It has been four years since the Supreme Court decriminalised gay sex. As awareness about the LGBTQIA+ community steadily increases among the Indian public, it becomes important to look at how the queer community manages to find love and negotiate relationships. In a society that still considers same-sex relationships taboo, how are gay and bisexual Indians finding partners? Are long-term relationships hard to come by? How is the media playing a role in the portrayal of gay relationships?
In a world dominated by smartphones and the Internet, the old-fashioned way of looking for love is increasingly of little relevance. Apps have taken over every aspect of people’s lives, whether it is employment, shopping, or dating, and it is no different for gay and bisexual men seeking companionship. The vast majority of them uses three apps—Grindr, Tinder, and Bumble. While Grindr is specifically catered to gay men, Tinder and Bumble serve the needs of those outside the LGBTQ+ community as well.
Vikram, 25, a software engineer from Bangalore who identifies as bisexual, says that he uses dating apps for several purposes—to seek friendship, to go on romantic dates, for casual hookups, or sometimes even for something as simple as finding someone to go bowling with. “I don’t focus on anything specific when I use dating apps. I have always looked for people to have a good time with. Since I live in Bangalore, I have also met queer people organically in events like marathons and quizzes. I feel that there are now quite a few physical spaces for queer people to meet each other safely, at least in major urban centres.”
Anand, who is in his mid-30s, identifies as gay. He has lived in three different cities and has used dating apps to find partners for hookups or to seek long-term relationships. For Anand, the main problem with dating apps has been that of safety. He says the apps promote abuse and they lack sufficient security features to weed out impostors. He narrated a horrifying experience to this writer of financial extortion and blackmail, when he once used a dating app to meet another man for a hookup. “I was physically and verbally abused by the man I was chatting with. He snatched my phone and threatened to out me to all my friends and relatives. I had to cough up a huge sum of money to get out of the ordeal. I did not go to the police because I did not want my sexuality revealed.”
Anand’s journey with dating apps has been fraught with bad experiences and disappointments. “I have been shamed for so many things, starting from my body, my English accent, my dark complexion. It has been hard to find meaningful long-term relationships. A majority of the people online are just seeking one-night stands, and although I am fine with that, it sometimes becomes difficult to come to terms with the reality that I am possibly never going to find a long-term companion through these apps.”
The queer community, unfortunately, has a love-hate relationship with dating apps. As Anand points out, being out as gay is a privilege that is available only to a select few, so hanging out at physical spaces such as gay cafes or bars or using other, possibly safer, avenues to seek partners is out of the question for someone who is forced to be discreet about their sexuality.
Many in the queer community say that the people they do match with on these dating apps are quite direct when it comes to what they are looking for. Sometimes, the bluntness with which they state their purpose can be a dehumanising experience. Amarnath, a young dental surgeon from Chennai, says, “I do understand that some of them may not essentially be looking for long-term relationships but sometimes even having a conversation can be hard. It is quite evident that people have gone through a lot having used these apps—some have been ghosted, some have had traumatic experiences and toxic relationships in the past; and then there are those who seem to be quite anxious to find a partner, so much so that the other person finds it too off-putting and desperate. The result is that people can be really insensitive at times. It helps to set one’s expectations right when using dating apps.”
A general sense of pessimism prevails in the queer community about being able to find committed, monogamous relationships. And, contrary to prevailing notions, many from the gay community still hold long-term, monogamous relationships as the golden standard. This largely stems from the fact that other types of relationships are rarely heard of in a traditional society like India that gives paramount importance to heteronormative constructs such as marriage and childbirth. Finding a “good husband or wife” for their children and “settling them down” in life is the top priority in the long checklist of Indian parents. It is a preoccupation that is faithfully reproduced in popular cinema and culture. Any alternative way of approaching life is entirely absent.
It is thus unsurprising but still distressing to see how many gay and bisexual men opt for heterosexual marriage simply because of parental pressure and societal respectability. For many, the option to come out as queer is simply unavailable because of socioeconomic factors that do not allow them to leave home, and a very real fear for their lives due to the risk of violence and abuse from family and society. In fact, the scepticism among gay men about finding a long-term partner also arises from having observed numerous instances where men in same-sex relationships are forced to abandon their partners to marry women and lead fake heterosexual lives.
Vikram, however, approaches this problem from a different angle. He says that monogamy is highly overrated and questions the rationale behind a major section of the queer community wanting to live a life that has supposedly worked out well for heterosexual people. “In my opinion,” he says, “aping the heterosexual way of life in queer relationships is not going to help. I am not finding fault with that way of life. I am just saying it is not for everyone. These days young people are exploring many types of romantic partnerships, from friends with benefits to open relationships to consensual polyamory. Some choose not to find a stable partner and live by themselves. These are as valid as monogamous relationships and it is up to us to prove to mainstream society that there are other ways of leading life.”
Says Amarnath, “Those in heterosexual relationships want us to believe that they are sustainable but reality is different these days. The inability to find long-term monogamous relationships is certainly not limited to LGBT people.” Do these issues make them feel life would have been easier if they were heterosexual? Both Amarnath and Vikram deny it. “Every person faces struggles and difficulties. I don’t want to say all the problems that I face today are on account of me being queer. However, I do feel sad sometimes that I am not able to be myself with everyone. My identity is assumed as heterosexual by society and that is something I am concerned with. These days, I try not to hide my sexuality,” says Vikram.
Obsessed with romance
Interestingly, a string of movies and OTT shows are now portraying characters in same-sex relationships. Culturally, there is an obsession in the entertainment industry to focus on romance, but while sensitive romantic portrayals are welcomed by the community, it is curious to note that almost all cinematic / OTT representations are centred around finding “the one”. While many gay people believe that depicting same-sex romance should be no different from depicting heterosexual love so that society becomes more inclusive, there are many who also believe that other forms of companionship among queer people, including the much-talked about sologamy, recently in the news, are routinely missed by media storytellers due to heteronormative bias and a fear of cultural backlash. Ideally, the queer community hopes to be a guiding light for those who do not have “the perfect life” as per culturally celebrated norms. While the community would like to find love more easily, it does not want to be boxed into heteronormative frames.
Srinivasaraghavan is a finance professional with a penchant for writing on social issues. He plays the veena in his spare time and loves to read up on art history and politics.