NAPLES — It was the last game of 2018, and I was looking forward to it. I had planned to go with my brother, a staunch Napoli fan, my soccer-loving Argentine husband and a bunch of old friends. It was also a symbolic gesture: I am back in Italy after almost two decades living abroad, and going to the stadium is part of what I consider a show of my sometimes-subdued Neapolitan pride. Plus, I am eight months pregnant: This would be the official introduction of our soon-to-be-born baby boy to the wonderful world of soccer.
But as that last Saturday of December approached, I felt both guilty and a bit wary for having bought tickets for the Napoli-Bologna game.
Death and racial hatred are not exactly what I expect a soccer stadium to represent, but that is what had surfaced just a few days earlier in Milan, on December 26, at a game between Inter and Napoli, third against second in the top Italian league.
Inside the stadium, a section of Inter ultras in the Curva Nord directed racist chants and monkey noises at Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly, a French-born Senegalese defender. Napoli coach Carlo Ancelotti later said that Napoli made three requests for the game to be suspended, but he was not heard.
I was watching with my brother, and we were livid.
At the 80th minute, Koulibaly was penalized for a foul, and he responded with a sarcastic applause, which the referee booked with another yellow card. He was sent off.
To me and other Napoli fans, this was adding insult to injury. Yes, there had been a foul, but why wasn't the referee protecting Koulibaly from the racist insults?
I was watching from a TV screen at home with my brother, and we were livid. And we had not yet found out that something worse had happened outside Milan's San Siro stadium. Before the game, as rival supporters clashed, Daniele Belardinelli was killed. He was a Varese ultra fan known to police from previous stadium bans. Investigators say that a combined group of Inter, Varese and Nice (France) ultras who'd developed ties over the years, had attacked a minibus carrying Napoli supporters. Footage shows fans fighting in a street and then Belardinelli being struck by a car. More than 20 people, including several Napoli ultras, are now under investigation in connection with Belardinelli's death.
I could not believe that the death of a fan had not led to the game's suspension. Just as I was shocked to hear that Napoli had tried — to no avail — to get the game suspended for the racist chants. The Italian soccer federation's reaction was to sanction Inter with the following two matches to be played behind closed doors and with a partial closure for its third home match.
Several top soccer players, including Argentina's legend and former Napoli striker Diego Armando Maradona, showed their support for Koulibaly on social networks, and even European football governing body UEFA said that the correct anti-racism protocol had not been followed during the game.
So, why are the Italian soccer authorities not stepping in and taking some serious action?
In some ways, none of this is news. This is not the first time a soccer fan has been killed in Italy (a Napoli fan was killed in 2014 and an A.S. Roma supporter was found guilty of the murder), nor is it the first time racism has surfaced in soccer. But they are particularly ominous within the current political climate in my native country. Since taking over as Italy's Interior Minister in June, far-right Matteo Salvini has smeared groups rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean and criminalized the work of those who defend migrant rights, including most recently a group of mayors rebelling against a new security decree.
In November, United Nations experts released a report concluding that a rise in hate attacks in Italy cannot be separated from politicians "unashamedly embracing racist and xenophobic anti-immigrant and anti-foreigner rhetoric."
I wasn't even sure whether going to the match with my growing belly was safe.
Moreover, just a week before the Inter-Napoli incidents, Salvini was photographed shaking the hand of an A.C. Milan far-right ultra chief accused of bodily harm and drug-dealing. It was difficult to forget when Salvini used to target southern Italians alongside black immigrants. A 2009 video of the now Interior Minister is still available online. He charmingly chants, "What a stench, even the dogs run away, Neapolitans are arriving". Many of my fellow southerners apparently don't remember (or don't care), because Salvini's League party received an unprecedented one million votes from the south of Italy in the March 2018 elections, and the latest opinion poll by IPSOS shows that up to 26% of southern Italians would vote for him now.
So, all of this taken together, I was not much in the mood to go to the stadium. I wasn't even sure whether going to the match with my growing belly was safe.
But when I arrived at the San Paolo stadium, I felt relieved. There were children with their parents, and many elderly fans too. Friends of a friend who live in the UK were sitting with their three-year-old son, in what they consider a necessary pilgrimage to maintain the boy's Neapolitan roots alive.
Most importantly, a large number of people carried fliers with Koulibaly's picture which read Siamo tutti Koulibaly ("We are all Koulibaly"). Some were very young, and they held their print-outs high over their heads. Others wore masks with the player's name, as well as T-shirts. A large majority of the stadium chanted "Kalidou, Kalidou" just before the game started.
When the authorities fail to step in, and their reactions are at best absent, at worst conducive to racism, it is nice to think that there are still individual citizens who eventually can shout louder than the racist chants. But maybe it is just my Neapolitan pride surfacing.
As we left the stadium, after a last-minute victory for Napoli, my brother Mauro looked somewhat uncomfortable. My Boca Juniors-rooting husband cracked a joke, saying that after this heart-stopping victory our baby boy was bound to become a big Napoli fan. And yes, we are even considering Diego as his name — what more than Maradona binds Naples and Argentina? But we were all surprised by Mauro's serious answer: "Maybe it's better if he does not like soccer at all. I still love the game, but everything around it disgusts me." Whatever our son's soccer destiny (and name), it is sure that his introduction to the beautiful game was bittersweet. A bit like my return home to Italy.
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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