Sarah and Bilal casually recline on a plum-colored loveseat with dusty photo albums on their laps.
They look through their wedding pictures and chuckle at a photo that shows Bilal dressed in white, riding a horse to their wedding with his face covered in a veil of flowers.
“He was an actual prince charming that night,” Sarah told VICE World News.
To their families, Sarah and Bilal check all the boxes of a perfect married couple. The husband and wife are wealthy, successful doctors living in an upscale suburb in Pakistan.
What their loved ones don’t know is that theirs is a “lavender marriage,” or a marriage of convenience. Sarah and Bilal are both gay but share a straight-passing commitment to spend the rest of their lives together as husband and wife.
The couple’s names, along with others interviewed for this article, have been changed upon request for their safety and privacy.
In Pakistan, where homosexuality is criminalized under discriminatory colonial-era laws, the LGBTQ community faces a constant risk of violence and prejudice.
Although legal penalties for homosexuality are rarely enforced, many Pakistani queer people live closeted lives fearing abuse, harassment, forced marriage and ostracism from their families and communities.
Some, like Sarah and Bilal, choose to hide their identities through straight-presenting marriages. The practice is a means of simultaneously protecting their identities and appeasing societal marital pressures.
“Our parents are extremely important to us. If we told them the truth about ourselves, we would immediately be disowned. This marriage has been the only way that we have been able to keep our families happy,” Sarah told VICE World News.
Queer marriages of convenience have been well-documented in neighbouring India, China, and among the South Asian diaspora for over a decade. But now, relationship experts say such marriages have been increasing in Pakistan among the country's elite and upper middle class. However, due to a dearth of research into the country’s gay, lesbian and bisexual community, official statistics on the practice are currently unavailable.
According to clinical psychologist and relationship therapist Zunaira Arshad, the practice is more prevalent among higher socio-economic groups in urban areas. In some elite circles, individuals are partially able to come out to their friends and have access to underground queer subcultures at private gatherings or on social media. These networks help facilitate relationships between those interested in marriages of convenience.
“No matter which class you belong to, everything in our society boils down to marriage when you hit your late twenties,” Arshad told VICE World News. “Families want their children to get married. They want babies. They want them to get settled.”
Sarah and Bilal’s parents have also been pressuring them to have children, and although Sarah is still open to the idea, Bilal is not.
“I don’t think it’s fair to bring a child into our dynamic,” said Bilal.
Expectations of having children have also impacted the couple’s dating lives outside of their marriage. Bilal’s boyfriend of seven years has threatened to leave him if the couple have children. “I can’t entertain the idea of having a child if it risks losing him.”
For Sarah, dating while married has also been difficult. “You can’t exactly publicise yourself on a dating app when you’re living a double life. I have tried using a pseudonym but even then, as soon as I reveal my marriage status, people get put off,” said Sarah.
Nida and Jamil have been married for 14 years, and have an 11-year-old son together.
When Jamil was 23, his family arranged for him to get married to a distant relative. “I could never have gone through with it and dragged her into a miserable life,” Jamil told VICE World News. Desperate, he had requested his close-knit circle of friends to help him find someone willing to enter into a lavender marriage. After months of searching, a friend of a friend introduced him to Nida.
“When I heard about his situation, I felt so much relief because my mother had begun suspecting the truth about me. If it weren’t for Jamil, my parents would have forced me to get married to someone,” Nida told VICE World News.
But maintaining the relationship hasn’t been easy. Hiding their identities from their loved ones, especially their child, has taken a toll on the mental health of Jamil, who has clinical depression and anxiety.
“I have this enormous guilt that when [our son] is older and learns the truth, he will hate us,” said Jamil.
The psychologist Arshad says that individuals in marriages of convenience are at higher risk of suffering from poor mental health from the internal conflicts caused by concealing their identities. They are more susceptible to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal ideation, she added.
“We form social bonds by sharing our lives with others. So when you are not sharing a vital part of yourself with the people in your life, that has an adverse impact on your mental health,” said Arshad.
But for people choosing to be in a lavender marriage, the risks to their mental health are outweighed by the more onerous dangers of living in a society that would rather exist without them.
“It can be exhausting leading this life and on some days I feel like giving up,” Bilal told VICE World News, “but despite its flaws, our marriage has been a source of great strength for us both.”
“It might seem odd to gay people who have the option of coming out, but for us, it is [a matter of] survival and I will not be apologetic for it.”
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