“Queer dating is nothing like a Bollywood romance,” laughs Ishaan*, a gay theatre student, as he talks about his experiences on Grindr, a dating app aimed exclusively at gay men. As an avid lover of cinema, he grew up (like many 90s kids) with romanticized notions of love, but the real world experiences of finding a same-sex partner turned out drastically different.
In a country where Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is a reality, Ishaan’s dating experiences mirror that of many queer Indians. He’s had his fair share of highs and lows—he’s met partners who have been warm and passionate, but also, partners who have been withdrawn, harsh, interested in quick gratification and then later cold and distant. “It’s not all romantic or sexy,” he says, “And after 377, even less so.”
While Grindr (since it is queer-specific) might give you the assurance that the person on the other end is also queer, it’s not always a place where you can find a lasting relationship, or romantic love. “I seriously don’t think I’ll ever get interested for a relationship with people I meet on Tinder or Grindr,” says Allen*, a queer writer who has used both those dating apps, “It just doesn’t happen. Nothing stirs.”
But, what does happen, is a lot of sex. Whether it be one-night stands, or proper friends-with-benefits situations—Grindr (and even Tinder) is a great space for it. In fact, things on Grindr escalate really quickly. “I first check their preferences,” continues Allen, “If they haven’t put that up, I just ask them. Immediately afterwards, either the other person asks for a ‘clear picture’ or I ask them for a photo if they haven’t uploaded one. In two minutes, you have exchanged pictures and know whether you are interested in further conversation.”
Once conversation has been initiated, and both parties are interested, things go pretty quickly from there. You immediately meet and hookup. Sometimes, for safety reasons, people use their usernames instead of real names.
What Grindr also facilitates is a lot of networking between the queer community. It’s a great way to discover the queer people in your neighbourhood (in your city, even), and it’s also a good bonding exercise. During one of his Grindr adventures, Allen found a popular activist and poet on his radar.
All in all, dating on Grindr comes with both its positives and pitfalls.“It’s like being presented with a buffet with multiple selections,” says Dhruv*, law student and another frequent (queer) user of the app, “There is so much to choose from and everything’s great—but only once you have it in small doses.”
So the apps are coming through for men. But what about women? “It’s definitely difficult to date as a queer woman in India,” says Madhuri*, a bisexual media student who’s often taken to online apps to find dates and hook-ups alike. “While men have it easier with apps like Grindr. However, I did have some luck on Tinder”
Tinder—possibly the most widely-used dating app worldwide—has a huge user-base in India. So much so, that it has started tailoring its advertising to appeal to Indian sensibilities. Unlike apps like Grindr, however, it does not target a specific gender, and is primarily a hub for heterosexual dating. In an online sphere like this—which is not exclusively aimed at queer dating—things get a little complicated.
When you’re a queer person using Tinder, you do have the option of filtering your search to include only the people of the gender you are attracted to, but, due to a glitch in the app’s algorithm, there is no guarantee that the people who show up on your search are also queer. Tinder is definitely not foolproof when it comes to finding queer love—but not entirely faulty either. Madhuri, despite encountering a bunch of women on her search who were straight, still ended up finding queer partners through the app.
However, it’s not like queer women don’t have apps for them at all—even though they aren’t as widely used or popular as Grindr and Tinder—but in India, these apps haven’t had much success. Brenda is such an app, which has often been called the ‘lesbian equivalent’ of Grindr.
“I tried Brenda for precisely one day,” says Garima, who hasn’t had the best experience dating online. “The interface was definitely not as good as Tinder but since it was exclusively for women, I decided to try it. In my experience, almost 80% of the profiles were fake—either they were men or they were empty profiles.”
The woman Garima met and spoke to on the app also had a similar experience, and had to face the brunt of these fake profiles. “I was flooded with messages from guys who were upfront in stating they were male,” she continues. “When I said I wasn’t interested they insisted on still sharing their pictures in case I decided to change my mind.”
The way the heterosexual male gaze fetishizes lesbian sexuality is disturbing indeed, and the fact that it has spilled over to these apps and essentially corrupted what was supposed to be a safe space for queer women is cause for concern. OkCupid—another dating site frequented by queer women—as well as queer Facebook groups, also have straight men hiding behind fake profiles, trying to get off on queer female sexuality.
“I remember taking a walk with this really cute guy once,” says Jai*, an aspiring filmmaker and Grindr frequenter, who identifies as gay. “Everything was going well. He told me that he really liked me. He was already in my good books because we discovered a shared interest in films, and suddenly, I tried to brush my arm against his. It was subtle. No one would have known. There weren’t a lot of people around, too. But he was so creeped out by this that he decided to take a cab home. I didn’t know what I was more ashamed of, liking him on the first date, or doing something that queer people are just ‘not allowed’ to do in public.”
Even after you cross the hurdles of meeting someone online (and hitting it off with them) successfully—there is still a lot at stake. Jai grew up in a small town, where the stigma against sexuality is so poignant that even (unmarried) heterosexual couples have to watch their backs before openly showing affection. Being gay in such an environment, and trying to date, becomes a struggle, because nearly everyone is in the closet, and too scared to express their sexuality.
“I’ve dated my girlfriend in secret for about two years now,” says Riya*, another queer Indian who hails from a small town, “We met on Tinder, and we actually bonded over how we were both in the closet and from conservative families. We live together, and yet, can only be ‘roommates’ and ‘friends’ to the rest of the world. Our parents might have guessed by now, because we’re a bit too intimate with each other to be ‘just friends’, but it’s like they don’t want to see it or admit it to themselves.”
While this is a more passive approach—of refusing to acknowledge the existence of queerness—same-sex couples in India have also faced more physical and palpable threats of violence and ostracism. Rishi*—though from a more urban and ‘progressive’ neighbourhood—has had to face this. “My uncle saw my boyfriend and I holding hands one day, and things went completely sour,” he says. “He outed me to the rest of my family, after which they interrogated me about him, called me homophobic slurs, told me that I had ‘soiled’ the family name, beat me, and locked me up in my room. They even took me to conversion therapy.” Though Rishi resisted a lot, and talked his way out of conversion therapy, he has still not been accepted by his family and has been forced to remain closeted.
The verdict on this is still divided. The online medium can be both and liberating and constricting, but whatever it’s pitfalls, it’s still a space which helps queer people network and find community—and that’s always great.
The central issue, however—to which nearly everyone mentioned above agrees—is that being ‘out and proud’ in India, is a major challenge.
“Since people haven’t yet come out in the open they also shy away from any online platforms for fear someone would see them,” says Garima.
There are of course success stories of queer love passing the test of time, but sadly, these are far outnumbered by stories where same-sex relationships aren’t accepted. “While I still believe there’s someone out there for me,” says Jai in his parting comments, “I also know that it would take a whole generation to understand that queer love is actual (and ‘normal’) love. That we are a lot more than our sexual orientation. And that we are desperately waiting for a time when we can hold each other’s hands in public without a care in the world.”
* Names changed.
Banner image source: dgrosso23/Flickr