Julián de Zubiría Samper
March 16, 2021
No Western social institution has changed more over the past 50 years than the family. Just a few years ago, families were profoundly authoritarian, patriarchal and sexist. For centuries, they produced traditional models and perpetuated conservative values. The father imposed his authority and the mother gave her affection. Children, both boys and girls, had to obey.
Everything began to change with the countercultural revolution in the 1960s, and the sexual liberation that came along. Before that, divorce was illegal and entailed social penalties. Those who divorced would face social ostracism. From the 1970s, couples began separating, divorcing and remarrying. Two-thirds of all couples have done it in the United States, and at least a third in Latin America. In Colombia, by 2015, a third of all women aged over 40 years told a poll they had already been married two or more times (DANE's 2015 Encuesta nacional de hogares or National Households Poll).
Today, women's role in society is no longer exclusively tied to procreation. In most European countries, women tend to have their first child after the age of 30 (32.1% in Spain, 31.9% in Italy, among others). Likewise, their entry into university and the labor force has become widespread. Worldwide, 60% of university graduates and 53% of the workforce are women. To this last figure must be added the immense unpaid work that our still patriarchal society has assigned them in the home.
The changes in the structure of families have generated a profound transformation in the exercise of authority.
In 1976, the psychiatrist David Cooper anticipated the death of the family. His prediction did not come true, but families have undoubtedly reinvented themselves. Families made up of a father, mother and children have become the exception. In Colombia, 70% of households have other structures, which is why we should speak of "families' in the plural.
There are elderly households; young people sharing flats; gay couples are increasingly visible and accepted and it is increasingly normal to see people living alone; and childless married couples or those living apart, among other options. In this country, the average number of people per household went from 9.4 in 1966 to 3.1 in 2019, and 38% of these are headed by a woman (DANE Households poll, 2020).
These changes in the structure of families have also generated a profound transformation in the exercise of authority and in children's upbringing. I want to talk about one specific change: the emergence of families where authority no longer centers on the parents and has been transferred to the children. Children have acquired full powers to judge, act and decide at all times and in all circumstances, and this entirely dilutes all limitations and authority at home. They take the important decisions on social meetings, what to wear and where to go, what to do and when they can come home or study, regardless of their age. It is a recent phenomenon and often involves middle or upper-middle class families. Curiously, these remain authoritarian families: only this time, it is the children, not the parents, who hold the reins of this power.
One of the keys to understanding permissive families is that parents' priority and meaning in life is no longer centered primarily on their children. Fathers and mothers have their own ideals that lead them to expand their studies and their own life projects. It is a society that is more oriented to work than to the family nucleus.
Permissive parents dedicate little time to their children and, to remedy this weakness, allow them to do whatever they want. They try to compensate for the lack of affection and communication with gifts, freedom of choice and absence of limits.
Ultimately, the permissive parent's goal is for their child "to be happy." They consider themselves to be friends of their children. But they do not realize that in winning a friend, their children are losing the mother or father they need. These children learn early on that their parents suffer when they throw a tantrum in public, and recognize this as an effective strategy to impose their will. With manipulation and tantrums, they get whatever they want.
Their parents seem to be unaware they are breeding little tyrants who bite, abuse and insult and impose their will through emotional blackmail. In time, they may come to reproach their parents for not abiding by their own "free" rules, and subject them to emotional abuse. It is very common for them to abandon or mistreat their parents psychologically and emotionally. In any case, the consequences of authoritarianism are reproduced, but now exercised from the children towards the parents.
Children of permissive parents are easily spotted at schools because these children tend to be rejected by their peers. They never learned to listen, to dialogue or to reach agreement. Their parents have not taught them about co-existence, about asking to speak, sharing toys or respecting rules. They are kings at home, where they are overvalued. They are often the only child, and, if not, they act as if they were.
Nor do such children — being needy, whimsical and disrespectful of norms — arouse much sympathy among their teachers. Hard work and perseverance are not their forte. Colombia's ICFES, a state body that evaluates schools, has found them to underperform in studies. It is not surprising, as education is a process that requires grit and hard work in grappling with ideas, both old and new.
Excessively authoritarian or permissive upbringings will not forge the citizens we need to live in a better society.
Authoritarian parents create melancholic children who are obedient and weak of character. Permissive parents produce overconfident children who are insensitive, and hard pushed to empathize with others. The former overvalue discipline and authority, and the latter underestimate the need for limits. There is too much control in authoritarian homes, while limits are absent in permissive ones. Both ignore Plato's recommendation to avoid two excesses in educating the young: too much severity, and overindulgence.
Democratic families do things together, talk among themselves and support members. Authority, however, necessarily rests with elder members. Similarly, democratic governments respect the independence of powers, promote participation and freedom of press and opinion, but it is clear that they have to make decisions that, with some frequency, do not satisfy everyone, although they always seek the benefit of the majority.
The conclusion is clear: Excessively authoritarian or permissive upbringings will not forge the citizens we need to live in a better society. Winston Churchill may have been right to see democracy as the worst form of government "except for all those other forms." I would add, the same may be said of families. Ultimately, the citizens of tomorrow will be formed in our own households.
*Julián de Zubiría Samper is headmaster of the Alberto Merani school in Bogotá.
The oldest newspaper in Colombia, El Espectador was founded in 1887. The national daily newspaper has historically taken a firm stance against drug trafficking and in defense of freedom of the press. In 1986, the director of El Espectador was assassinated by gunmen hired by Pablo Escobar. The majority share-holder of the paper is Julio Mario Santo Domingo, a Colombian businessman named by Forbes magazine as one of the wealthiest men in the world in 2011.
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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.
October 19, 2021
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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