- Op-Ed -
BERLIN - Two people recently “disappeared” into the vastness that is China. The whole world is talking about one of them: Edward Snowden whose revelations about digital spying by the National Security Agency have fueled fear and indignation. Big Brother, your name was and is USA.
Nobody is talking about photographer and documentary filmmaker Du Bin who unlike Snowden was not able to give interview after interview in (still) semi-free Hong Kong. Instead he was carted off by Beijing police on May 31, and his whereabouts are presently unknown. And yet Du Bin’s revelations may be far more explosive than Snowden’s. For the first time, he dared to document the torture and murders in the Chinese “re-education” labor camp Masanjia, where inmates make products sold primarily to Western markets.
A cry for help had already reached the West from the camp: upon opening a box of Halloween decorations made there, an American housewife in Oregon found a hand-written note in rudimentary English from an inmate describing the unbearable torture of 15-hour work days, with guards beating up prisoners to make them work faster on exports destined for all points west.
News of the note made it through various media, some human rights organizations started beating the drum, but no major cry of outrage was heard -- even though there are hundreds of such camps in the People’s Republic, where prisoners slave to service consumerism.
No need to speculate about the relative lack of interest. In the West, a generalized howl of protest only rises when crimes and misdeeds can be attributed to Western players -- Nestlé, Shell, Adidas or McDonald's, for example. And the ritual has nothing to do with structured self-criticism by free societies, being on the one hand generalizing and hysterical, on the other based in callous ignorance. If the Attac and Occupy activists of this world, the Naomi Kleins and Michael Moores, the Jean Zieglers and Slavoj Zizeks, really took their emancipatory impulses seriously, they would hold demonstrations in front of every Chinese institution in the Western world.
Granted, the lack of interest by now has a long tradition – and the list of examples is depressing. To this day the atrocities of the Vietnam War are the best-documented in the world, while the mass murders after the Soviet march into Afghanistan in 1979 haven’t even been suppressed because they were never truly acknowledged in the first place; and yet Moscow’s aggression marked the actual start of the war in the Hindu Kush, which continues to this day.
The Iraqi prison of Abu Ghraib also only began to “exist” for the Western public when Americans were accused of misconduct, while Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch had already warned about the far worse torture that had been taking place there in Saddam Hussein’s day. During the Chechen War there were curious ups and downs of public outrage: What was not forgiven of supposedly pro-West Boris Yeltsin was shrugged off by self-described nationalist Vladimir Putin. Other countries, other mores -- and Grosny is awfully far away.
The same pattern played out prior to 1989: indignation at the Pershing-2 missiles at American bases in West Germany, while Soviet SS-20 rockets were quite simply ignored. The hypocrisy continues into 2013, as we hear loud calls for the boycott of products from the Israeli West Bank and outcries about “sexism“ in our societies, while little is said about the fate of the many young men and women in EU-funded Palestinian areas -- murdered in the name of “honor” because they were “adulteresses” or homosexuals.
Apologists for selective outrage never fail to point out that we should clean our own houses before criticizing the way others keep theirs, or that hyper-self-criticism is one of the defining signs of Western democracies – the same democracies that on a parallel track are being accused of being so profoundly undemocratic. This sort of babble, which by the way has made great headway into politically correct circles, is less concerned with forging the way for concrete improvement than it is with demonizing the Western way -- whose advantages are always taken for granted.
Alleged rapist Julian Assange is a particularly prominent example of this: as WikiLeaks initiator, he used to be mainly concerned with exposing western countries, but he apparently finds it not the least bit odd to be holed up in London asking for "political asylum" from Ecuador -- a country whose authoritarian president Rafael Correa strangles critical journalism.
And the pattern is now playing out in Edward Snowden’s case: An agitated public once again finds confirmation that the West is dominated by dark forces of which “we” are the victims – during the German census of 1987, it was the "Big Brother State," today an unholy alliance of Facebook, Google and American secret service.
The excessiveness of the criticism is a major hindrance to efficient action. "Consumer terrorism" and "amusing ourselves to death" are examples of the sort of self-hate slogans we come up with, and they also serve to give us victim status while the really desperate people in our world are hardly suffering from too much consumerism or amusement.
The story of the note from the inmate in the package of Halloween decorations is thus highly symbolic: The real horror lingers behind the fake horror. How much longer do we collaborators with inhuman dictatorships want to keep ignoring that fact?
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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