Partying on New Year’s Eve at an upscale hotel on Kolkata’s fancy Belvedere Road, 32-year-old Sayan Sarkar couldn’t help himself. As the clock struck 12, he looked at the revellers around him — boys and girls kissing and rejoicing. Sayan was overcome with the sudden urge to do something he doesn’t usually do in public. He reached up, grabbed his partner’s face in his hand and gave him a kiss: “Happy New Year!” Recalling the moment, Sayan says it just felt right. Cut to another evening when he and his boyfriend were walking outside his house, holding hand and he saw some of his uncles approaching. Sayan instinctively let go of Sritam's hand. Contrasting the two incidents, he says, “For gay couples, the expression of love depends on the location.”
Sayan came out to his family in 2020 and has been in a steady relationship with his boyfriend Sritam Mukherjee for over a year now. The Delhi-based consultant, however, prefers to tiptoe when it comes to navigating snoopy neighbours. “There’s just not enough acceptance of same-sex or non-binary couples yet. People know we exist, they just don’t want to get it yet.”
Thanks to the decriminalisation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, Sayan is now able to walk around with his boyfriend without the fear of being reported to the police. He can post photos with him on Instagram and actually do the things people do in steady relationships. Before he had met Sritam, Sayan was a regular on Grindr — the frisky dating app favoured by gay men, both single and adulterous. “Grindr is like Swiggy. You know you need a meal, and you just order it. When you’re done with it, you move on to the next meal,” jokes Mumbai-based Praful Baweja, 41. As an afterthought, he adds, what you get on apps like Grindr is “usually the substitute, not the real thing.”
Praful has been single for some time and says that his love life or his sexuality is not a big part of his persona anymore. But he, nevertheless, wishes that offices start including same-sex partners in their insurance policies and ‘family’ parties. Praful says he had on several occasions felt like taking his previous partners to work events, but eventually flaked on it each time. “All they need to do is change it to ‘Plus One’ instead of husband or wife on the e-vite. Just say -- bring your plus one." The stigma and the lack of sensitisation result from years of enforced binary gender roles.
Take the case of “promiscuity”, one of the most misinterpreted aspects of queer sexuality. Critics of homosexuality and the sexual liberalisation movements of the late 20th century have often accused the queer community of indulging in promiscuous, licentious behaviour that was against the conservative and religion-driven moral codes of society. In 2000, psychiatrist Nathaniel S Lehrman wrote an essay titled “Homosexuality: A Political Mask for Promiscuity: A Psychiatrist Reviews the Data” in the ultra-religious Orthodox Jewish Thought journal Traditions. In it, Lehrman quoted various publications and studies to justify that gay men were indeed promiscuous and a danger to the heteronormative familial structure intrinsic for the perpetuation of organised religion. He also argued that promiscuity was at the heart of the political movement for homosexuality.
Having spent much of his twenties and thirties exploring his sexuality, Praful does not deny it. “The idea of promiscuity and the queer community’s alleged obsession with polygamy is highly embellished by heteronormative needs to justify sexual behaviours that they don’t understand,” he says. He believes that for a community that has been so blatantly abused and oppressed by all, including family members, perhaps being picky and mistrustful of long-term personal relationships was not that surprising. “It is a little bizarre to expect people who are used to discrimination, when they express their identity, to be functional, loving individuals,” Praful adds.
Social ostracisation and parental pressure, especially among persons with lesser privilege and agency than Praful, also keep gay men from seriously approaching long-term relationships. Your mother may know you are gay. But will your distant aunt think it is ok to bring your partner to the family function? You may have come out to your office. But can you claim partner benefits such as medical insurance?
Today, Indian gay couples such as Atulan Purohit and Divesh Tolani are breaking barriers of gender and patriarchal cishet propriety in India with successful careers as LGBTQIA influencers. The couple runs a joint travel Instagram account called “Honey Imm Home” where they post regular updates of their life and travels together. The page has over 50K followers and their photographs get thousands of likes.
Speaking to Outlook, Atulan says that the entire brouhaha about the queer community and their sexual lives is a result of ignorance. “Being ‘promiscuous’ is seen as such a negative thing sometimes. It’s more of a person’s personal preference to lead their lives a certain way,” says Atulan. “This might prevail in the queer community more because there’s no concept of arranged marriage for us and hence it takes people time to figure out who they are and what they want out of a life partner,” he adds. But finding the right partner is easier said than done. “I have been in a long term relationship that lasted for five years, I’ve been in an open relationship, and now I’m in a monogamous relationship,” Atulan reveals. According to Divesh, all dating is hard and queer dating even more so. “As a gay man exposed to ‘dating’ since the age of 16, it’s been quite exhausting,” says Divesh. He adds that with every bad relationship, he kept losing bits of him. But it was only after he met Atulan that he realised that love could be more than that.
After the decriminalisation of Section 377, there has been a growing chorus for legalising gay marriages. As of December 2021, at least eight petitions seeking legalisation of gay weddings or civil unions remained pending in Delhi High Court. The members of the community argue that the push for gay weddings promotes monogamy and reflects the queer community’s desire to be seen as a monogamous block with familial urges that make them want to marry and settle down, much like a cis-male. Instagram stars Divesh and Atulan would also like to get married at some point and celebrate their love with their friends and family. But according to the duo as well as other queer couples, legalisation was only a means to increasing acceptance of gay marriage, not the end.
“Gay marriages may become a reality in the coming decades in India. But we are still very far from accepting it. It’s naïve to think that legal changes alone will be enough to change everything — how well has that really worked for other issues in India? Same-sex marriage has been legalized in Brazil, but it has high levels of violence against queer people. India will probably be in a similar position if same-sex marriage is legalised,” says Sharang. Having been in a monogamous relationship with his partner Amogh for nearly a decade, the Vadodara-based writer and content strategist instead wants people to first normalise gay and queer relationships. And as for gay men seeking love, companionship is turning out to be more important than marriage.
According to Kamakshi Madan, founder of a matchmaking service and support network called Aarzoo for the LGBTQIA community, many queer persons have started seeking long-term relationships as opposed to one-night stands or short flings. “Since 2020, when I launched Aarzoo, we have helped over 200 queer couples find love. And most of them waited for long periods of time until we could find them a good match,” Kamakshi says. Perhaps it was the reading-down of Section 377 or the pandemic, I don’t know. But there has been a definite uptick in gay people seeking partners for long-term relationships or companionship, she adds. Kamakshi clarifies that, unlike Grindr or Blued which might offer temporary dalliance, Aarzoo is not a dating app but a platform where gay couples come to find love. Her customers range from young men to men in their 50s and 60s.
For some queer people, a platform like Aarzoo is sometimes the only source of finding appropriate partners. “For single gay people, avenues for social mixing and courtship rituals are very limited. Most of us used to meet at special parties organised by Gayzi, Humsafar Trust and other queer-friendly platforms. These get-togethers act as fun ‘meet and greets’ for people to make friends and potentially meet romantic partners in a safe and comfortable environment,” says Winnie Chopra. Winnie and her partner currently live in Mumbai and the couple organises such parties and events for the queer community to come together and celebrate. However, Winnie feels that while gay men have been able to capitalise on the growing acceptance and space for the queer community in the mainstream, gay women have not got an equal share of the visibility.
“Women are less emancipated everywhere, even within the LGBTQIA community. In India, the chorus for gay and queer rights has always centred around gay men. Experiences of lesbian women have completely been invisibilized,” Winnie says. Unlike gay men, lesbians are usually stereotyped as monogamous among the queer community. But in cishet pop culture, lesbians are often depicted as overly sexualised psychotic stalkers or butch quarterback-types with a penchant for hairy arms. Sadly, says Winnie, the representation of gay women ends there. “Section 377 had nothing to do with lesbian women since we were not criminalised by it. There are no laws for or against lesbian relationships. The call for gay weddings is also made more loudly by the gays, not the lesbians. Lesbian relationships are not even taken seriously,” Winnie says, “Like we are invisible.”
Santa Khurai, a transwoman from Imphal (Manipur), sometimes wishes she was invisible, too. But she isn’t. No transwoman is, says Santa. An activist and a trans-leader working at the ground level to help transpersons in Manipur, she says that for the trans community, especially trans women, love was an elusive concept. “Most trans women fall in love with cis-men. The relationships are often toxic and abusive,” says Santa. Global studies have shown that transgender women and bisexual women are at a higher risk of facing intimate partner violence or dating violence. In India, where a majority of trans women are either beggars or sex workers, violence — both at the hands of police, antagonists and their own partners — was inadvertent and endemic. She herself is one of the few trans women in all of Manipur who is in a long-term live-in relationship with her partner. “His behaviour to me is dictated by the attitude of the society towards our relationship. Every time society ridicules the relationship, he punishes me for it,” she says.
“In India, the narratives of queer love and civil rights are dominated by the gays. But such discussions are often trans-exclusionary or ignorant of the trans experience. The right to heteronormative marriage, for instance, can never apply to transgender persons and has got nothing to do with trans inclusions or how trans people experience relationships,” Santa adds.
Meanwhile, private companies have already started partaking in the queer love pie — especially gay weddings. In the US, gay weddings boosted the economy by $3.8 billion since they were legalised in 2015. Perhaps it is not surprising that platforms like Shaadi.com are trying to enter the queer dating and matrimonial game. Last year, the site announced plans to launch LGBTQIA-specific services in 2022. Previously, dating app giants like Truly Madly have also tried to enter the queer online dating world but with futile results. “The point is that most of us still do not feel comfortable putting ourselves out there in front of cishet people. And making an app to help us find love in the same format that works for hetero couples is just lazy,” says Sayan. “Even if gay marriages were legalised, it would be a long time before any gay man would voluntarily end up there to look for a groom,” he adds.