Meet Urvi Shah Who Runs India’s First Same-Sex Marriage Site
Post the September 6 Supreme Court verdict scrapping Section 377, the world was quick to celebrate the historic judgment. Among the many names who fought for years to bring about this change Urvi Shah is a prominent one.
SheThePeople.TV caught up with Shah, the founder of the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau. This is India’s first and only matrimonial service for the LGBTQA+ community which was started-up in 2016. Some edited snippets from the conversation.
What were your emotions on the verdict scrapping section 377. How will this change perceptions towards the community in India?
After 71 years of Independence, this verdict has set us free. This is really a day of true independence for me and the members of the LGBTQ community. Enough members of the community have suffered due to this criminalisation. Making someone’s sexual preference a crime is not just unfair, it’s also unconstitutional according to the fundamental rights we are ensured as Indian citizens. I am super excited about the judgment and people getting equal rights to love and be loved.
While the LGBTQ community in India has been slowly but steadily making themselves heard in the last few years, very few thought about putting a dating or matrimonial service out there, just for them. When did you realise the gap that existed in society? Tell us the concept and the idea behind of Arranged Gay Marriage.
After my Post Graduation in Development Studies from EDII Gandhinagar, I had done several internships in the service sector. While getting to understand social issues, I realized that the LGBTQ community still faces social censure in India. I started researching on these issues and during that period I came across Humsafar trust, Lakshya foundation and other NGOs. I understood the concept better when I met Manvendra Singh Gohil, who is India’s openly gay person, Richardson Duke and transgender rights activist Laxmi Narayan Tripathi. Regarding people from the community, I came to know that they face depression, anxiety, non-acceptance by families, discrimination, violence and drug abuse.
While researching on the issues it struck me that there’s no dedicated dating site where like-minded people could find partners. There were a lot of fake IDs, fake pictures, trans people making ids of homosexuals, etc. Even there were guys making fake IDs of lesbians for physical relationships and one-night stands.
“Therefore Arranged Gay Marriage happened. It is a platform for the community to find like-minded life partners.”
Surely, the verdict made the road easier to walk now. When step one is done, it’s the time when India needs to come out with marriage laws and educate society about homosexuality. People are not aware of it and they don’t know what it means. Sex and gender education must be made compulsory in schools. The team at Arranged Gay Marriage consists of 26 employees from the LGBTQ community who work from an office in Secunderabad. We have a day shift for Indians and night shifts for our international clients.
What was the reaction from family and friends when you took the decision to initiate a start-up focused on same-sex marriages?
I come from a particularly orthodox Gujarati family where it does not matter how educated a woman is, in the end, we are supposed to find a rich husband and get married. I had to explain to my parents what LGBTQ stands for. My parents hardly knew that the community existed in India. Getting into this business was a big risk, my parents had a question, “If you start this bureau, which guy will marry you?” I only had one answer, “I’ll go with the husband and family who are educated enough to understand what exactly my duties are.”
My professors and friends had the same preconceived notion about me following the same tradition. I was in an entrepreneurship college and still my professors were against my idea. When I shared this idea with two of my closest friends, they thought I was insane.
I could only convince my parents and not my friends and professors. My parents agreed upon one condition which was to leave Gujarat and settle somewhere else and never let my extended family know about my business. And I did exactly the same. I informed my family that I got a job in Secunderabad and I was shifting there.
Do you have a number of how many marriages you’ve conducted so far?
As of now, we have 49 couples in a live-in relationship, 43 couples who got married and 29 couples in a relationship but yet to move in together. Out of them, lesbian couples are 3, 1 and 1 respectively. All this data is about India. Talking about people abroad, we have 12 gay couples, three lesbian couples and six transgender couples.
Share the insights from the initial phase, given that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has just been decriminalised. How was Arranged Gay Marriage as a concept received by Indians?
While understanding the problems faced by the community, I was keen to help them. After a certain age, everyone needs a companion to be together in thick and thin. I wanted to help them come out of the closet, gain the confidence and flaunt their sexuality. The law that we are talking about was made by Britishers and the funny part is that they have legalized it in their own country. Secondly, I heard a lot of people say that homosexuality is against Hindu religion which made me curious and I researched a bit into the cultures and traditions. The people stating that it’s unethical, have never educated themselves about the Indian and Hindu religion.
“The law that we are talking about was made by Britishers and the funny part is that they have legalized it in their own country.”
What have been your biggest challenges along the way?
If we talk about the challenges so far, I was bullied by my friends for my profession. My family members are still against my work and feel that I am a curse to the family and have destroyed their reputation. Explaining my work to my parents was not the toughest thing. I called a few of my friends from LGBTQ community home for dinner. After knowing them personally my parents started respecting them much more knowing that the society is against them.
I have got death threats and acid attack threats. It was not something I was worried about, but I fear that the LGBTQ community members could go against my work and call this a fake company. A lot of community members told me that I am going to be a failure in this business because no one wants to settle down. Few people even said that in the name of a marriage bureau, I am running an escort centre.
“The people stating that it’s unethical and against Hindu religion have never educated themselves about the Indian and Hindu religion.”
When I started the company, I messaged all my friends from the LGBTQ community whom I met during my research. People left their jobs and joined my company as employees. Slowly and gradually I employed 26 employees and none of them have left us.
What’s next? How long till this taboo gets removed from society completely?
I am going to continue to help people from the community. We are planning to sensitize the society about the LGBTQ community. A lot of people have been waiting for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Finally, now they are going to live a life without thinking that they are doing a crime. I am soon going to meet my lawyer and decide how to file a petition towards marriage laws for the community.
Although we do not have any marriage laws and acts, people do go through the rituals of getting married. For them, it’s all about commitment towards their partners. I do totally support people getting into marriage because that’s definitely their choice. Gay marriage advocates argue that this is an equal rights issue.
There is also no surprise that many gay couples have chosen to have one “adopt” the other, which is the only way such a bond is even remotely available to them outside of marriage. They are asking the body-politic to recognize their relationship as being kinship bonds — and there is no good reason why they shouldn’t be so recognized.
“If the government is not in favour of homosexual marriages, I will definitely file another petition for the recognition of homosexual couples in live-in relationships.”