At 25, Urvi Shah from Gujarat is somewhat of a matchmaker. In 2017, the Ahmedabad-based social entrepreneur shot into the limelight when her matrimonial service for the LGBTQAI+ community, International Marriage Bureau for Gays & Lesbians (IMBGL), got unusually high traction from not just India but also other countries. IMBGL is arguably the first matrimonial site for the LGBTQAI+ community in the world.
Having launched in 2015, Shah’s venture is pathbreaking considering just a few months ago, consensual private sexual acts between same-sex adults were criminalised under Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
This year though, Shah’s business continues to thrive. It’s also interesting to note that even though the agency has been changing rules for the community for about four years, Shah is a traditionalist at heart, especially when it comes to a vision for her company. “Arranged marriage is a purely Indian construct, and I wanted this to reflect in the way the company handles relationships,” she tells VICE over the phone. “Even though my main target was the Indian audience, slowly and gradually, I started getting inquiries from people who were Indians but staying abroad. And that’s how we started including not just Indians but also other nationalities.”
As conversations on the queer community move forward and with the company’s expanding inclusivity that goes beyond gay marriages to those of others on the gender spectrum, VICE talks to Shah on how her venture has evolved—from changing rules to making a few:
VICE: How did it all begin?
Urvi Shah: When I decided to open this matrimony site, I wrote an email to everyone I had met during my research for this, and I told them that I'll be initiating this company. Out of these people, 13 volunteered to join as employees. And that was good because obviously, I wanted employees but I also wanted them to be a part of the community. By not being a part of the community and simply being an ally, I can only research. But I still cannot understand the lived realities of the community. And then, through the word of mouth, it started spreading. I had assumed that it would take seven to nine months for the company to settle down. But then it just took five-six months to get it settled.
What kind of inquiries did you get?
We were getting a lot of inquiries in the beginning. But most of them were from people who were very young. So the minimum age that I've set up is 24. Still, I got inquiries from those below 24. Through telephonic conversations with those applicants, I could understand that they might not be looking for partners for life. They were more like one-night-stands or short-term relationships.
Why did you think this kind of interest is problematic?
There is this problem of a lot of young people looking for sugar daddies. That's why, over time and experience, we made the rule that we will be providing interactions on the basis of the same educational background, financial background and age. We don't want age gaps. Another compulsory thing in the company is that the client must be employed, so that I don't want one partner to depend on another for financial reasons.
What does one have to do to register?
There are three steps for registering. The first is filling up a confidential form. It helps us understand what kind of personality the client has. The second is submitting the documents for verification. I have been on a lot of dating sites for the LGBTQ community and I saw one common thing: people put up fake profiles. I didn't want that. Registration fee is something like this: If it's an Indian looking for a partner in India, it’s Rs 15,000. A person in India looking for a partner abroad has to pay Rs 35,000. And if a person is approaching from abroad and is looking for a person abroad or in India, the fee is $600.
I wanted to make it like any other matrimonial site like Shaadi.com. But then I thought there is no point putting the profile online since we have confidentiality clauses. Not everybody is open to their families and want their profiles to be public.
What’s the next step?
My team starts looking for a match on the basis of the confidential forms. We match the forms and share the profiles one by one on their email IDs. If the two parties are interested in each other's profiles, we introduce them through a video conference or a phone call. We give them a few days to understand each other better. And then they have to get back stating whether they like the partner. If they do not, we send them another profile.
How many people have you got married till now?
There are 56 couples who are in live-in relationships, 36 that are married and 29 that are in a relationship and yet to get married.
How does this work out legally considering same-sex couples in India still can't get married?
The government has given this freedom of choosing your life partner, of having physical terms with them, but not marriage. A lot of people do feel that getting married is a part of the commitment that you give to your partner, in front of your family and friends. The decriminalisation is relaxing but then it's just the beginning of the journey for the community. A lot of things still need to change, the stigma still needs to end.
Is it legally a marriage though?
No. The marriage is not legal. We help in connecting two individuals who want to get married to each other. 80% of the times, couples ask us to connect them to pandits or people who can marry them. In their cultures and religions, it’s a marriage. Most of our clients have opted for private, small ceremonies. But legally, no, it’s not considered a marriage because they do not get the marriage certificate like their heterosexual counterparts do.
Did you get more responses after the reading down of Section 377?
I, in fact, got a lot of requests from the parents of members of the community, to look for a bride or groom for their children. But the sad part is, a lot of people are still closeted and they haven't been affected by the verdict because the society still not ready to accept them.
What kind of requests did the parents have? Were they more optimistic?
These parents usually always want to keep their child's details confidential. They don't want to mention the name or show their pictures on a website or anywhere else.
Is talking to parents different from when you talk to their kids looking for partners?
The demands are very different. One example: This guy called me up and told me he's looking for a partner. He lives in the US, is an Indian from Mumbai. He moved there just after his studies and has been living there for six years. The kind of partner he's looking for is someone who can be in an open marriage.
When I consult parents, they're not worried about the sexual part. They're more practical. They're worried about long-term relationships. For them, it's all about commitment. They usually tell me, "We don't care whoever my son's partner is. We just want them to be together for their entire lives.” They want someone to take care of their kids in the long run.
Can you talk about requests and inquiries that have been the most challenging for you to deal with?
This is somewhat of a black-shaded area for us. We have been getting a lot of inquiries for an MoC (Marriage of Convenience/Marriage of Contract), but I was never in favour of that.
I have gone through the rules of building a marriage contract. There are very few people who had done MoCs with their life partners. I contacted them as part of my research on how it works after marriage. I could only see flaws in this arrangement. You're supposed to live with a person of the opposite sex to whom you're not even attracted. Imagine living with a so-called friend. You have to pretend to love them and their parents, and attend their family functions. People start expecting a lot of things out of you. After a few years, the parents are going to expect a baby.
Do you take MoCs now?
Yes, because of mounting requests, we had to accept and take on MoC cases.
Have the number of these cases dwindled post reading down of Section 377?
Not really. We started this service in November 2017. Till date, we have more than 300 clients registered with us for MoC. More than 200 of them are women. MoC plays a negative role because when it comes to finding a same-sex life partner, the community is usually not worried about religion, caste or other parameters. But with MoC, the clients ask for the same caste and religion.
What other arrangements do you have apart from marriage?
There’s a loophole in the government system where two unmarried people from the community can have a live-in contract.
There are live-in contracts only for people of opposite sex, though.
Yes, they’re not for same-sex couples. We went through the loopholes and found a system where they can get to live together this way. Plus, if the person is staying abroad, we also help them find a lawyer in the same country.
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