Lit up in rainbow colours

Not only are same-sex relationships rarely talked about or discussed in public, but there is also a general perception that there is no 'real' dating, no 'in-love' behaviour, and certainly no delicious romance between such couples.
Last Updated 12 February 2022, 19:54 IST

“My first date with her went awry. It was too confusing! How to react? What happens on a date with a woman? How do I keep her interested? What should I talk about? All these questions were on my mind,” laughs Aarti*, a 32-year-old tech-support executive from Bengaluru, recalling her first date with a woman.

That first meeting was indeed awkward, but there were enough sparks between the two of them to meet again. “The maturity and intellect didn’t match — which is exactly what I fell for,” Aarti says of her girlfriend, who is older than her by 10 years. She admits that she had always been attracted to people from different genders and was always curious about what it would be like to date a woman. Aarti installed Bumble, a dating app, and casually swiped right on a few women without really knowing what she was expecting. Unlike Aarti, her date was experienced and confident and knew what she wanted. The two of them aren’t exactly ‘together,’ but for Aarti, it’s good enough for now. Her casual exploration of a different relationship was exactly the change she had been seeking in her life. “She is that change I wanted. We don’t have many romantic gestures between us, but I feel there is some romance that has lasted for a while now. I don’t identify myself as a person who is only attracted to women but people (irrespective of their gender).”

Would she be open to meeting more women? “Absolutely,” winks Aarti, who likes to keep it fun and light for now. But fun and light are not words Priyank*, who recently came out as gay, likes to use. The 30-year-old isn’t dating anyone in particular right now. But Priyank often uses apps like Grindr or Tinder to meet others from the community. Before the pandemic struck, many LGBTQ+ people met at bars or restaurants or at events organised by the LGBTQ+ groups in cities. Or you could also travel to seek romance. “I was recently in Goa where the gay community was strong and tight with a great sense of friendship and romance all mixed in together,” says Priyank.

Love is love

An event is where Raga Olga D’Silva, London-based entrepreneur and co-founder of Speaking Minds, met her partner, Nicola Fenton, in New Zealand years ago. “We started talking then and haven’t stopped talking since!” Raga chuckles. Now living in the UK, Raga has been with Nicola for nearly 16 years and recently proposed to Nicola on stage during the Masala Podcast show. Nicola’s response to the proposal, which was recorded live, is classic. “Log kya kahenge?” she replied, drawing peals of laughter. The couple is due for a summer wedding later this year. And they intend to celebrate by walking 100 km on the classic Camino de Santago trail in Spain.

How do they keep the romance alive after all these years? “We have been dating for 15+ years. We never stopped dating! We make an effort to date. It’s not that dating should end just because you have fallen in love. When we go on a date, and we do that often, we make it a point to talk about ourselves — not the groceries, bills, or the children. As a couple, we take that conscious decision that you have to give time,” says Raga.

Doing things together comes naturally to them. They go on long hikes into the woods, where they have passionate discussions on politics and try to create as many experiences together as possible. Raga’s children from her previous marriage adore Nicola. Her ex-husband is supportive, and Raga says he remains a part of their extended family.

Do Raga and Nicola fight at all? “We do fight a lot. Just like any other couple!” Raga exclaims. But the key that keeps them together is that their value system is the same. Both of them are committed to creating a world of compassion, where all love is simply that: love.

Love is something that Priyank confesses he is still seeking. Hook-ups are common, but what about romance? “I’ve barely had a couple of short relationships. Both of them involved dealing with my partner’s own slightly traumatic histories,” he says. But he observes that class divides can blur and become weaker among gays. “Recently, in Mumbai, I was alone getting a drink when the server spotted Grindr on my phone and approached me. I waited seven hours at the bar for his shift to end, and we went on to get dinner and spent a lot of time together.”

Dating apps all the way

One thing that both Aarti and Priyank had in common was their use of a dating app. With physical meet-ups being rare due to Covid-19, many from the LGBTQ+ community use dating apps now more than ever before. Sunali Aggarwal created As You Are or Aya, a queer dating app, to solve one of the community’s biggest challenges: safety. Aya manually verifies profiles and offers unique features such as a group chat with interest-based groups and a community platform called WE.

For Sunali, the app is more than just meeting dating needs. It’s about building an ecosystem for the community to thrive. Sunali is a passionate advocate for the LGTBQ+ community, and while she admits that there’s a lot to be done, there are small changes that do make her happy. “Our activists, artists, and filmmakers have been very vocal about LGBTQ+, and that’s leading to a lot of awareness. You won't see people dying of a heart attack on seeing an LGBTQ couple engage in PDA!” For her, romance is natural, but difficult to pursue solely on dating apps. “But it’s fun to see how some couples are living together. I heard one story where two women lived together as cousins so that their landlord did not bother them. But after Section 377, they told their parents and the landlord, and eventually, everyone came to terms with it.”

It has been three years since the Supreme Court struck down Article 377 — a red-letter day for the LGBTQ+ community in India. Are there enough representations of queer love? Not at all, Sunali says. “Going down on both knees to propose is an image that you imagine only between a man and woman. Thanks to our movies, it’s difficult to modify this visual to something between two queer people!”

Marriage between people of the same sex is still illegal in India. But while Raga and Nicola plan their wedding in the UK, marriage is not something on Priyank’s mind. Not just yet. “I have seldom thought about marriage,” he admits. For him, it’s more about finding a partner for what he calls the ‘day-to-day’ stuff. “One thing I appreciate about the gay community is that friends can become lovers, and lovers can stay friends. Things feel more fluid,” he says. Aarti is still flirting with the idea of queer love to consider a more serious relationship.

A game of hide-n-seek

For Raga, dating can be a beautiful world if your perception of dating is that it brings joy, fun, and magic. Dating in India for the LGBTQ+ community is often a game — a game of hide-and-seek. “I know of those who had to hide. Or introduce their partner as their best friend. When Nicola and I were dating in India, we often had to create stories to not get a twin bed,” she chuckles.

Richa Vashista, a therapist working at the intersections of gender and sexuality, says: “It can be very challenging if either party is still in the closet. Straight couples may vent about their relationships to their friends or family members. However, it can be difficult to get that support if queer people are not ‘out’ to their social circle and/or their partner isn’t ‘out’ yet. This could make them seek out social support from other queer individuals or turn to each other for support. This can make them more empathetic and compassionate and they are also able to communicate better with each other to resolve conflict.”

In the LGBTQ+ community, while romance can be still romance, it often comes with a caveat. Richa Vashista notes that unless a partner identifies as aromantic, most people consider romance an important part of the relationship. “Each couple has their own little rituals or ideas of romance — whether it is sending good morning texts to each other, sharing a cup of tea together in the evening, going on weekly dates, or bringing each other flowers. Even in India, many gay and lesbian couples have their own ideas of romance, but they may not be able to make open or public displays of romance due to social pressure,” Richa explains.

Romance isn’t high on Priyank’s list, like Aarti. “Gay romance for me was an alien concept until recently,” Priyank confesses. “Romance was very rarely a part of the equation for me. It took me a long while to realise that I can date men in a relaxed way.” For Priyank, romance is finding a feeling of safety in the other person, which Aarti echoes. That safety is what Sunali is trying to create with Aya.

Safety. Freedom. Space. What’s the difference? Because that’s the common message from all: romance in the LGBTQ+ community is about creating a safe space — one where they can express their love freely in all the ways they want to. And perhaps, have a lot of fun while doing so.

Some names have been changed on request.

(Published 12 February 2022, 19:49 IST)

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