How are gay people treated in India

Berlin visiting professor Navtej Johar : How India's queer community is fighting for recognition

Navtej Johar begins to read from a judgment text of the Supreme Court of India in a shaky voice. "Section 377 is irrational, arbitrary and incomprehensible because it limits the right to equality for the LGBT community," it says. Then his voice fails him completely. “This is where I always get emotional,” says Johar and asks his audience to read on for themselves. You owe an apology to the members of the ward, the text goes on. On September 6, 2018, the court overturned a colonial law that made homosexuality a prison sentence. 1.3 billion people and thus 18 percent of the world population have gained new freedom. The Indian dancer and choreographer Navtej Johar, who gave a queer lecture in the Taz building on Tuesday evening, was largely responsible for this historical judgment. He is speaking publicly about this victory for the first time, says Johar. That's also why he's so emotional. “I haven't celebrated yet,” he says.

This summer semester Navtej Johar holds the Valeska Gert guest professorship, a cooperation between the Institute for Theater Studies at the Free University of Berlin, the German Academic Exchange Service and the Academy of Arts. At the FU he taught the seminar "Designing a Poetic Ambience", in which he wants to develop a practical understanding of the Indian bhava-rasa aesthetic with the participating dance studies students. The aim here is to first conceive a poetic atmosphere, then to experience it physically and finally to express it. This is done with the help of movement, voice, image and text elements. Johar and his students will present the results of their work on June 25 at the Akademie der Künste.

In his work, Johar combines traditional Indian dance styles with modern genres and critical theory. It's about physicality, sexuality and gender, but also about the history of Indian dance and nationalism. In addition to his work as a dancer, choreographer and professor, Johar is also active as a yoga teacher. In 2013 he went public as an LGBTI activist on a black day for the Indian queer community. A ruling from 2009 that Section 377 had actually overturned had just been overturned. Homosexuality was criminal again. Johar was having breakfast with his yoga student, a lesbian lawyer, discussing what to do with her. "We need faces," she said. So they started a petition, in which Johar and his long-time partner, the author Sunil Mehra, also participated and which ultimately led to the historic verdict. “I feel like a random hero,” says Johar. He was just in the right place at the right time. Above all, the fighters before him deserved the recognition. The first Pride parade took place in Calcutta as early as 1999, and in the same year a “Gay Night” was held for the first time in a nightclub in Delhi. At the lecture, Johar also thanks the feminist movement of India. “Without her we wouldn't be here today,” he says.

A "Coming of Age" of India

With the overturned law, the police can no longer harass and blackmail homosexuals so easily. The judgment had no direct impact on his life, says Johar. Despite the official ban, he was able to live quite openly with his partner. In India there is not the same homophobia as in Western countries, explains the dancer. In the texts of Hinduism, homosexuality is not treated as a sin, unlike the other three world religions. “It's easier to walk hand in hand through the streets in Delhi than it is in New York City,” says Johar. The pressure to get married is enormous for men and women, which often leads to homophobia. The abolition of the law is also a "decolonization of the Indian spirit," says Johar. By law in 1861, Britain would have imposed its Victorian morals on Indian society. The worldview of the colonial power has been internalized, says Johar. He sees the fact that the law has now been abolished as a "coming of age" for India. Much has already been done to promote LGBTI acceptance at Indian schools and universities.

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But India is in dark, difficult times, Johar notes, referring to the election victory of the nationalist BJP party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He therefore sees the judgment as symbolic politics. “Some things are allowed so that others can remain forbidden,” says Johar. It is now important to fight vehemently against misogyny, the caste system and racist Islamophobia. These are the burning struggles of India, whereas their struggle seems almost cosmetic. Even trans people could live more openly in India than in the West, but only marginalized. Despite the ongoing political battles, Johar and his colleagues felt differently at a meal together on the evening of the judgment. “Something has moved,” says Johar. He and his partner have been a couple for 23 years, now they are legal. “How much do you have to love each other for your love to be valid?” Asked his lawyer during the trial. Tears well up in Johar's eyes at the memory.

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