I’m staring at Google Maps, trying to figure out the address when I almost pass by the whitewashed building with gleaming windows. I’m headed to a Speed Dating event organized by Gay Bombay, and I’m about to be introduced to a cagey new world.
For the record, dating is difficult. It’s even more challenging when you’re living in a country that criminalizes your sexual preference. That’s where Gay Bombay comes in. Section 377 aside, for the growing number of homosexuals in the city – there is hope for a brighter future, and the chance of love.
The man at registration looks confused when I walk up to the front desk. I’m not a man, that’s obvious enough and he looks from his list to my face several times before telling me that I can go on in. I walk in cautiously, not sure quite what to expect, but I’m greeted warmly by the organizers and given a quick summary of who they are and what they’re doing.
Formed in 1998, Gay Bombay functions as a living organism. It grows, adapts and learns with every passing year. It started out as a community intended to create a safe space for like-minded individuals and today its evolved. With events that range from house parties to film screenings and participants who help with everything from counselling to healthcare. But for most of the group’s several thousand members, the prospect of finding someone special is what keeps them coming back.
“For what it’s worth, I don’t expect to find someone today,” says Sanjay, an 18-year old engineering student with a shock of electric green hair. “I live in Navi Mumbai and the people there are not open-minded. So events like this are great, you get to meet new people and at least have some fun.” He is warm, effervescent and evidently the life of the party. He takes me under his wing for the rest of the day, introducing me to friends and acquaintances. It’s a whirring mix of IT whizzes, architects and filmmakers, and Sanjay knows everyone.
A section of the newcomers shuffle in their seats, seeming slightly uncomfortable, as though they are unfamiliar with what it feels like to be so blatantly accepted. That’s when it becomes clear why events like this are important. According to Sanjay, “I’ve known people in the community for the last 8 years, but I still never went out much. But I’ve decided that since I’m 18 now, it’s important to go out and socialize. And in this group, it doesn’t matter who you talk to, they’ll be your friend in a second. It’s pretty amazing.”
We’re interrupted by the start of the first game. It’s Passing The Parcel, but with a twist. Each time the music stops, the person has to do a dare – pre-decided and written on little notes. When it’s your turn, you pick one out and move to the centre. It’s a riot – heavy with sexual innuendos, the dares range from silly to sensual. No one ever feels pressured, because it’s always optional, but most of the men feel at ease and so participate in good spirit.
Rounds of snacks punctuate the afternoon. A few short party games later, Speed Dating begins. Two rows of chairs are lined up, and people switch partners every minute or so. Phone numbers are classified, and will only be shared if both partners express interest in meeting again. There are timers, paper forms and nervous looks. It works like Tinder, but for 90’s kids. Whether they will really end up finding someone seems questionable, speed dating is stressful even in a hetronormative format, but every participant seems hopeful.
It occurs to me that I’m the only woman in a room with thirty men, and I’m momentarily taken aback by how comfortable I feel. It’s probably the safest I’ve ever been in all my time living here. Crazy, right? I ponder about the future of Gay Bombay. They’ve made some steps forward, but India seems to be regressing faster than imaginable. What are these men going to do if the government decides to become more aggressive with the existing anti-gay policies? They’re just being themselves, but is that still too much to ask for? Where do they see themselves in the future?
Sanjay’s family is supportive, but he understands there’s still a long way to go. “My family understands that living in India isn’t a cup of tea for me, and I’ll need to go abroad someday. A lot of times, when I tell people that I’m gay, they ask me what that means. I feel like people really don’t know – so I make an effort to explain it to them. We have to start somewhere if we want the next generation to accept us.” Although most of the day’s attendees have been openly gay for years and are noted activists for gay rights, a few of them are just beginning to accept it themselves – and hope that someday their families and loved ones will do the same. Sudeep, who belongs to the second category, seems guarded but optimistic: “It’s always difficult coming out to people. It’s changing. Very slowly, but changing. So far, I’ve been accepted by everyone I’ve told. But you always think twice.”
They call me “a man in a room full of ladies.” The thought is subversive, and oddly empowering. I take a second look around and notice that there’s a certain separation between those who understand who they are and those who are still figuring it out. It’s easy to spot when you’re an outsider. Wow. I bet that’s something these men feel all the time, huh? Pushing that thought aside, I’m back to trying to decipher the group’s notions of romance.
“It’s always better to meet people in real life. The way a person looks at you, the way they talk to you – it’s an understanding that you can never get online,” says Sudeep, 27. Despite the existence of websites such as Planet Romeo or apps such as Tinder and Grindr, a lot of the day’s attendees agree that meeting someone in real life is just a cut above. Lazily motioning to the room, he adds, “This is a unique event. More than just a dating event, everyone gets together to play interesting games that are icebreakers and let you get to know the other person. Though personally, I’ve always hoped I’d find a boyfriend by chancing upon him in a library or somewhere. I’d love to be friends first, and later figure out everything else.” I believe that it’s the most organic way that anyone can hope to fall in love, and I make that known. There are high fives all around and I’m pleased that people still hope for long-term relationships in this day and age. However Sarvanan, 31, disagrees and believes that it’s all the same when people are looking for love. He says, “I met my last two boyfriends through apps, and I get all my dates through them. They’re really popular in the metros, especially with travellers.”
Once the event is over, people linger on for a while. They are sharing jokes, stories and phone numbers. They make plans for the next time they’ll meet, and a few hugs and kisses on the cheek later, they’ve all gone their separate ways. One thing is clear - they may not have found soul mates, but each person there walked away with something special.
I guess that’s what modern love looks like.