Fellow Germans: Stay The Course!

New polls finding Germany has few fans in Europe should guide neither Berlin's policies nor Germans' own sense of self-worth. Other Europeans will come around, for their own good.

A new dawn?
A new dawn?
Florian Eder


BERLIN - People are like that. Most of us think of ourselves a little more positively than other people do. It’s mental hygiene – there is no one we spend more time with than ourselves, so we might as well make things as comfortable as possible.

When self-perception and perception of others clash, that’s the stuff of annual evaluation meetings with the boss, or a major crisis in a relationship. Still, it’s good to know where you stand – it can be cleansing if your constitution is strong enough for a thorough scrub with a rough-bristled brush.

Which is what Germany has just gotten from half of Europe, which after three years of debt, economic crisis, and euro crisis, is taking a much harsher look at Germans than Germans think they deserve.

According to a Pew Research poll, Germans are mostly perceived as egotistical, arrogant and unfeeling. They don’t care what anybody thinks as long as their economy is booming. Not true, say the Germans, who consider themselves the most compassionate people in Europe.

It would be easy to take stock of the various perceptions outlined in the Pew report and move on, were it not for the fact that such deeply anchored prejudices – an egotistical north, a lazy south – have found their way into the politics of the euro crisis. The picture of self-serving Germans isn’t just the stuff of person-on-the-street surveys; the current French government shares that view.

So the question is: what are we Germans going to do about it? Make compensatory gestures – try to please – or defend our positions? We don’t really have a lot of choice, so we’re going to have to settle for the last one, and just put up with not being liked; accept not being loved however generous we may think of ourselves, after all those write-offs!

In Europe, Germany is the exception in terms of both employment and economic growth. Perhaps this creates envy. And no question about it, it does create the expectation that Germans should stop being resistant to "solidarity." Why? You can afford it!

This is nonsense. This concept of solidarity just blurs edges. The real issue is accepting responsibility. At the end of the day, all the demands on Germany boil down to one thing: Germany should put the brakes on so the others can catch up. But we can’t let ourselves be talked into that, it’s not in our interests and what’s more it’s not in the interests of Europe.

Where would the EU be without us?

Right now, France is aligning itself with southern Europe and in so doing is marginalizing itself. It has let deficits get out of control, and weakened the industrial foundations of its prosperity. It has put off reforms again and again and continues to do so.

Joining forces with the ones who have as much catching up to do as you do might make you some buddies in those countries – but it considerably weakens influence and respect elsewhere. Because bottom line everybody knows that rampant debt and stalled reforms weaken performance and undermine trust.

The paradox is that Europe understands the meaning of consolidation but will only admit it under pressure. The countries cutting down are the ones on whom austerity measures have been imposed in return for bailouts. And they’re not all unhappy about it: Greece’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaras has been calling last year a “success story” because he has managed to restore trust through honest saving.

Germany’s economic strength in Europe is to some extent only relative. New debt is lower than elsewhere but lowering debt levels is something Berlin will tackle as soon as the elections are over. German conceit is not the issue here. On the contrary. Where would the EU be if Germany’s economy fell apart?

That’s a scenario Europeans would rather not think about. Incidentally Pew Research also asked the person on the street if austerity measures were appropriate right now. In Spain, Italy, and France the overwhelming majority were for consolidating budgets.

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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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