In April, conversations in India revolved around love and its different manifestations.
On the one hand, Netflix matchmaker Seema Aunty preached the virtues of wedded bliss and the need to “adjust” while looking for the perfect partner. On the other hand, a group of lawyers argued for the legal recognition of same-sex marriages, culminating in the Supreme Court reserving its verdict on May 11. This is five years after the apex court’s historic 2018 ruling that decriminalised homosexuality.
After the 2018 verdict, a number of matrimonial services were set up, catering specifically to the LGBTQIA+ community. Services like Umeed and Aarzoo were trailblazers, carving out spaces for India’s queer community to find companionship, and perhaps love.
But is this what members of the queer community want? We spoke to different people to find out.
Services to find matrimonial partners
Kamakshi Madan, the Pune-based founder of Aarzoo, told Newslaundry her services were a response to the challenges in the matchmaking landscape for the queer community. She had initially attempted a matrimonial service for heterosexuals. But after section 377 was struck down, “I thought to myself, why don’t I do something within the community? The challenge is here.”
She explained, “As I navigated the complexities of sexualities and identities, I understood the service needed to be more than just an algorithmic matching of profiles. It had to be personal, conversational and secure.”
Aarzoo was set up in January 2020, offering personalised matchmaking services through hour-long conversations with clients. Kamakshi acts as the middle-man – setting up the profile, understanding their needs, shortlisting potential matches.
“I protect their identities,” she added, “and the data from being misused. A declaration is signed on both ends to make the whole format secure.” Contact details are also only shared with clients after several steps are completed in the matchmaking process.
Umeed, which means “hope”, was set up in 2019. It has similar intent but different execution. Users, after due diligence like one-time password verification, identify profiles themselves and match with potential partners, with the app using data and algorithms to get the job done.
Umeed’s founder, Sameer Sreejesh, said the app was designed to offer the queer community a “safe and inclusive digital platform to find companionship” away from the sexualised representation of the community that’s often prevalent in society and pop culture.
“Our aim is to bring the community into the mainstream, the same as heterosexuals,” said Sameer. He hastened to explain that his platform is for “decent matchmaking” and that users looking for casual interactions “should go to Grindr”.
Kamakshi said she clearly tells her clients, “Don’t come to me for dating, come to me for a companion.”
It’s important to note that both Kamakshi and Sameer are heterosexual. Umeed and Aarzoo cater to a belief system of marriage equating respectability – and not everyone buys into this. After all, must queerness conform to heteronormative standards to gain acceptance?
The need for broader understanding
Vqueeram, a writer and academic based in Delhi, cautioned against such a linear view.
“Marriage may not necessarily assure respectability, which is often a societal grant influenced by factors such as caste,” they said. “Instead, there needs to be a broader understanding and acceptance of relationships beyond the traditional framework of marriage. No one can guarantee that if two people can stand in front of society and get married, they will attain respectability.”
They added that respectability is something “bestowed by others, not something one can command”. “It's likely that respectability might come from other factors like an upper caste surname, but marriage cannot necessarily fortify that respectability in a significant way.”
Akhil Kang, a lawyer and queer Dalit anthropologist pointed out that matrimonial websites in India are “about upper class, upper caste people deciding their right for autonomy”. Kang said these people “use the language of freedom and language” when it’s actually about “looking out for monogamy and safety within their own caste networks”.
akshay khanna, an anthropologist who works with working-class queer and transgender communities, spoke to Newslaundry about the lived realities and priorities of these communities. khanna said the recent legal recognition of the rights of transgender people hasn’t yet translated into a sense of citizenship or a sense of entitlement to rights. Priorities for these communities include basic rights such as housing, education, livelihood, healthcare and nutrition – areas where they routinely face exclusion and discrimination. The legal recognition of marriage is less of a priority, if it is one at all.
“Access to toilets is of a higher priority to these communities than marriage,” said khanna. “Marriage already occurs within our communities. These are not hidden but are socially accepted relationships and rituals. The demand for legal recognition of same-sex marriage is first and foremost about property and securing a place within caste patriarchy for lesbian and gay persons from property-owning classes.”
Kang also asked why the right to marriage has been prioritised over other important issues within the community. They added that there are “logistics and politics” that influence which case gets heard.
At the same time, Kang said, “The main accusation in India and everywhere is that sexuality is an elite concept. It’s something that left, right and even centre-leaning organisations argue...But these accusations have their basis in how movements across the world and across ideologies see this as not important. That’s where they’re rooting their arguments.”
As a queer Dalit scholar, Kang said, “even we don’t say that it is an elitist issue. It’s an unreasonable thing to argue because there are a lot of people across caste and class lines who desire marriage.”
Kang added that the petitions being heard by the Supreme Court include one filed by an SC/OBC woman from Punjab.
Importantly, an advocacy for marriage equality doesn’t necessarily equate to an immediate desire for marriage within the queer community.
“When Ambedkar argued for temple entry, he did not desire to enter the temple. He wanted people to have the right to enter the temple,” Kang said. “He was critiquing Hinduism and abandoning Hinduism. So, in the same way, I don’t personally care about it but there needs to be a right to marriage.”
“The situation demands a nuanced perspective,” said Vqueeram. “The dialogue surrounding marriage equality is unlike the discourse regarding arranged marriages. A significant proportion of those advocating for marriage equality, many of whom are from the queer community, are not necessarily planning to marry immediately. Instead, they are aspirational, looking forward to a future where they have the freedom to do so. This hope is distinct from the promise of a matrimonial website...Queerness embraces the fluidity and evolution of our desires and relationships, which is in stark contrast to the rigid structure promoted by matrimonial websites.”
For some people, the pursuit of marriage is tied to their pursuit of acceptance and love. Ramesh*, who lives in a small town in Tamil Nadu, told Newslaundry he was introduced to Aarzoo’s Kamakshi by his mentor Ramki, a member of Orinam, a volunteer collective that advocates for the LGBTQIA+ community.
Ramesh’s mother also reached out to Kamakshi after the family underwent counselling. “I had explained my future to my mother, particularly about when she would no longer be around,” Ramesh said. “That spurred her to secretly seek out matrimonial options in Tamil Nadu for me. But the search was challenging.”
Ramesh initially used Grindr to find a life partner but quickly realised most users were looking for something else. Disheartened, he deleted the app, confided in his mother, and signed up on Aarzoo.
A month later, Ramesh met his partner through Aarzoo. What’s curious, he added, was that he’d actually matched with his partner on Grindr but they had not interacted with each other. “I realised he was also searching for someone like me,” said Ramesh.
It’s a romantic story and, as Vqueeram said, there’s a “certain charm” in people’s optimism about marriage.
“It’s akin to the romantic escapades of characters like Geet and Aditya from the film Jab We Met, leaving their familiar surroundings for a chance at happiness,” they said. “There’s something genuinely endearing about the desire that compels people to abandon their families and cities to commit to another person. Even though we’re pragmatic enough to know such situations often don’t endure, I believe there’s value in preserving some part of this romantic ideal.”
*Name changed to protect identity.
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