A growing number of couples from the LGBTQ+ community are turning influencers on social media for normalising expressing love for their significant other, amassing thousands of followers on platforms such as Twitter and Instagram and attracting the attention of brands seeking collaboration.
Pritam and Manish, who did not wish to reveal their surnames, set up an Instagram account, Vagabondboiz, in December 2020, for instance, to announce their relationship to their friends.
It wasn’t an easy decision for the gay couple, especially for Manish, who had just come out to his single parent and was struggling to make his parent see things from his perspective.
Vagabondboiz is not meant to be an advocacy account for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer community. It is an archive of their relationship, filled with pictures of them lovingly looking into each other’s eyes.
“People don’t understand non-straight couples,” says Manish, a 22-year-old engineer from a city in northeast India. That’s what they wanted to change through their account. “We wanted to show our love, show that it is
Six months and 35,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram later, the couple now gets 10-15 messages every day from people who have mustered the courage to own their identity thanks to Pritam and Manish’s posts on social media.
Their public display of affection (PDA) has also softened some hardcore homophobes, they say. A heterosexual person recently reached out to them, admitting their posts had changed his perception of the gay community. “He said he feels terrible about the things he said to gay couples in the past,” says Manish.
Moreover, the duo has had to add “DM for business enquiries” as an afterthought to their social media bios because brands are keen to collaborate with them now.
Vagabondboiz are among a bunch of couples from the LGBTQ+ community who are trying to show (and not tell) everyone around them that love is love.
Their posts often invoke reactions like “How are they so free? Are they living in the same country as us?” from other members of the community.
What couples such as Pritam and Manish have achieved is quite out of the ordinary.
Even though non-straight relationships have been decriminalised in India, they are far from being normalised in most parts of the country.
“Normalising doesn’t just mean showing our struggles. The cuteness that hetero couples share, we deserve that, too,” says a 25-year-old filmmaker from Mumbai who identifies as queer and wishes to stay anonymous.
So often, you see people from the community framing their worlds carefully while sharing a picture of or with their partner, using phrases like “my person” or “my best friend”.
For heterosexual couples, PDA on the internet comes down to personal choice. For people from the LGBTQ+ community, though, putting up posts tagged #lesbiancouple, #gaylove, #queergoals and so on often invites hate, abuse and even death threats.
Maitrayanee recounts an instance when someone left a comment saying, “I’ll slit your throat”, on one of her posts with her partner. “My followers defended us,” says the 25-year-old from Guwahati who identifies as bisexual. “You can’t let them get to you anymore.”
It is now common for other members of the community to take up the cudgels on behalf of those putting themselves out there and getting hate in return, says Vikrama Dhiman, a DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) champion and an LGBTQ+ ally.
Saying No to Brands
As brands make a beeline for associating with them, some of these couples are also refusing to align with those who only want to “make sales out of their community”.
“We reject offers that come only for Pride month (June). We are here to create awareness and not just do business,” says Divesh Tolani, 19, who runs a couple account called honey.imm.home with Atulan Purohit, 24. Started on Valentine’s Day last year, the duo’s account has more than 70,000 followers across YouTube and Instagram.
“We started this to make our close friends jealous of our travels but ended up inspiring people,” says Purohit.
Seeing is normalising, said the cisgendered gay couple from Mumbai.
Parmesh Shahani, a corporate LGBTQ inclusion advocate and author of ‘Queeristan’, calls these couples ‘change agents’ who are as important as the people who fought in the court against Section 377, which criminalised sex between adults of the same sex, and those fighting for their rights through non-governmental organisations. “These are the people leading the operationalisation of the court judgement, translating it into our societies.”
Is it an age thing?
While most social media accounts have been set up by LGBTQ+ couples in their late teens and early 20s, they said their expression of love on social media has very little to do with their age.
Shahani recalls how not-so-young couples — like Wendell Rodricks and Jerome Marrel, and Raga and Nicola in recent times — have given a slice of queerness in its random domesticity.
Age does play a role in conditioning though, says Zeba, a 27-year-old from Mumbai who identifies as queer. “Growing up, heteronormativity was so prominent around me, but my younger sister (20) had friends who were out to their circle in 9th standard,” she says.
TikTok, a platform dominated by teens and now banned in India, was also instrumental in creating a space for queer lives from smaller towns, adds Shahani.
Illustration: Rahul Awasthi
However, the courage to express their love on the internet comes from the strength of their support system.
“If they have support from their family or enough allies within the community, they feel more comfortable sharing their love on social media,” says Sushmita Gowri, a queer-affirmative therapist from Bengaluru.
This is if they are actively sharing other details of their lives on these platforms already. “Some queers don’t even go to queer parties,” she says, adding a large part of the community has yet to come out.
The thousands of followers these accounts have amassed then is a sign of people wanting to celebrate the community. “Even I put she/her as my preferred pronouns on my social media bio to show solidarity with the community, and to convey that one should not assume it is she/her for everyone,” adds Gowri.
Privilege within community
A significant part of the community is also not as privileged as the rest to be able to express their love online, says Tolani from Mumbai, acknowledging that privilege exists even within sections of this minority. “Many people of the spectrum are yet not identified by people around,” he adds.
The transsexual community, for instance, doesn’t get to speak about these things. “Trans people, especially in India, are striving to exist. Things like love, marriage, owning a home, are simple pleasure they are deprived of,” said Anjali Rimi, a Hyderabad-born and US-based transgender activist.
“While same-sex couples get normalised as they post pictures wearing the same shirts, going camping… we are trying to survive, all while craving for love.”