PARIS — "It’s the economy, stupid!" Just like the famous slogan in Bill Clinton's 1992 challenge, the economy may have been decisive for David Cameron — but in a positive way this time for the incumbent.
The economic crisis 22 years ago was George H. W. Bush’s downfall, despite his laudable record in foreign policy. The decline in unemployment and the economic growth guarantee David Cameron’s triumphal return to Number 10, Downing Street.
While the Conservatives emphasized the good results of the economy, Labour and Ed Miliband, its leader who has since stepped down, made the fatal error of conducting a sharply left-wing campaign. The fear of change prevailed over any other consideration, as it had paradoxically been the case with of the success of the “No” during the Scottish referendum in Sept. 2014. In both cases, the economic considerations turned out to be decisive.
But beyond Cameron’s shattering victory, which defied all pre-election polls that showed him neck-and-neck with Miliband, the British elections also point to a looming revolution that could have historic consequences on multiple fronts. In first instance, of course, is the triumph of the Scottish nationalists of the SNP, who won almost every seat in Scotland (56 out of 59). They may have a Syriza-like economic message and claim to be much attached to the European Union, the May 7 vote was, for the Scottish people, before anything else, the equivalent of a “do-over referendum.” Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's leader, made them understand they had a second chance to seize and that they had to overcome their fears. Disappointed by London’s behavior since the 2014 referendum, they voted this time with their hearts.
Can we go as far as saying that last Thursday’s elections convey a double defeat of union, in the British sense of the word? We can, of course, expect now that a triumphant David Cameron will fulfill his promise of a referendum in 2017 on the UK's place in the European Union. But the elections also reflect the new political, economic and cultural reality of what, until now, they still call the United Kingdom.
The three Britains
A new tripartite system has just emerged: Conservatives, Labour, Scottish nationalists. (The Eurosceptic party UKIP did get important results, but it only got one seat and, this a major humiliation, Nigel Farage will not enter the House of Commons and also stepped aside as leader.)
Beyond this singular tripartite system, there’s a tri-polar reality that is crucial to understand to explain the changes underway. Behind the term “Great Britain,” there are actually three distinct identities. Three, and not only two, as it is often said to emphasize the Scottish exception. There’s London, Scotland and the rest of Britain, including Wales and Northern Ireland.
Of course, there are still major economic and social differences between a richer and more conservative South and more modest and Laborite working-class North. But these differences alone are no longer enough to explain the divided reality of the nation. Cosmopolitan, multicultural, vibrant with energy and dynamism, London has, in fact, effectively left the rest of the United Kingdom, just like the SNP in Scotland intends to do formally.
After more than three centuries of a system that has worked fairly well, David Cameron leads a United Kingdom that is at a historical crossroads. How far can the prime minister go in the concessions to Scotland to maintain the unity of the Kingdom? And, conversely, which concessions will he be able to obtain from the Union, European this time, to maintain Great Britain, or what is left of it, in the EU?
What can the consequences of the voting of the British be for Europe? In Berlin, where I was at the beginning of last week, worry was spreading about the results of a referendum lying ahead. Facing this impending threat, Germany's alliance with Paris was imposing itself more than ever. And, in this context, the future of France itself, considered uncertain, was becoming even more important. And what if, in 2017, Britain says “No” to Europe at the exact moment France says “Yes” to Marine Le Pen's anti-EU National Front party?
This scenario is probably too alarmist, but it reflects Germany’s concerns and its fear of ending up all alone in Europe, as the last “truly European” major country, followed by Poland. The more cynical, tactical question: is France not exaggerating the threat of its National Front to obtain concessions from Germany in negotiations over the European Union. “If you’re too intransigent with us, you’re paving the way for the National Front” is the implicit message of this viewpoint.
The British may feel very far from Europe, but their elections were followed quite closely by Europeans, ever more worried about the possibility of less Great Britain in Europe and in the world.
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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