As India’s Supreme Court deliberates on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes gay sex, a historic ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States comes to mind. The apex court of the US had ruled in 2015 that same-sex couples have the fundamental right to marry, with Justice Anthony Kennedy – who recently announced his retirement – delivering an opinion that moved people to tears around the world. “As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage,” Kennedy wrote. “Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves.”
This affirmation of love and dignity is being upheld for many in Gujarat by Urvi Shah, 24, a straight girl from a conservative Gujarati family who plays Cupid, firing arrows of love across the rainbow: her idea to set up the Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau (AGMB) materialized in 2015 in Chicago. The operation moved to Secunderabad in Telengana in 2016. Today, assuming the role of queer stylist, and ‘rainbow’ trousseau designer, Shah is setting up a LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer) shop in Ahmedabad. The shop will feature garments and accessories that eschew the dogmas of gender. Shah also plans to extend AGMB services to LGBTQ community members who have disabilities.
Shah, an alumna of Ahmedabad’s Entrepreneurship Development Institute of India, has brought together 126 LGBTQ couples, of whom 75% are Indian. In all, 49 of the 126 are in a live-in relationship. And 43 of them are married notionally, going through all the necessary rituals. The long-distance relationship keeps 34 of them in love.
“I plan to set up shops in Ahmedabad and Goa to feature an LGBTQ clothing line, which is often termed as queer, pride or rainbow clothing,” Shah said. “Working closely with the LGBTQ community, I learned that there is a huge demand in various states of India for specialized clothing which comforts and complements their ‘different’ body types.” She said her venture aims to introduce LGBTQ lingerie, T-shirts with pride slogans, themed accessories, mugs and formal garments. Much of the inventory will come from overseas. “This will solve their mundane problem of dressing up because such a clothing line will usher in genderless fashion and styling concepts,” she said.
Abhishek Tundel, 21, who studied at the MSU, is an LGBTQ activist from Gujarat. He opened an event management company last year to plan and execute LGBTQ weddings. Tundel has made arrangements for about 45 LGBTQ notional weddings in various cities of India over the past two years.
Tundel, who previously worked in alliance with AGMB, said: “We get pundits for the ceremonies, counsel parents, and friends of the same-sex couples.” Tundel said that the most difficult part of planning and executing any LGBTQ wedding is counselling the couple’s parents and persuading them to attend the wedding.
On being asked about the legitimacy of his work given that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code is still in force, Tundel said, “We ethically help couples formalize their emotional association or companionship.” What they decide to do in personal life is their private matter, he said. “This work may be falling in the grey area, but it is not illegal,” he said. “We are happy to assist the LGBTQ community which is still fighting for its basic rights in India.” Another Gujarati among these pioneers is Dr Kiran Devmani, 32, a filmmaker whose work “Meghdhanushya —The Colour of Life” (2013) highlights the challenges faced by the LGTBQ community. Devmani’s film is the first Gujarati movie on the plight of the LGBTQ community; yet it was not given the 100% tax exemption. A case demanding the exemption is under way.
Devmani said that there is no law that prohibits making of a film on homosexuality and hence the government’s refusal to grant the exemption was invalid.
The world’s first royal who brought homosexuality out of the closet is Gujarat’s Manvendrasingh Gohil, the gay prince from Vadodara, who dared to come out in 2006. Gohil set up Lakshya, the first NGO in the country that created employment opportunities for gay men and worked to prevent the spread of HIV among the LGBTQ community. Even today Gohil strives to launch new concepts that generate awareness on the needs of the LGBTQ community. He was an ex-ambassador of Urvi Shah’s AGMB and has been encouraging other people to catalyze change.
“Today when the Supreme Court of India is open to reviewing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code and is hearing petitions against criminalizing homosexuality, we need more young individuals working tirelessly to generate sensitivity to issues and needs of the LGBTQ community,” Gohil said. “I believe in mainstreaming the issues, and the support we are getting from young individuals like Kiran, Urvi and Abhishek, who do not belong to sexual minorities, is valuable. Such individuals can help in changing the mindset of the country.”
Facing the disability challenge
Urvi Shah’s Arranged Gay Marriage Bureau also intends to focus on people with disabilities. “My close interactions with the LGBTQ community inspired me to extend the scope of matrimonial services to those who are grappling with physical and social challenges,” she said. “They need mutually rewarding companionships and are more afraid to come out.”
How it all began
“My NRI business partner, Benhur Samson from Chicago, who helps the LGBTQ community have children with surrogacy, assisted me in executing my idea of setting up AGMB, and we registered it in Secunderabad,” Shah said. “After completing my studies, I joined it as partner in February 2016. We started with a small number of subscribers.” Today, Shah solely handles the operations of the bureau which has 2,300 members.
Matchmaking for a cause
AGMB registers only those who are looking for a long-term monogamous relationship and are aware that they cannot get any certificates for their alliance. A dedicated team of 26 professionals scrutinizes registrations: first the subscriber has to take a detailed interview, fill up a long confidential questionnaire, share original documents establishing identity, and pay nominal commitment fees. “After matching biodata, we share details of the prospective match with the client and leave them to take it further,” says Shah.