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Who Said That? Words From New Italian Leaders Echo Dark Past

Rhetoric coming from anti-establishment Five Star Movement and League evoke the words of historic tyrants like King Louis XIV, Joseph Stalin and Benito Mussolini.

Matteo Salvini walking into a day of government meetings
Matteo Salvini walking into a day of government meetings
Mattia Feltri

ROME — Addressing his followers in Rome, Five Star leader and incoming labor minister Luigi Di Maio insisted last week that his party "is now the state." His words — delivered on June 2, Italy's Republic Day — recall the famous "I am the state" declaration by King Louis XIV of France that became a symbol of absolute monarchism. Enlightenment thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, supposedly much admired by Five Star members, are turning over in their graves.

Maybe, like the rest of us, Monsieur Rousseau would have become inured to these statements by now. Statements like infrastructure minister Danilo Toninelli's desire to establish "an ethical state." The field of ethics is profoundly misunderstood, and these misunderstandings are often manipulated by dictatorships that declare the state to be the ultimate arbiter of what is good and evil.

Maybe Toninelli just meant to call for an honest government with a clean criminal record that would enforce the law. Even then, his words bring to mind the bright lights of underground interrogation centers at the KGB's headquarters in Moscow's Lubyanka Square or Maximilien Robespierre's violent "Republic of Virtue."

More likely, Toninello knows of no other metric of morality than the national criminal record. And while it's difficult to imagine Di Maio taking up residence in Versailles, it's still shocking to hear these words — which recall disastrous moments in recent human history — bandied about with such youthful incognizance.

The League leader Matteo Salvini now seems to rely solely on the maxims of Benito Mussolini. "He who stops is lost," he said during the negotiations with Five Star to form a government. "Having many enemies comes with great honor," he said in response to criticism from the cartoonist Zerocalcare.

Five Star Movement activist Beppe Grillo protesting in Rome — Photo: Andrea Ronchini/Pacific Press/ZUMA

A few years ago, the goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon was accused of sympathizing with the Neo-Fascist party for wearing a shirt emblazoned with the fascist slogan "boia chi molla", which loosely translates as "death to traitors." Nowadays no one seems to notice the similarities between the words of Salvini and Mussolini.

"Borders exist to be defended," declared Salvini. "Borders aren't discussed, they're defended," said Mussolini. Even when their words coincide, the opposition cannot afford to accuse the new government of fascism — the charge has been thrown about so often in the last few years that it has become almost devoid of meaning. We have become used to assuming that they are just a coincidence rather than a look into the inner workings of the anti-establishment coalition.

Here are a few more statements that shine a light on these troubling similarities. "Capitalist states use lies, fraud, and deception to deny their citizens the most basic rights, and care only about their own financial interests." Who said it, Five Star founder Beppe Grillo or Joseph Stalin or Matteo Salvini? It's hard to tell — but it was Adolf Hitler after all.

Here's another: "The selfish industrial and financial groups fear us and hate us as their worst enemy." Salvini or Mussolini? It was said by the latter. Try to tell the difference between "the party is not a place for discussions' (Stalin) and "if anyone doesn't recognize themselves within the movement they are free to leave" (Grillo).

Journalists are the walking dead.

These next two are difficult to pick apart: "A movement that aims to renew the world doesn't need the present but instead looks to the future" and: "We are forced to think of a new world. We have to redesign the world." One was said by Hitler and the other by Grillo, but you can decide for yourself whom each statement belongs to.

The alarming similarities continue in their criticism of the press. "Journalists are servants of the political parties, they are the true walking dead," said Grillo. "The so-called free press is the work of the gravediggers of the people," said Hitler.


We could debate the ideas of parliamentary democracy and what constitutes an enemy, but instead spare a minute to go on Youtube. Search for the video where Mussolini sets fire to certificates of Italy's public debt at Rome's monumental Altar of the Motherland in 1928, cheered on by the applauding masses. We keep seeing and hearing the same things, bootlegged and repurposed for our new era of liberation.

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Coronavirus

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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