Italy, Old And New Avant-Garde Of Global Populism

From both the left and right, populist leaders in Italy are again at the forefront of the movement around the world.

Election posters for Five Star leader Matteo Salvini in Naples
Election posters for Five Star leader Matteo Salvini in Naples
Jacopo Iacoboni

TURIN — Italians went to the polls in a closely-watched election Sunday, and voters took a decidedly populist bent. As final ballots are tallied, a total of 50% of the vote went to either the populist Five Star Movement or the right-wing League, two parties that share a distaste for the Italian establishment and the European Union.

That result has drawn admiration from populist leaders around the world. Marine Le Pen celebrated on Twitter, calling it "a bad night for the EU." Steve Bannon, the former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, arrived in Italy a few days before the end of an election campaign season he glowingly defined as "pure populism."

Bannon has called Italy the "summa" (or pinnacle) of the populist wave sweeping the West. But before Sunday's vote, that wave seemed to have abated. After the blows of Brexit and Donald Trump's victory in 2016, Emmanuel Macron's defeat of Marine Le Pen in France and Angela Merkel's re-election in Germany had calmed nerves in Europe. Then came Italy, a country that has traditionally served as a sort of political laboratory where anything can be invented.

Five Star and the League may be on different sides of the political spectrum, but the half of the country that voted for them was attracted by common populist themes that both parties had campaigned on. Each rails against the status quo, Italy's traditional political parties, rising immigration, and the EU, as well as taking an increasingly critical stance towards large corporations and the wealthy.

While Italy's political leaders struggle to form a government with the hung parliament produced by Sunday's vote, the country has been effectively divided in two: mainstream parties on one side, populists on the other.

"This election is crucial for the global populist movement," said Bannon. "The most important takeaway is that if you add the polling numbers of other center-right and populist parties in Italy, that number rises to 65%, or almost two-thirds of the country voting against the political establishment."

Bannon's numbers include the party led by former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi among the populists, which is somewhat inaccurate. Nevertheless, his predictions about the prevailing political mood in Italy were largely borne out on Sunday.

Italian populists already have close ties with populist parties around the world. Bannon is close to Guglielmo Picchi, a League politician, and some have alleged he also knows Beppe Grillo, the former comedian and founder of Five Star. League leader Matteo Salvini is friends with National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, while the Five Star Movement is allied with British populist Nigel Farage and former Le Pen ally Florian Philippot in the European Parliament. Berlusconi has a famously close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but so do all of the other populist parties in Italy.

His predictions about the prevailing political mood in Italy were largely borne out.

The populist wave can be measured by comparing the results of these parties in recent elections across Europe. In the French presidential elections last year, the FN won 21.3% in the first round and 33.9% in the second round — more than double the number of votes Le Pen's father won in 2007. Last September, the right-wing Alternative for Germany won 12.6% in parliamentary elections, almost 8% more than in 2013.

The Northern League, as it was then called before the ascent of Salvini, won only 4% in the last Italian elections in 2013. On Sunday, it became the country's third-largest party with over 17% of the vote. After exploding onto the political scene by winning 25.5% of voters in 2013, Five Star became the country's largest party with almost 33% of the vote on Sunday. The smaller, right-wing Brothers of Italy more than doubled the number of seats it won in 2013.

A few days before the election, Luigi Di Maio, the Five Star candidate for prime minister, was interviewed on Italian television. He was asked which foreign leader he would meet first in the case of a victory for his party: Trump or Putin. "Whoever asks me first," he replied. In the meantime, he knows he can always talk to Bannon.

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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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