eyes on the U.S.
June 21, 2012
BOULDER - The Leeds Business School auditorium at the University of Colorado is jam packed. Around 1600 students came to hear the star of the day: a 50-something man with short white hair and a striped shirt. His name is Andrew Fastow, and his audience is spellbound.
At the end of the 1990s, Fastow was Enron's financial director, and partly responsible for one of the biggest bankruptcies America has ever known. In 2002, a year after his company's collapse, he was indicted on fraud, money laundering and conspiracy. He cooperated with authorities and served six years.
The conference leaves no one indifferent. "It makes us realize that at any time, we could be confronted with a situation in which we might act unethically," says b-school student Pete Williams. "It's very important for us to think about where we stand, whether we would cross the line."
Three weeks before Fastow's visit, and during the following three weeks, the Leeds held formal and informal discussions on ethics and the failures of the business world. The recurrent question was: what should - and would - you have done in Andrew Fastow's shoes?
"In the seven years I've spent here, I've never seen the student and teacher body so enthusiastic about an event. There is a huge educational value. Stories like Andrew Fastow's are so real that they capture student and teacher attention like no other traditional class," says Donna Sockell, from the Center for Education on Social Responsibility at the Colorado school, who organized the conference.
This isn't the only institution taking such initiatives. For the past 10 years, as financial scandals continue to make headlines, business schools have integrated business ethics to their curriculums, a trend strengthened further by the 2008 subprime crisis.
Many schools invite white-collar criminals to talk to the student about their edifying experiences. Recently, founder and former CEO of the Quellos Group, Jeffrey Greenstein, spoke at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business. He had been sentenced to four years in prison for tax fraud.
NYSE trader Garrett Bauer was just sentenced to nine years in prison after pleading guilty to an insider-trading scheme that made him more than $32.2 million. He has spoken to over 120 colleges since Sept. 2011, including the London Business School and Harvard University.
Glamorizing convicted felons
There is so much interest in these testimonies that specialist firms like "The Pros & the Cons' have made a business out of fraud prevention classes - with testimonials from convicted "fraudsters." Richard Shreve doesn't approve. He is a business ethics professor at the Tuck School of Business, where inviting white-collar criminals to talk to the student has become a ritual. Each year since 2001, an ex-criminal comes to tell his story, but "we never pay them," assures the professor, who knows these events are controversial.
"People might think that we are glamorizing these criminals or reinforcing the belief that all businessmen are crooks. To dispel these notions, we invite more exemplary CEOs than convicted felons. But the conferences with white-collar criminals are extremely popular and foster ethical debates on campus," says Shreve.
Some stories deeply move the students. A mother tells them about how she had to put her two daughters on a plane and entrust them with family friends before she was incarcerated with her husband for double billing. "In all of these stories, there is always a conjunction of three factors: need, opportunity and reason - that is to say the narrative the criminal uses to justify his actions. It's amazing to see how many of them, even the convicted ones, stick to this narrative," says Shreve.
According to him, there is no need to convince students that it's wrong to commit fraud. "They are honest people. But it's very probable that one day they'll be confronted with a professional situation where it is hard to decide what the right thing is. What do you do, for instance, when the legitimate interest of shareholders conflicts with that of the employees?" When the time comes to resolve an ethical dilemma, having crossed paths with convicts might help them make the right choice.
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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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