Late last year, Sukriti* stumbled upon a dating app where gender and orientation selection allowed people like her to connect.
Roshan*, a proud and out member of the LGBTQ+ community from Nagpur, found his life partner by registering on a matrimonial app.
Finding love, especially for the LGBTQ+ community is not easy, as many do not come out of the closet.
“I didn't know that someone like me existed, and I am glad to have found my life partner through the matrimonial app without shelling out a huge amount of money,” says Roshan, who joined Umeed to find a match for himself
For Sukriti, the dating app, As You Are (AYA), works as it caters to the entire spectrum the same way other apps cater primarily to the gay community.
“For example, when a woman chooses to view woman profiles on AYA, she will only see them. Likewise, if a man wishes to see woman profiles, he will only see profiles of those women who want to date men," she says.
The app ensures only verified profiles to send a chat request, curbing chances of fake profiles and spam messages flooding the inbox.
The scrapping of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, decriminalising the 158-year-old colonial law on consensual gay sex, emboldened two conscientious individuals to embark on an entrepreneurial journey to help others from the LGBTQ+ community find a companion and partner for life.
Mumbai-based Sameer Sreejesh started Umeed, India’s first matrimonial app for the LGBTQ+ community, in 2019 because “the community is still struggling to come out openly in our society to 'tie the knot' and embrace themselves in togetherness".
Chandigarh-based Sunali Aggarwal launched As You Are (AYA), the only Made in India dating app for the queer community, in June last year, after realising that the dating apps failed to meet the needs of the LGBTQ+ community in the country.
Sreejesh, who runs a fitness and healthy lifestyle business, struck upon the idea of launching an app as he feels strongly for the community. “Umeed is not a dating app, but like-minded people can get together and explore potential relationships,” he says.
Aggarwal created AYA based on the experiences of her queer friends who found it difficult to find love whilst being closeted. “Queer folks have no choice but to hide their sexuality; they have conditioned themselves to do so. When you walk into a room full of people, you cannot know who is queer and who is not. So, how do you find someone to be in a relationship with?" she says.
She named the app As You Are because she wants “people to be who they are and be accepted as they are”.
AYA is a free app and most of its features are free. However, to send a direct message, one needs to pay an affordable amount. “Else, you can still chat with members when they accept your request,” says Aggarwal, whose app has had 14K downloads and has close to 11K profiles, with 40 to 65 new sign-ups a day.
Sukriti adds how unlike mainstream apps, which have added LGBTQ+ dating as an afterthought, or international LGBTQ+ dating apps that are not in sync with Indian ground realities, AYA’s approach has been crafted in response to the specific dating needs of Indian queer people, making it the only LGBTQ+ dating app for India.
The registration for Umeed is free. “Other platforms charge huge fees to use the services. We developed an entire app at an affordable price and launched it for free,” Sreejesh says, emphasising that Umeed is a matrimonial app and not a dating app.
After registration, a member can see all profiles along with one member’s contact for free. “In addition, there are multiple upgrade packs starting from a minimum fee of Rs 149 with a seven-day validity period with 10 contacts,” says Roshan.
As of today, Umeed has 10K registered profiles.
AYA and Umeed both saw a spurt in the numbers of sign-ups during the lockdown. “During the pandemic, we have seen a spike in registrations. We are getting 40 to 50 new registrations every day. One reason could be Work From Home, which has given people ample time to search for partners,” Sreejesh says.
Scammers stay away
The social stigma around homosexuality makes members of the LGBTQ+ community vulnerable to scammers while using the apps. Sukriti says that AYA doesn't allow unverified members to send chat requests to other members to ensure that a user's safety and privacy aren't compromised.
“They have to either get verified or upgrade their plan to chat with other members. AYA verifies members by looking at their selfie and their details. Selfie is only for verification purposes. Other dating apps are photo-focused, while AYA is particular about profile details,” says Aggarwal, who is building tech to make the verification processes more effective, yet easy for AYA users.
Umeed lays a lot of emphasis on consent. “Until both members haven't accepted the request, they cannot message each other. Here, profiles are not limited to a member. Once the member is registered on the app, all the profiles available will be visible to him/her,” says Sreejesh.
There are two types of members in Umeed — verified and unverified. The non-verified members can only be verified through OTP by e-mail or mobile. Identification proof authorised by the government authenticates the identity of a verified member, and then they get the coveted blue tick on their profile.
“We were pleasantly surprised when we contacted members who had uninstalled the app. The reason was overwhelming as 90% of them had found their match without paying any fees,” says the Umeed founder. The app also receives registration requests from Thailand, South Africa, and the Philippines.
Data shows that 56% of LGBTQ+ people across the world find their partners online, and India is catching up. “The scrapping of Section 377 has made queer relationships legal. It opens up many opportunities, not just being in a relationship but also living their life as they want to,” says Aggarwal.
Umeed helped around 100 couples to find their match in the first year of launch. They might not enjoy the same rights as other married couples under the law, but all of them are happy to find a partner.
"The court might have decriminalised relationships between same-sex couples, but these couples can neither get their marriage registered nor get any documentation for the same. They can avail of personal or home loans on joint accounts; however, they do not enjoy other legal rights. Many activists are fighting for the cause, and I HOPE the scenario will change soon," adds Sreejesh, whose tech support team lead by Akshay is currently busy working on Umeed's website that is slated for launch soon.
“The couples can avail of personal or home loans on joint accounts; however, they do not enjoy other legal rights. I hope the scenario will change soon,” adds Sreejesh, who is busy with Umeed's website launch.
Aggarwal fondly recalls receiving long feedback from a user. “The user wanted us to do better. It was heartwarming and encouraging. I have realised that people need safe spaces to find their partners. With all the social taboos around the LGBTQ+, we know that it is difficult from the word go. A lot of people believe it's a choice to be gay, but it is not,” she says.
(*names changed to protect identities)