eyes on the U.S.

The World Eyes Northern Ohio: Will Joe The Plumber's Neighbors Decide The Election?

The final battleground?
The final battleground?

SPRINGFIELD - Whenever he has half an hour free, Joe goes into the yard of his little house to split logs. "It's fun for me. It's the only thing that really gets my mind off the election." In the living room there is a pool table, a bearskin on the wall, and his tools. "I still work as a plumber and a carpenter. A man has a physical need to build something, every day."

Yes, the man who has opened the door for us, standing there barefoot, is him: Samuel Wurzelbacher, otherwise known as "Joe the Plumber." While Obama was passing through his neighborhood four years ago, Joe had asked him why taxes on small businesses were so high. "When you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody," Obama replied.

Their filmed conversation was posted on the Internet, and "Joe the Plumber" became a celebrity, used every which way by John McCain to try to turn the tide of his faltering campaign.

Four years later, Joe is a candidate for the House of Representatives for the ninth district of northern Ohio, a slice of America that may decide the presidential election. No Republican has ever won the White House without winning this territory, and Romney knows it. The two candidates have spent $9 million on television spots within the past week in Ohio, more than in any other state.

Whenever Obama has time, he hurries back to Ohio, and analysts say he is counting on the tiny lead that polls are still giving him here, now that other key states, like Florida, seem to have swung toward the Republicans.

The president's campaign has 125 offices in Ohio, many of which have stayed open since 2008 to continue to register potential voters. The result is that in early voting data, which tallies votes sent in by mail before the official ballot on November 6th, Democrats hold a solid lead on Republicans. Obama hopes to do well here partly because unemployment in Ohio is at 7%, almost one point below the national average, and there is a large female electorate. The Republicans insist that the state's good results are thanks to GOP Governor Kasich.

In this tense election atmosphere, Joe's campaign is highly significant. His district is in the region of Ohio that counts the highest number of factories, whose blue-collar union workers tend to favor Democrats. His opponent is Marcy Kaptur, in office since 1983, who trounced Dennis Kucinich, ex-mayor of Cleveland and former presidential candidate, in the Democratic primary earlier this year.

Joe lives about seven miles from the Toledo Chrysler factory, the biggest in the state. The company has invested $500 million in the plant, promising to hire 1100 workers to build the new Jeep. Obama has visited the factory to declare his commitment to the renaissance of the auto industry, adding that Romney wanted to let it die. In this part of the country, one job in eight depends on the automobile.

Joe knows he has an almost impossible task. "Marcy Kaptur talks a lot about Detroit being saved, and I understand why. It's an advantage for her," Wurzelbacher says. "But I have another argument: What brought the auto industry to the brink of bankruptcy? Excessive taxation, too many government regulations, and the government's idea that it should tell businesses how to manage their own affairs."

Having learned his trade during his years in the Air Force, Wurzelbacher combines his small government program with a robust program to help the nation's veterans. "But I don't trust the media," he adds. "They always twist my words. So I have to go out and shake hands, and hope that every voter I get will convince ten more to support me."

North-South divide

The GOP, however, does not believe their favorite plumber can actually win: in fact, Romney has not embraced him as McCain did. But the Republican presidential nominee is playing for big stakes in this part of Ohio. In the southern part of the state, Romney is certain to have the support of the Tea Party, and other evangelical Protestant conservatives from rural areas.

In the northern manufacturing regions he has to draw enough independent voters away from Obama to change the equation. In 2008 Obama took Ohio from McCain. Ohio senator Rob Portman, who prepared Romney for the debates, says that this is possible. "Romney could win even without Ohio, but we don't recommend that he run that risk. Our polls show that the candidates are neck-to-neck. We have to persuade enough middle-class and blue-collar voters that we are the real solution for the crisis."

One of these voters is Chuck, a truck driver who lives across the street from Joe in a little house already decorated with pumpkins, witches and ghosts for Halloween. "I'm a Republican, but I haven't made up my mind yet. There is so much at stake, and I don't know which candidate can really make the economy start up again. I'm going to talk to Joe to see if he can convince me."

It is possible that Joe will lose anyway, though, and go back to being a plumber. But in the meantime, he may once again hold the power to change the handful of votes that could decide the race for the White House.

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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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