What Love And Intimacy Look Like For 3 Same-Sex Couples In India

What Love And Intimacy Look Like For 3 Same-Sex Couples In India

My first introduction to queer love as an interviewer begins in Rohan and Avil’s house. I gaze around their living room that is sprinkled with reproductions of Jamini Roy’s modernist paintings and contrasting antique furniture as I park myself on a green couch sipping chai. When asked who designed their house, Rohan chirps, “Avil has warmed up to these aesthetics … If I tell you how he lived before, you wouldn’t believe it!” As Rohan’s kohl-lined eyes, behind his black, rounded glasses squeezed shut in laughter, Avil chuckles at the floor and shakes his head, rustling his floor-length dreadlocks that brush against his tattooed arm. Together, they look like two members of an intimidating biker gang one might pass on a road in Ladakh. But their body language breathes a softness when they touch each other’s arms or knees in conversation, like a couple that knows their way around the other’s bodies, like a pair of hikers on their favourite mountain trail on a sunny Sunday.

“The morning routine is a struggle because I have to wake Avil up. He hates me in the morning,” Rohan tells me exasperatedly about the few times they argue. Avil concedes, admits to his sleepiness, and quips back, “But, I always wake up so we can eat breakfast together.” Rohan looks down at his plate in response and bites off his toast in a smile.

The two men met on Planet Romeo, a dating app for trans and gay men. Avil, who was born and raised in Bombay, met Rohan, a designer from Baroda when Rohan interned in the city with Rahul Mishra. After a year of long-distance and 52 weekend visits to Gujarat, Avil asked Rohan to move in with him in Bombay. When asked about how the closing of physical distance has impacted their intimacy, Rohan and Avil tell me an adorable story of their envious level of comfort. “His dreads are so long, so he needs my help sometimes,” says Rohan. “Yes, when I wash my hair, Rohan helps me sometimes. It’s... sweet,” smiles Avil.

Rohan and Avil with one of their cats. Photographed by Samrat Nagar

Long-distance is a feature in Nidhi* and Pooja’s relationship as well, as Pooja shuffles between Bombay and Pune while Nidhi works in Bangalore. At first, the young lesbian couple seems reserved and hesitant to share too much about their relationship, but who can blame them? Only in 2014 did the Indian Psychiatric Society state that homosexuality was neither an illness nor a disease that could be treated. Even so, The National Crime Records Bureau reports that 1,148 complaints were filed under Section 377 that same year. The number of complaints skyrocketed to 2,187 in 2016. The colonial law, Section 377, was initially written into the Indian Penal Code in 1861, prohibiting “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal,” as The New York Times reminds us. Although the Delhi High Court ruled in 2009 that Section 377 could not be applied to consensual sex, the Supreme Court overturned that decision in 2013 after pushback from religious groups, sending scores in the LGBTQ+ community back into the shadows.

To help Nidhi and Pooja loosen up, I suggest Nidhi, a musician, play her favourite song on guitar. Soon, both women’s voices floated in perfect harmony across the house in notes belonging to Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love,’ a song I imagine was written for people who now looked as in love as these two are. Perched on Nidhi’s lap, looking affectionately at her eyelashes, Pooja tells me about how Tinder conversations on 2 Broke Girls progressed to WhatsApp texts that blossomed into a loving relationship. But, their experience with intimacy has not always been as positive.

Pooja and Nidhi* singing together. Photographed by Samrat Nagar

Nidhi was previously involved in an abusive relationship. “I became very averse to physical touch and intimacy ... When Pooja would touch me, I would get startled sometimes. But she has helped me reached a middle ground now,” she confides. As they tell me more about themselves, their past relationships, coming out stories, and families that are still not completely accepting of their sexuality, they melt into each other — when Pooja talks, Nidhi buries her face into Pooja’s shoulder, closes her eyes, and inhales deeply like she senses her favourite smell; and when Nidhi talks, Pooja smiles directly at her and protectively drapes her arm around Nidhi like she’s guarding her treasure. This embrace is their safe space, away from the scrutinising gaze of strangers who don’t know them at all and members of their family who they’ve known all their lives.

Ashish Chopra, a Human Resource administrator in Pune, tells me of the frictional relationship his ex-boyfriend had with his family. “His mother not knowing about him being gay is difficult because he’s still dependent on his family. What if his mom doesn’t take it well and kicks him out of the house? It’s scary,” he tells me.

Bidisha and Pauline, the third queer couple I meet, also tell me about fragmented familial ties. Bidisha, who Pauline adoringly calls “Bidi,” is a Hindustani classical singer hoping to promote queer narratives in the Indian music industry. Bidi says that when her mom found out about her sexuality, she branded her and Pauline immoral. “I would run off with friends and shut reality off… I have always looked up to them [parents]... So, to have them wiped out of my life feels sad,” Bidi says making a herculean effort not to sob. But, sob she does and Pauline comes to her aid — laying her head on Bidi’s shoulder, rubbing her back, and running her fingers through Bidi’s pixie haircut.

Pauline, a student in the Netherlands and French national, met Bidisha on an exchange program in Singapore. “We were watching a movie and a friend was sitting between us… But, Bidi was patting my head. That’s how I knew she was into me,” Pauline laughed. “And when I turned my back, Bidi and her friend had swapped places!” she says in a fit of nostalgic giggles.

Bidi is an openly emotional person. Whether talking about her estranged mother or long-time girlfriend, her voice drips with a sweetness rivalling the taste of honey and her face is pulled into the most sincere expression. Pauline agrees that Bidi is emotional and says, “This chutiya told me she loved me a week after we met… I was like okay, deep breaths, let’s try this,” in a French accent perfectly complimenting Hindi expletives as one has never heard before.

Pauline and Bidisha. Photographed by Harshvardhan Shah

The most striking aspect about all three relationships is they’re not alien at all. Just like heterosexual couples, these three queer pairs struggle with long distance, have enjoyed the chase of dating apps, and laugh about in-person flirting that was more often awkward than not. But, like millions more in India, Rohan and Avil, Pauline and Bidisha, and Pooja and Nidhi have the added difficulty of navigating queerness in a country that decriminalised their intimacy barely seven days ago.

Rohan and Avil tell me that they were asked to leave an establishment on their first date and describe how strangers on the road point at them in mockery. Pauline and Bidisha tell me that the last time they truly felt safe in public was in a Singaporean gay bar named Tantric. “I wanted to kiss Bidi on the bus [in India] and be demonstrative of my love, but I couldn’t because she said it wasn’t acceptable,” Pauline says, fiddling with her thumbs and looking down at the floor. Pooja tells me that she’s an affectionate person, but that a strong sense of anxiety chokes her when others in public stare at her and Nidhi. Ashish says that although he is confident about his sexuality, his partners are often fearful of judgement and mob mentality and hesitate before displaying affection publicly.

Although the Supreme Court’s decision was widely celebrated and the bench made heartwarming statements, Indian mindsets are yet to change. Indian society still struggles with rigid gender norms that inform this hatred queer couples receive. But, the decriminalisation of homosexuality is momentous in Indian history; it is a signal to India’s queer community that they are valid, equal citizens under the law, that doubting the naturality of their sexual orientation is discriminatory, and that their love is love is love is love.

*Name changed for this article

Feature image photographed by Samrat Nagar. The image of of Pauline and Bidisha was photographed by Harshvardhan Shah.

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