QIDONG - At 18-years-old, Li Wei does not look like a dissident. She is mostly focused on her studies in accountancy, her friends - with whom she is always in contact - and chatting with her sister. However, none of that stopped the young girl - who has given us a false name because of the difficult situation in her hometown of Qidong - from participating in a protest that escalated in the ransacking of the Communist Party of China's (CPC) offices.
Protesters had been gathering since sunrise on Saturday July 28 in this small town one hour's drive north of Shanghai. As the day passed, the local government's offices were stormed. Administration documents flew from the windows while the angered crowd grabbed at the shirt of the PCP secretary, overcome by the extent of the movement. "We have to mobilize to protect the environment, this is our hometown," says Li Wei, sitting in the restaurant run by her parents.
Protests against polluting industries have multiplied recently due to citizens becoming increasingly aware of the ecological impacts created by economic development. Even state-run television channels are now talking about the environment as a priority in China, with young people spreading the word via micro-blogs. "People now realize that the fight against pollution is serious, as there are scarce few places in the world where industrialization is having such a heavy and direct impact on the masses," says environmentalist Ma Jun.
In Shifang, in Sichuan province, central China, people have been protesting against a copper alloy plant since the beginning of the summer: a protest that was initially started by students. Local authorities have now suspended the project. Similar protests have sprung up before, such as last August in Dalian, an industrial port in the northeast - a protest that was 12,000 strong. Authorities quickly gave up there too.
In Qidong, citizens have been protesting against a paper mill, which was going to pump out thousands of tons of wastewater near a small port. "A lot of people here earn a living from fishing. This project puts their livelihood in danger," the student argues. As soon as she heard about the problem on a web-forum one week ago, she felt she had to act: "Protecting the environment is our generation's responsibility, we can better understand these problems."
The Japanese Oji group, the developer of the mill, is claiming that the water in question is treated before being disposed of. However, the people are skeptical, convinced that something is being hidden from them: either the extent of pollution or the aftermath of the conflict between protesters and authorities. The hospital said that they have only received a dozen people with minor injuries, but rumors are spreading that there were three deaths.
"They dragged us by our hair, they punched a girl in the face"
The party is growing increasingly worried over the protests. In an editorial published on Monday July 30, the People's Daily, the Central Committee's press organ, revealed: "the public is quickly becoming aware of environmentalist issues and their own rights." In short: accusing the local government of not consulting the people, but without really proposing an alternative.
The response from authorities is characteristic of the politics of the Hu Jintao era, observes Yang Guobin, a sociologist at University of Pennsylvania who analyzed the environmental protests. "The government's reaction is typical of the wei wen approach - the politics of maintaining stability - to stop any form of protest. The approach outlines the use of violence if necessary, but if state intervention does not work, make immediate concessions in order to avoid an escalation of the movement. In any case, act quickly," sums up Yang.
Like a responsible citizen, Li Wei regrets that the protest got out of hand. "It went too far, the damage in the local authorities' offices, it's a waste because the government's money is the people's money."
But the people have not been able to properly plan, as the official procedure to file for protests had yielded no response. Also, environmental NGOs are only allowed by Beijing because they stay out of these types of conflict. "In the future, we have to put a mechanism into place, offering the possibility of consultation between different concerned parties and we have to stay ahead of new industrial projects," says Ma Jun.
At the crossroads in the center of Qidong, the public's victory is displayed on giant screens where a statement, published by the authorities in yellow characters on a red background, announces the suspension of the wastewater pipeline. However, for those still causing trouble, the state has deployed anti-riot forces, coming from all corners of Jiangsu province.
Thousands of officers in blue police uniforms occupy the streets in the town center. Some of them are napping on patches of grass, as they have not slept since they arrived here the day before. There are also armed police blocking the streets; dressed in khaki, with helmets and truncheons in hand.
For Li Wei, who had never even witnessed a protest before this, it has been a real shock. Not because of the intervention by the local police - which she has even heard mutter "jia you!" a cry of support one might hear at sporting matches - but because of real state oppression.
"They dragged us by our hair, they punched a girl in the face," she says, behind lensless glasses, as she switches to English: "I really wanted to just say to them... fuck you!"
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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