To Brexit Or Not To Brexit, Is That Still A Question?

The negotiations and the complex, chaotic debates around Brexit are revealing of a major dilemma facing democracies: What do you do when a country is profoundly divided?

All the EU's a stage ...
All the EU's a stage ...
Dominique Moisi


PARIS — "I never go anywhere without my Irish passport anymore, you never know!" My British friend is very happy about his dual nationality. Since the victory of Brexit in the June 2016 referendum, he's been sporting it proudly on any and all occasions as a form of insurance against irrationality. The harp on his Irish passport gives him a second chance, a chance to remain fully European. If things turn nasty in London, he will always be able to seek "shelter" in Dublin.

After the (very) preliminary deal struck between Britain and the European Union, my British-Irish friend no longer knows what to think. On the one hand, he almost feels resignation in the face of the inevitable divorce, which already seems well underway. On the other hand, he wants to believe that all's still on the table, because nothing is solved until everything is solved. The issue of the physical border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, meaning between the United Kingdom and the European Union, remains a complex matter. It risks becoming the 21st-century equivalent of what the Schleswig-Holstein Question was for Europe's 19th-century diplomats.

There is the more down-to-earth fear of a "soft Brexit."

My friend is clearly torn between fear and hope. The hope that the threat of chaos, which, like a sword of Damocles, still hangs over the negotiations' outcome, will force the British to reconsider their choice. John Bull, the archetypal Englishman, gave in to emotion in June 2016, but his realism will eventually get the upper hand. Could a would-be second referendum reverse, in the most democratic way possible, the result of the first one?

Of course, it wouldn't look very good. But Britain can find in their beloved Shakespeare all of life's possible circumstances. And, in this particular case, Much Ado About Nothing is by far preferable to the chaos that will inevitably — but slowly, it's true — spread.

Beyond the "hope for chaos," there is, inside my friend, the more down-to-earth fear of a "soft Brexit," which, regarding its position to the European Union, would leave Britain in a similar situation as France's in its relation with NATO after President Charles De Gaulle had pulled it out of the military alliance. We were still subjected to the same constraints be we no longer had our say in the decision process. In the case of Britain, it would thus be a compromise that would avoid the worst in terms of the economy and finance, but politically, it would be as frustrating for the supporters of Brexit as for supporters of "Remain."

What do you do when a country is deeply divided on a crucial issue, if not the crucial one?

If Britain stays "a bit" in the Union after having chosen to leave it, mostly for reasons of identity and sovereignty, the belief in democracy and its system will be badly affected. "You express your preference and end up sitting on the fence," Britons fear. "On the one hand, you pay a hefty sum to leave. On the other, we don't get full and entire sovereignty back, because of small arrangements between friends, which are made to protect the interests of those privileged by the system."

The debate over Brexit, in its extreme complexity, is revealing of one of the major dilemmas facing our democracies. What do you do when a country is deeply divided on a crucial issue, if not the crucial one? Authoritarian systems don't have this problem, or rather they have a ready-made answer. Those at the top decide without consulting those at the bottom. The people only have to follow. You want to destroy the old neighborhoods of your capital, to build another capital elsewhere? No problem. The people will yield to your will. But in exchange for this "simplicity," there is, of course, the ever-present risk of violent revolutions to change the system's almighty.

In Britain, a slim majority of the people voted in favor of Brexit, plunging the country into a state of extreme wavering. This continues and will continue regardless of the success of the ongoing negotiations. Even now, in December 2017, according to a study published by the YouGov data platform, 42% of respondents still think they were right to vote in favor of Brexit, 11% think that the government should seek a "softer" Brexit, 18% are in favor of a new referendum and 16% simply want to abandon Brexit, and act as if the vote had never taken place.

It is no longer a question of finding a good solution, but the least bad of possible compromises.

These divisions are to be found inside the political class too. No compromise, regardless of the talent of the negotiators on either side, will succeed in reconciling the pro- and the anti-Brexit camps. It is no longer a question of finding a good solution, but the least bad of possible compromises, the one that gives Brexiters the feeling that their vote has been respected and the supporters of Remain the conviction that the worst has been avoided.

For the moment, Britain seems to have resigned itself to considering that European demands are not that irrational. So Britain will pay. In return, it will get an additional two years, the minimum necessary to successfully "unravel" the many ties forged over a more than 40-year-long relationship with the EU.

In other words, the "Bregretters' party, to use a portmanteau word that is beginning to spread across Britain, that is to say the party of those who regret Brexit, doesn't exist yet — and has failed to unite behind a political figure. Tony Blair has tried to become that leader, but his image remains too negative in the public's mind. In short, nothing is clear, except the fact that the most difficult and the most chaotic part is yet to come. Bad news for Britain, Europe and, more generally, those who believe in democracy.

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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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