Singles looking for love in a big city will tell you they have it hard. Dating is a drain on money and time, and romance invariably gets the short shrift in the rat race.
For gay singles, it gets that much harder, given the stigma that is widely prevalent across India, forcing a majority to stay in the closet and keep their sexual orientation a secret from families and friends. Legally too the community is in a bind. Section 377 of the IPC makes sex with persons of the same gender punishable by law.
For Anand*, coming out to his parents was the toughest battle.
“When my parents accepted me with open arms, I celebrated. I felt that had crossed the biggest hurdle”, says the Mumbai-based content writer for a news portal. “I thought I would now be free to meet and date men openly and find a companion the natural way”.
He realized just how farfetched that dream was in a matter of months.
“It is so hard to meet people when you are in a minority”, says Anand*. “I may have out-ed, but most people in the gay community have not which makes it impossible to meet anyone. You can’t exactly go out and announce that you want to date someone of the same gender”.
He eventually chose to do that online on Grindr, a dating app that a friend recommended. “I had my doubts about signing up because it’s not my scene. But now I am glad because I have found a space where I can meet likeminded people.”
Grindr, which claims to have over 69,000 average active monthly users in India, is among the most popular mobile phone apps for gay men in India.
“Grindr is successful with the gay crowd because it solves one of the biggest problems for the gay man: determining who is gay around him”, says Joel SImkhal, founder and CEO, Grindr. “Guys today are increasingly using their smartphones to connect and would prefer to meet men spontaneously who are nearby. It’s a great example of how technology is helping guys become more social.”
Some other widely used apps include Planet Romeo and Gaydar. Also popular is Tinder, which is targeted at both straight and gay communities.
The way they work is simple. The apps utilize the GPS technology on mobile phones to enable users to find interested parties. All one has to do is download the app and build a profile which shares personal details including location. The app then shows you a list of men who are in the vicinity and available to meet.
“There are options – you can meet for coffee or dinner”, says Anand*. “It shows you who is available within a 1 kilometer radius and can meet you right away.”
Pawan*, 38, a Mumbaikar working with a leading travel portal, says that using mobile apps for dating is now as routine as booking flight tickets or hotel rooms on your phone.
He calls them a kind of ‘gay Facebook’. “Largely its time pass where you are looking at photos and commenting on them but sometimes you end up having a decent conversation.”
Pawan* who returned to India from the U.S. in the late nineties used to go online under an assumed name but stopped that after he came out to his family.
“Earlier I used the apps for casual sex but now I rely on it to meet people”, he says. Men his age are hugely sought after, as they are “more well established and mature and regarded as good providers”.
Of the four relationships he has been in so far, Pawan* met three online, an approach he prefers to attending random parties.
“Gay parties are a meat market and don’t really lead to meaningful relationships”, he says. “By going online you are not leaving everything to chance entirely. You have the opportunity to check someone out and decide how to take it further”.
The risks attached are huge. Few are honest about their personal details, even lying about age, weight, qualifications and job status. Worse, incidents of extortion and robbery by men who lie about their sexual orientation online have been reported.
“On one occasion I found that a man I had invited to my place had lied about being a doctor”, says Henry*. “I felt uncomfortable and asked him to leave. He threatened to go out and tell my neighbors that I was gay unless I paid some money. I was equally aggressive and he backed down but things could have gotten out of hand”.
Sonal Giani, Advocacy Officer with The Humsafar Trust, a Mumbai-based NGO that promotes LGBT rights says they are frequently asked to intervene in such instances.
“We get the maximum complaints regarding Planet Romeo and Grindr”, says Giani. “All one needs to do to mess with someone is establish a contact with a user, get their details and create a fake profile. You hand out their details randomly and when they complain, you demand money”.
Another common trap is to agree to an intimate rendezvous and then resort to blackmail using Section 377 as a threat.
“People come to us with such complaints and we counsel them and often talk to the blackmailer as well”, says Giani. Few want to go to the police out of fear of exposure.
Despite the risks aside, experts say the apps have opened a new world for the gay community.
“For one, you don’t feel so alone”, says prominent LGBT rights activist Harrish Iyer. “On your cellphone you can now see a gallery of pictures of people just like you around the country. You can communicate with them and share your thoughts in a private, intimate space. Imagine how empowering that must be, especially for someone in small town or rural India”.
Apart from hooking up, the dating apps are also being looked at a means of imparting messages about safe sex and HIV prevention.
“Our outreach work in the LGBT community involves telling them about the risks involved”, says Pallav Patankar, Director, HIV Services, The Humsafar Trust. “Earlier we had workers who would go to the field and impart education on the field but with more people using the Internet and dating apps and sites, we realized that there is a huge population disappearing from the physical site and meeting people online”.
The NGO now has a dedicated Internet Outreach Worker who monitors these sites and apps and messages users about HIV prevalence and safe sex practices.
As part of its advocacy, The Humsafar Trust also conducts workshops on being safe while dating online. “We offer them simple tips – don’t reveal too much information or watch out if someone uses their phone a lot during private moments as they may be filming them”, says Giani.
Patankar, however, has a word of caution for those looking for long-term happiness.
“The big pro is that a lot of people are able to access others like them anonymously. But let’s face it the relationships are mostly synthetic. You are in a bubble restricted to your phone. Unless it translates into something in the real world it means nothing”.
This article first appeared in the online news site The News Minute