Mandar*, 24, a Mumbai-based MBA student, met his boyfriend on Grindr — a dating app for gay men — in 2014. They matched each other’s profiles and, after a few dates, began seeing each other. An unusual story for Grindr. “I signed up in 2011. I was told it was futile to look for a long-term partner, as users look for sexual partners. Fortunately, I met someone who shared the same outlook,” he says. They’ve been together for the last year-and-a-half.
Online matchmaking in India has come a long way since shaadi.com released in 1996. American dating app, Tinder, launched in India in 2014, followed by Indian dating apps, such as TrulyMadly (2015) and ekCoffee (2016), sparking an online dating culture. But while the straight population woke up to this revolution only in the last year or so, the LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Queer) community has long embraced online matchmaking. The earliest queer dating platform, PlanetRomeo (PR), launched worldwide in 2002, and continues to be an online community for gay men.
“There is no geo-tracking involved. You can see profiles of men from different countries, and chat with them. It’s a community for queer men, not a hook-up space,” says Mandar.
Now, PR has 3 million users globally, and India comprises 7% of that (91,800 users; source: planetromeo.com). Even Grindr, with 10 million users worldwide, recorded a gradual increase from 11,000 to 69,000 monthly users between 2011 and 2015 from India (source: newsminute.com).
The figures convinced Scruff, an American dating app for men, to further its efforts in India in July this year, by emphasising on their app-based services. But in a country where homophobia is rampant, and homosexual acts are a criminal offence (as declared by the Supreme Court in 2013), are dating apps really encouraging the LGBTQ cause?
Where it all began
Traditionally, the stigma of being gay has offered limited opportunities to seek companionship the way straight individuals do. “A pre-defined space to socialise is always preferred as it allows for a level of anonymity and acceptance,” says Sridhar Rangayan, a film-maker and a queer rights activist.
Mumbai saw its first exclusive LGBTQ platform in the form of Bombay Dost — India’s first queer magazine — in 1990. It featured a section where gay men could invite potential partners to write letters to them.
By the mid ’90s, interactive online platforms like Yahoo Messenger provided an alternative to the magazines. Chat rooms — themed interaction groups — allowed users to start conversations after checking each other’s profiles. Online interaction ensured a degree of privacy and anonymity: there was no mandate to upload a display picture, or reveal your real name.
By the late 2000s, when smartphones became accessible and affordable, apps like Grindr (launched in 2009) continued to provide anonymity: one can sign up with a faceless profile, and meet new people. Naturally, the Indian LGBTQ community signed up, through APK files (like signing up for Pokemon Go) as the app hadn’t formally launched in India.
Scruff, too, has been available in India since 2011, with a user base of 10,000. Why, then, did they feel the need to officiate their presence? “India is still a growing market for queer apps. In only two months of our official launch, we’ve seen a 25% growth in users,” says Joey Dubé, vice president, marketing, Scruff.
The flip side
But while dating apps provide an avenue for queer individuals to network, they also inadvertently facilitate access to their identities. Courtesy the one-step registration process, apps have no verification infrastructure to ensure their users’ safety. In India, this lack of security comes at a big cost. Case in point: the 2011 TV9 PlanetRomeo exposé in Hyderabad.
The channel featured a sting operation titled ‘rampant homosexual culture’ and publically identified gay men via their PR profiles. Eventually, a lawsuit was slapped on the channel by the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, but the damage was done (source: gaysifamily.com).
Queer men and women are also targeted for extortions, and physical abuse. Sahil*, 24, a consultant and skill manager in Mumbai, tells us about a 2011 incident where his Grindr date extorted money through blackmail. “He had a few compromising images that he threatened to share publicly. I had not yet come out of the closet,” he says.
Do the apps have any contingency plan to counter abuse? Unfortunately, no. The only option is to flag suspicious profiles, like you report a nasty post on Facebook. Even then, there is no guarantee of assertive action. “His profile was not suspended,” says Sahil.
Not all bleak
Yet, the community continues to chase a sense of hope for inclusion on social media, as access to other queer individuals helps cope with the stigma. Consequently, alternative forums are cropping up for queer individuals to meet each other.
For instance, Amour , a Facebook page that launched in June, this year, functions as a matchmaking platform and ensures absolute anonymity to its users. “We don’t allow free sign-ups. All new applicants go through a thorough background check — we scan their Facebook profile and other social media accounts,” says Karan, 26, founder, Amour.
Once approved, users are provided an identification number, which they can use until they are comfortable revealing their name. “The safety precautions have worked in our favour. In three months, we have 600 registered users,” says Karan.
And while there is no saying when the world might rid itself of homophobia, queer individuals finding companionship, acceptance and love is definitely a positive start towards inclusion.
*Names changed on request. Karan requested his second name not be revealed.
HT48Hours reached out to Tinder for statistical information on Indian users. Our request was denied.