Indrani, a 33-year-old non-binary and sexually fluid person has been using four dating apps intermittently for the last two years, mainly to seek out women for dating and sexual intimacy. Overall, the experience has not been too positive. On Tinder, Indrani found that even though they had opted to see only women’s profiles, the app still showed lots of men. “Out of the women’s profiles shown to me, many a time I would find out that they were not interested in seeing women or non-binary people," they say.

“I didn’t end up having a good enough conversation, or liking anybody enough to even hook up with, let alone date anyone from these apps," Indrani says. They feel that their experience would have been quite different had they been looking to meet cisgender men.

We live in a world that’s still focused on heterosexuality and the idea of the gender binary, that is, the patently untrue but widespread system that reinforces the idea that there are only two kinds of people—"male" and “female". This means that conversations about dating, romance and sex are centred around people who hold these dominant identities, and all other, far more stigmatized gender and sexual identities are often left out of the mainstream conversation.

In this situation, how do people who identify as gender non-conforming navigate dating apps, many of which are largely targeted at heterosexual and cisgender people?

I interviewed several people who identify as non-binary and queer. Their stories offer a glimpse of both the pitfalls and possibilities that these apps can present to people who are looking for romance or companionship online. They demonstrate the skill, ingenuity and hope with which people navigate platforms that were very often not designed with them in mind. But their stories cannot be used to generalize how LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) people experience the worlds of dating and intimacy, both online and offline.

Win some, lose some

R, a 22-year-old agender student based in Chennai, joined a couple of dating apps a few months ago. “I was curious to see how people are on the apps, if there are different kinds of people than the ones I meet in real life, or on other platforms like Twitter," they say.

R identifies as both aromantic and asexual, and for a while, because they hadn’t felt comfortable sharing this with their friends, they had been under a lot of pressure to “get a girlfriend".

Once R told a few friends, they felt the pressure ease and went on the apps of their own volition. Aside from curiosity, what drove them to do so was loneliness. “All my friends were in relationships and didn’t really want a third wheel. I was looking for an ‘intimate friendship’". Although R embarked on this quest, on Tinder and Hater, they sensed that they wouldn’t be successful. “And I was right," they add.

R says they never talk to men on these apps, only to women, if the person’s profile suggests they are safe and sensitive. R briefly used a third app, where they were open about their gender identity, because of which they were at the receiving end of slurs and verbal abuse. Since then they have been more careful. “I pass as male, and I’m very practised in behaving as a man when I need to. I realized that it’s much more difficult to do this when you’re talking to strangers, especially if you’re sex-repulsed. So I think most people I do talk to eventually get bored," they say. But when conversation does steer towards gender or asexuality, R says, things tend to get uncomfortable. “I either laugh it off or ditch the conversation," they add.

K, a 38-year-old non-binary fashion blogger based in Kolkata who uses three dating apps, including two targeted at queer users, has faced a fair share of body-shaming and online abuse. They have been the target of homophobic slurs by both men and women on Tinder, while at the same time being propositioned by men for sexual experimentation. “Some of them wanted me to have sex with them while their women partners were out of town, or because they were feeling ‘curious’," they say.

On one app targeted at queer users, K says, “... many profiles said ‘no fatties, no uglys, and no uncles’ (sic), so after I noticed I was not getting responses there, I walked away from it." When they did meet one person, they were immediately rejected. “The moment this guy met me, he told me I was too ugly and old, and walked away. I said nothing and came back home."

Despite these profoundly disappointing experiences, K says they have had some positive experiences meeting people in other cities, and have stayed in touch with some of them. “It’s been seven years of friendship with two couples I met online—a gay couple in one city, and a lesbian couple in another," they say. “I also have trans friends I made online, and I want to meet them in person soon."

Possibilities for connection

People join dating and hook-up apps for a variety of reasons, not necessarily only for romantic or sexual pursuits. Debolina, a 32-year-old, who identifies as androgynous, says she joined the popular app Tinder “in the hope of meeting unusual and interesting people" outside her usual social circle.

She found the experience frustrating because she felt that she was continuously being boxed into a binary that she does not relate to. “It’s not been easy to be non-binary—it takes people really long to grapple with the idea (of this identification)."

People often asked her whether she was “butch or femme", and even when they didn’t, they were curious in a way that was intrusive. “People want to know what you desire, and they want to have a certainty around what you like." Still, she did meet someone on Tinder who went on to become a good friend, and says that the platform gave her a certain “unpredictable mobility". “Sometimes it worked for me, and sometimes it didn’t," she adds.

Of course, online platforms for intimacy and romance are much older than the fairly recent arrival of apps specifically intended for dating and sex. Perhaps this especially holds true for communities of people whose gender identities and sexual orientations are stigmatized.

When A, a 22-year old non-binary visual artist from Kolkata, was a teenager, it was very difficult for them to feel like they were part of a larger queer community in any meaningful way, let alone meet people they would have liked to date.

That is, until they signed up for a free account on instant messaging platform ICQ at the age of 15. “Back then, these forums became the only way I could reach out to people from the community," they say. There, they befriended a 26-year-old Croatian woman who had just realized she was queer. “We really helped each other through the isolation of being the only queer people we knew of back then," they add.

However, these forums were also rife with abuse and bigotry. A says they avoided most conversations that started with the seemingly simple query “ASL?" (short for age/sex/location) because it often turned out that the person asking was a heterosexual man pretending to be a queer woman.

Seven years down the line, A is still using digital platforms to meet people. They joined a popular mobile dating app to meet more queer people in general. “It was initially a great place to connect with other non-binary and trans folks, and queer women. Recently, however, I find it increasingly difficult to meet people (on the app) who are sensitive to queer identities or not creepy in general," they say.

The government is yet to repeal Section 377 and is attempting to pass the disastrous Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016, which stands in direct violation of the principles laid out in the Supreme Court’s celebrated Nalsa judgement. We need to consider that simple, everyday experiences that should be easily accessible become complex for LGBTQ+ people in the country because of the casual homophobia and transphobia that is reinforced all the time. This further intersects with other kinds of discrimination based on caste, class and disability. As with everything, this extends to dating apps and their alluring promise of companionship, romance and sex.

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