, inherited the family business, a Buenos Aires funeral home founded in 1883 by his great grandfather. "I have vague memories of when the funeral cart was drawn by black horses," he recalls. "I began working at 15. And it wasn't a desk job. They sent me to pick up corpses."
Roverano admits that he spent years in therapy coming to grips with the more traumatic aspects of the job. In the end, though, he chose to stick with the profession. "I like it because the work is basically social," he says. "You provide an essential service at a delicate moment. I decided to train so I could do it properly. I studied to become a funeral and ceremonies director." But he also felt a responsibility, he says, to carry on the work of his father, and of his father's father before that.
Having a family business to take over can be a blessing. The same goes for people who follow in the footsteps of successful parents, be it in business, politics, entertainment, even sport. Family connections create opportunities. They open doors. But for some, those kinds of advantages can also be a curse.
Pedro Horvat, a Buenos Aires psychoanalyst, says that all parents have set expectations for their children. But they don't all react in the same way when things don't go according to plan, he explains. While some parents can be flexible — and thus avoid conflict — others buckle down on the expectations they've established. "If fulfilling those expectations becomes mandatory, that's when the child can feel emotionally manipulated," says Horvat.
People feel the weight of having to replicate things
Juan Eduardo Tesone, a member of the APA association of psychoanalysts, says parental expectations can play a major role in how a child develops as an individual. And in cases where parents are successful or prominent in their respective fields, children often lose their freedom to choose. "I have patients who studied a university course reluctantly, then did something else," he explains. "In order to free themselves, in other words, they first "had" to carry out their parents' wishes. They devoted years of their lives to fulfilling someone else's desires."
But not all family expectations are about pursuing something. "There is also the father who asks his son not to repeat a particular conduct," says Tesone. "The issue comes up a lot in therapy and is present behind most conflicts."
Just by being in a family, people feel the weight of having to replicate things like personal manners and social status, according to sociologist Manuela Gutiérrez. "That's when parental legacy becomes an added pressure," she says. "You can try and stand out in a different field from your parents, but you never fully escape their reality. You'll always be so-and-so's son or daughter."
Enrique Novelli, a psychologist who has worked with UNESCO, says parents who impose their model as the only valid one force their children into making uncomfortable decisions. "Either they can submit to someone wishes, or be dissatisfied, rebel and feel guilty," he explains.
Feelings of inferiority or fear of failure follow the same direction. That can happen, for example, when a parent — however well intentioned — helps a child land a job, Novelli explains. The person may end up performing well in the job. And yet there's always that nagging doubt, "the feeling that it was "daddy" who really put them there," he says. "In the long term this affects your self-esteem. It ends up being more of a burden than an advantage."
There are, of course, exceptions. Damián Stiglitz, 30, comes from a distinguished family of jurists and lawyers. His grandparents, uncles, parents and siblings were in the law. But while he grew up amid conversations about trials and law codes, he became the first member of the family in 60 years to graduate in a different course. Studying law would have been the "easy path," he says. "I knew I could count on work at the law firm founded by my grandfather Rubén."
Stiglitz describes his father, Gabriel, as "the son" who managed to stand out in his field. "In my case, I went against the tradition not because I was afraid of just being someone's son, but because I knew I loved literature," he says. He explains he made it a challenge to forge a career from his course at the University of Buenos Aires, and began with giving lessons. "Initially I had two students," Stiglitz says. "Today I have almost 70 and my own institute where I teach Argentine history through literature and film."
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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